What's Your Story?: Facing History Students Give Voice to Immigration Experience in Documentary Films


Students, though they often study immigration in school, rarely get the opportunity to share their own stories of immigration – or to do so on film.

So a Facing History and Ourselves teacher and a filmmaker set out to change that.

In 2011, Irina Lee, founder of the First Person American initiative which seeks to change public perception about immigrants, signed up to attend a Facing History seminar on immigration in New York City. During the three-day seminar, a teacher named Julie Mann led a session about a class project she had completed the previous year called Building Bridges, which connected her students – all recent immigrants – with American students to share their stories and build speaking, writing, and listening skills. Lee and Mann began to chat, and realized their work had many similarities.

Mann teaches at Newcomers High School, a public school in Long Island City that specializes in educating recent immigrants. Mann’s course explores human rights themes, with a particular focus on the lives of immigrants. Lee’s initiative documents first-hand accounts of immigration to the United States. The two discussed the Building Bridges project, which The Working Group documented in its educational film series Not in Our School. The project paired Mann’s students with students from the St. Luke’s School, a private middle school in Manhattan. The two groups of students from very different backgrounds wrote letters to each other and interviewed each other about their lives and identities. At the end of the unit, students from Newcomers created pieces about their own immigration stories while the St. Luke’s students wrote research papers about immigration.

Lee and Mann decided to partner for a 10-week workshop at Newcomers in which students explored writing, storytelling, and video production, as well as the history and current politics of immigration while Lee documented the journey. At the end of the workshop, students worked on original short films – personal narratives about their own immigration and the people that made America feel welcoming when they first arrived in the country. To help fund the project, Mann applied for – and received – a teaching grant from Facing History.

“My ultimate goal with this class is to create student leaders who can ‘choose to participate’ and who will be upstanders in their local, national, and international communities,” Mann wrote in her application.

In the workshop, Mann’s students – 10th through 12th graders who speak languages from Bengali and Chinese to Dutch and Spanish, and come from countries such as Iraq, Madagascar, Indonesia, and China – worked together, crafting their own stories and eventually collaborating on the documentaries, which premiered on Ellis Island and screened as part of New York City's 10th Annual Immigrant Heritage Week, organized by the New York City Mayor's Office of Immigrant Affairs.

The films are poignant and refreshingly honest – reminders of what it looks and feels like to be a high school student as well as a newcomer in any unfamiliar situation or place. In one, a Bangladeshi student discusses the role that education and school played in how she came to see herself as an American. In another, a student originally from Montenegro talks about the teacher that believed in him. A third film opens with a student from Cuba, Yasmany, describing how lonely the immigration experience is. The weight of that loneliness became a little lighter after Yasmany made two friends during a pickup game of basketball on the school playground. The trio is now inseparable.

“I can say I’m completely different. Now I don’t judge anyone. I like helping new kids who come to school,” Yasmany says in the film after recounting how his new friends helped him tackle everything from homework to figuring out which cafeteria line to stand in. “I became better. [Now] I help others.”

“This project is totally replicable,” Mann says. “And it is important to tell our stories – no matter your background. If you don’t know your own history, it is that much harder to take interest in or to understand the histories of other people. When you learn about your own identity, it helps you to open up to other peoples’ identities.”

"Teaching young people about immigration has long been a part of Facing History's work,” says David Levy, Senior Program Associate at Facing History and a co-facilitator of the immigration seminars. “By raising engaging questions such as, ‘What does it mean to belong to a nation?’ and ‘What are the consequences of whom we choose to be responsible for?’ students and their teachers begin to think critically about difference, about citizenship, and about how they can actively participate within our democracy."

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