Create a Welcoming Environment
More young people around the world are on the run today than at any time since World War II. The latest estimates show that 30 million children have been forcibly displaced from their homes. While most of these children and their families remain near their home countries, many flee long distances to safety and a better life. Some of those journeys end in the United States, notably for tens of thousands of unaccompanied children fleeing violence and poverty in Central America. Many more have come to the United States with their families as immigrants. Regardless of how they got here, they are part of communities around the country. And schools and communities will be stronger if they welcome everyone.
Follow these steps to create a welcoming environment for newcomers in your school community! (Note: Although there are important differences between the many categories of such newcomers—immigrants, migrants, refugees, etc.—for the sake of convenience, they are grouped together as immigrants below.)
1. Brainstorm. Ask students to brainstorm respectful questions that they would like to ask immigrant students in their school about their experiences. Tell the class that these questions should not be directed at any particular student, but rather are hypothetical and could apply even if students do not know any immigrant students themselves. Students who are immigrants themselves should be encouraged to think of questions they may have about the experiences of people from different countries or with different reasons for immigrating. Write the questions they offer on the board. Next, ask students to brainstorm what kind of questions immigrant students might want to be asked, and write these next to the first set of questions. Finally, write the following questions on the board to supplement the questions that were already brainstormed:
- What is something that someone did for you, as a new immigrant, to help you feel welcome in the United States?
- Do you feel welcome in our school?
- What can we do as members of our school community to make immigrants feel more welcome?
2. Form research teams. Have students form groups of three students and give each student a copy of “How Welcoming Is Our School?” (Note: The questions are fairly advanced and may need to be scaled down for younger students.) Each team will try to fill in the answers to each of the questions on the survey. Students can answer some of the questions by drawing on their own knowledge of the school. They may also need to examine the classroom, visit public resource spaces, and if possible, interview key school staff members such as guidance counselors or ELL teachers. The more in-depth the research is, the more accurate their answers will be.
- Tip: If students want to interview fellow students who are immigrants or English language learners, set up a formal interview process with willing volunteers. Otherwise, immigrant students may feel unfairly singled out and uncomfortable if they are approached directly without someone first explaining the project and soliciting their input.
3. Share and discuss results. Consolidate the survey scores, and discuss the results as a class. Lead a discussion using some or all of the following prompts:
- In what areas is the school doing very well at offering a welcoming environment?
- In what areas could the school improve its performance in welcoming immigrant students?
- What areas were the most controversial (had the widest variety of scores given)? Why do you think these were so difficult to score?
- Can you explain why the school might be having problems in certain areas of being welcoming? Are there common reasons such as limited resources or lack of awareness?
- What needs to be done to improve the welcoming environment of your school? What is something easy the school could do? What would make the biggest difference?
- Are there any ways that you or your fellow students have contributed to the current environment either positively or negatively?
- What could students do differently even if the school does not change its policies?
4. Introduce the welcoming project and brainstorm ideas. Now students will try to decide on a course of action as a class. Have students suggest different ways communities can be welcoming to immigrants, such as providing important services, demonstrating an interest in other cultures, including immigrants in decision-making processes, and being friendly to newcomers. These “welcoming methods” can be at the government, community, or individual level. Post these on the board. Then challenge students to suggest class projects they could undertake to improve or support one of the “welcoming methods” already generated, such as these:
- Personal level: saying hello, learning other languages, including newcomers in activities
- School level: holding a school heritage festival, creating a language or cultural exchange
- Community level: helping tutor immigrants in English, collecting donations for refugee families, volunteering at an immigrant service organization
5. Propose and choose projects: Split the class into small groups and have them develop a written proposal for one of the welcoming projects from the list that the class brainstormed. (Give them the “Develop a Welcoming Project” handout to guide their work.) Then have each group present its plan to the class. Have the class vote on which project to choose.
6. Implement, evaluate, and celebrate! And tell us about it! Send your accounts and photos to firstname.lastname@example.org or share them on our Facebook and Twitter pages. We’d love to share what your students are doing to create a welcoming environment for all!