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Learning in order to teach

K–12 educators attend migration workshop on Latin America

Four teachers share their experience of a Latin American Institute professional development workshop on migration in Latin America.

  • Group picture of workshop participants.

  • UCLA Professor Rubén Hernández-León delivers a lecture on return migration from the United States to Mexico.

  • Participants during a curriculum-building exercise.

  • UCLA Professor Leisy Abrego speaks on the impact of border crossings on families.

  • Group discussion.

  • Eilzabeth Gutierrez (left) and Lesly Gónzalez work on a learning tool exercise.

  • UCSB Professor Verónica Castillo Muñoz lectures on Mexico-U.S. border crossings.

  • Lilia Fuentes-Mier (left) and Amanda Duarte work on a learning tool based on the book, "Enrique's Journey: The True Story of a Body Determined to Reunite with His Mother," by Sonia Nazario.

  • Kristian Luna (left) and Victoria Chan work on an exercise.

  • Héctor Perla (UCLA Ph.D. 2005) of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington, DC, speaks on the connection between U.S. foreign economic policy and the Central American refugee crisis.

  • A group exercise.

By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications

“The questions my peers brought up during discussion provided a different perspective to each of the topics. Oftentimes, I didn't even think about some of the things that people mentioned.” Victoria Chan, Santee Education Complex

UCLA International Institute, August 4, 2016 — Teachers from throughout the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) attended a professional development workshop organized by the Latin American Institute (LAI) earlier this summer. “Beyond Borders: Tracing the Movements of Peoples throughout the Americas” addressed the historical, sociocultural, political and economic forces associated with migration to and within Latin America over several centuries. The intensive training was funded by a Title VI federal grant from the U.S. Department of Education (see the workshop agenda below).

“This five-day workshop was intended to expose teachers to interdisciplinary research on how migration has shaped Latin American cultures and societies from ancient times through the early 21st century,” said Veronica Zavala, outreach coordinator at LAI. “Through a combination of presentations, discussions and curriculum sessions, teachers received tools and resources to integrate into their respective curricula.”

Sessions covered both historical and present-day migration in Latin America, including migration patterns of ancient Mesoamerica, the arrival of European colonialists, the forced migration of Africans as part of the slave trade, 19th- and 20th-century campaigns to encourage migration to the region from Europe, and present-day migration to the United States from Central America. Lecturers included eight UCLA faculty members, a UC Santa Barbara professor and representatives of local NGOs and a Washington, DC-based think tank.

Collaboration transforms new knowledge

Some 16 teachers attended the workshop. Most teach in LAUSD at the high school level, but two teach kindergarten and several teach middle school. And one participant teaches community college — in Texas! Designed to give teachers the knowledge and resources to teach the topic, the workshop offered the additional benefit of helping participants better understand the culture and experience of immigrant students in their classrooms.

Said lead workshop instructor, Ingrid Fey (UCLA Ph.D. 1995, M.E. 2007) of the LAUSD Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies, “I think that the LAI workshops do a great job of honoring the needs of K–12 educators to develop innovative curriculum that reflects the nature of their student body while also focusing on educators as lifelong learners.”

“Not every session is focused on the specifics to be addressed in the classroom,” added Fey. “Sessions that address broader structural issues like immigration policy, gender bias in the classroom, and the impact of trauma on learning are all examples of content focused upon the overall development of the educator.”

Given that the participants were skilled teachers, the workshop was characterized by much discussion: both between teachers and presenters, as well as among the teachers themselves. “Many of my peers at the workshop have fairly recent migrant histories or have students who are recent migrants. This experience provided a personal perspective on how the material can be used, what pitfalls might arise from using certain examples and what situations might trigger negative reactions,” said Martha Bock of Palo Alto College in San Antonio, Texas. “[S]haring successful strategies on how to approach a sensitive topic such as a homeless migrant or a student’s job hours is invaluable,” she added.

Said Lesly Gonzalez of Mark Twain Middle School in Mar Vista, “It was very rewarding to exchange ideas with my peers. This workshop gave just the right amount of time for me to interact and bounce around ideas and opinions, both on the topic, content, instruction and differentiation.”

“It is an enriching experience to meet with educators from other parts of the city and share ideas,” commented Roberto Vega of the Social Justice Humanitas Academy, a four-year high school that is one of four Cesar Chavez Learning Academies located on the same campus in San Fernando. “I also think it is important for us to listen to the cross-section of backgrounds we come with — from elementary to high school and those that are immigrants to those that are seeking better understanding of the issue of immigration.”

“The questions my peers brought up during discussion provided a different perspective to each of the topics,” said Victoria Chan of the Santee Education Complex, a four-year high school in South Central Los Angeles. “Oftentimes, I didn’t even think about some of the things that people mentioned. The discussion on the [workshop] website is engaging me further because people are posting articles that we can use to inform our practices.”

Ingrid Fey, who led a number of exercises with participants to create learning tools, remarked, “As a curriculum specialist, I have relished the opportunity to create a nexus between academia and classrooms ranging from kindergarten to 12th grade. To do so has tested my conceptual and pedagogical creativity.

“I have been consistently amazed by the ways in which our participants create curriculum that is directly connected to other standards addressed in their classes,” she continued.

Disseminating research beyond the university

For university faculty members who gave presentations, the workshop offered a chance to reach new audiences. “I particularly appreciate the opportunity to share findings from my work with a group of educators who have opted to spend time during their summer learning information to then relay to their students,” said Leisy Abrego, associate professor in the Department of Chicana/o Studies.

“This makes them a rather engaged audience,” she added. “Their questions and comments help me clarify my points and it is quite fulfilling to know that their students are likely to benefit from their teachers’ greater understanding of the matters we cover.”

 “I enjoyed responding to questions about real-live situations that teachers are facing,” said UCLA Professor of Law Hiroshi Motomura, who spoke on the history of U.S. immigration law. He noted that the participants had a real thirst for information on his topic, saying, “There were lots of good questions and I tried to answer them fully…. My formal presentation was very short; it was just a way to prompt questions.”

Many of the presentations left enduring impressions on participants. Several, for example, expressed surprise at how much U.S. immigration policies have changed over time, particularly with respect to the border with Mexico. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was a barely delineated border that Mexicans freely crossed into the United States and returned home after working there, whereas today tight U.S. immigration policies have led to a virtually militarized border. In addition, noted Victoria Chan, “It was surprising how easily the U.S. used the same rhetoric that first banned Chinese people from coming into the U.S. and applied it to Latino people.”

Lesly Gonzalez believed he had learned “how to better teach the history of topics like immigration/ migration in a way that puts human rights and human dignity at the forefront.” Roberto Vega was most struck by learning about “the psychological effects of the migration process and how it influences social behaviors. This was made evident when Alex Sanchez [of the nonprofit organization Homies Unidos, a gang violence prevention and intervention organization] explained the immigrant experience in the 1980s and how American policies in the 1990s gave rise to the spread and rivalry of international gangs like MS and 18 Street. All the while American economic policy in Central America [was] legitimizing the violence in the region.”

Victoria Chan was impressed by the extent to which U.S. trade policy has impacted the families of migrant workers. “NAFTA has created an environment in Mexico in which many rural farmers cannot compete with the U.S., so many people are forced to migrate to the U.S. in order to sustain themselves and their families,” she said. “These migrants leave behind families and don’t see them for a long time, placing emotional strains on them.”

Migrant students in a country of immigration

Workshop participants were looking forward to sharing what they had learned with their students. Chan, who teaches chemistry, found the discussion about using art to heal best related to her students. “Many of them are artistic,” she commented, “and there aren’t a lot of opportunities for them to use these skills in the classroom besides making posters about topics that might not be relevant to them.”

Roberto Vega, who sponsors a club for undocumented students, said, “I left the workshop empowered by the information I learned and I want to pass that on to the kids in the club and see what ideas they come up with on how to disseminate it to their peers.” In particular, Vega was impressed by UCLA Professor of Law Hiroshi Motomura’s lecture, in which he stressed that “immigration policy is based on a country-by-country basis and is not enforced equally.”

One issue that resonated with many participants was “the trauma many migrants experience, which often goes unnoticed and untreated,” said Martha Bock. Lesly Gonzalez noted that he had enrolled in the workshop to improve his own historical expertise. “I want to be able to answer student questions effectively and create lessons and experiences in the classroom that engage students, without compromising rigor,” he explained.

Among the participants who were interviewed for this article, all agreed that it was important that both immigrant and non-immigrant students learn the workshop material. As Roberto Vega said, “I think it is extremely important for non-immigrant and immigrant students to discuss this material together because it builds understanding. This workshop was comprehensive and dealt with the topic of immigration in a humane way that puts politics aside and focused on the facts.”

Victoria Chan remarked, “I’m lucky because I’ve gotten this type education where I know my history and can connect it to other people’s experiences, but my students might not be there yet because they haven’t had the same opportunities.” In her view, all students need to learn about their own histories and how those histories fit into the greater whole of American history, as it helps develop empathy. “I teach at a school that has a predominantly Latino population. Considering the recent influx of Central American children to the U.S., the information can help me better understand some of my students,” she remarked.


* All photos by Carla Guerrero/ UCLA.

Updated on August 10, 2016