Local Students Get First-Hand Learning at the State House

Math problems, reading assignments, persuasive writing reports and civics lessons happen in classrooms all over the city for young students, but at The Neighborhood School in Jamaica Plain this semester, those lessons have been intertwined with a cause – and their work took 15 students to the State House on Tuesday, Feb. 4, to deliver letters to state legislators and encourage a group of undocumented immigrants staging a hunger strike.

Earlier this year, in 5th/6th Grade Teacher Lisa Nam’s English and Social Studies classes, the cracked open the novel ‘The Only Road’ by Alexandra Diaz, a book that chronicles the journey of migrants from Guatemala to the border. That led to a lesson on immigration and public policy around immigration – but it took a practical turn when Nam and students began to structure a project from real life to go with that lesson.

A group of students from The Neighborhood School visited the State House on Tuesday, Feb. 4, as part of a long-term project they were doing on immigration and the Movimiento Cosecha advocacy group, which was staging a hunger strike at the State House to call for driver’s licenses to be granted to those without legal status. The Movimiento Cosecha supporters joined the Neighborhood School student’s in a circle, where both sides shared messages of gratitude and appreciation.

“We read the book and began studying the history of Naturalization policy, the book we read, how asylum works, our current laws and what the United Nations says about the topic,” she said. “We wanted to do an applied project that would combine all of that knowledge. I reached out to the Movimiento Cosecha group and learned about what they are working on. One of the first things we did was invite Cosecha members to our class. Two members of the group who are undocumented visited us. They explained Cosecha and the current actions they were taking to get a bill passed to allow immigrants without legal status to have drivers’ licenses. Many of the students didn’t have first-hand experience with these issues and were immersed in their stories.”

Cosecha has become very active in the last year, establishing local chapters in places where undocumented immigrants, their allies and families are present. They have a major presence in Boston, East Boston, Chelsea, Lawrence and other locales. Their major push this year has been to get the long-lingering driver’s license bill passed – an issue that has come up in the state legislature for years and years.

Volunteer organizer Amelia Gonzalez Pinal said Cosecha began activism with several circles, or local chapters, around the state on Nov. 3, 2018 to bring the issue to the forefront once again. The campaign is called Manejando Sin Miedo, or Driving without Fear, and the group has done everything from traditional lobbying to spending a weekend camped out on the State House Lawn.

“We realized nobody has really engaged with the community,” she said in a recent interview. “There has been a lot of good work done. This is one of the big issues that those in our organization all struggle with…Our argument is the roads would be safe and our communities would be safer. Many other states have passed it. It won’t be the first time for us. There is precedence…This issue has been hanging around the State House for 15 years. Unfortunately, it has been very long, but the issues and the struggles of those in the community haven’t changed.”

One of the challenges for undocumented residents who drive is that they can easily be pulled over, and without a license, that often can lead to deportation, Pinal said. She said some men from the organization in Lawrence were working construction in New Hampshire last year. There was no public transit, so they had to drive to a job site. The driver had no license, and got pulled over. Two of his co-workers were undocumented, and the situation led to them being detained by the federal government.

It’s a constant fear in that community and within the Cosecha circles – even for something as simple as picking up a child from school or going to the supermarket.

This week, Cosecha made a final push by staging a hunger strike at the State House to draw attention to the bills that are pending.

For Nam and her students, it was a perfect opportunity to support their new friends at Cosecha and to engage in an active and current learning experience.

They worked with the art department to create artistic projects that would convey the stories that were shared by the members of Cosecha, and they also engaged in a persuasive writing assignment to create letters to present to Speaker DeLeo.

They even brought in translators from a local high school to help them learn to use the Spanish language correctly in their art and writing. Then they headed down to the State House with School Director Trish Morrow on Tuesday to present their projects as a form of advocacy.

“They really got to have a conversation and dialog about it,” said Nam. “They got good feedback from those who were on the hunger strike and those on the strike had a very emotional reaction to the art. The students felt the leaders had gifted them their stories, and the students wanted to take the art to them as a gift in return. It was very profound.”

Interestingly enough, Nam said that while none of the leaders they talked to were children, most of the student projects seemed to be told through the eyes of children experiencing these issues.

When they had finished speaking with them, they then went to deliver their letters to state legislators, including Speaker Bob DeLeo. There, they read portions of their letters aloud – advocating for the driver’s license bills – and the letters were even received by Speaker DeLeo’s Chief of Staff, Seth Gitell.

Nam said it was a two-month learning experience that culminated there at the State House with an action that easily translates to an adult experience. She said there was tremendous benefit for the kids as they learned so much, without maybe knowing they learned things.

“It wasn’t all about the project,” she said. “Along the way, there were hours and days when it was skill building…We spent two weeks mastering what the difference is between a rhetorical question and an analogy. There were tests, quizzes and research that may be considered a little more boring. However, using all of that we were able to bring it together for a project. In the end, using those skills was effortless for them…They were motivated to use what they learned and apply it to our project.”

For the political and civic piece, Nam said some might question the stance taken by the students, but she said it was really about building a skill set to be able to use to help society improve – no matter what the opinion might be.

“What we did was political in nature,” she said. “Some people would question that…As a school, we’re trying to do things about equity and racial justice. That doesn’t come out of thin air, but are part of our school goals…The skills these kids learned can be applied to any opinion they want to have as an adult. What they did with this project is valuable no matter what people think about the issue.”

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