Monday, April 28, 2014

Gateway to History: An American Tail

A little over a month ago Victor cane home with a handful of discount DVDs. Many of these were movies we used to own on VHS, but got rid of after we no longer owned a VCR.

One of these movies was An American Tail. I grew up on this movie. I knew every word to Somewhere Out There.  And somewhere in there, I did kind of know that it was a story of immigration. But I don't recall that being of any great interest to me as a kid.

So imagine my surprise when during our most recent viewing, my kids were pelting me with questions relating to the plot line, but of course launched into the much larger and messier root discussion about immigration. 

There was a lot of pausing happening, and a lot of we'll look more up on this later.

Over the course of the next few weeks our discussions were amazing. We made a trip to the library, and nearly gave Daddy a hernia when he carried the bag loaded with books that a very nice young man at the research desk helped me track down. Most of these we just browsed through. But their questions and the answers I endeavored to supply them with were deep, developed, and honest.

We talked about many of the reasons people throughout history have chosen to immigrate, from religious persecution to famine to race. And we didn't just limit it to those that chose America as their new home, but that people immigrate all over the globe.

We looked at history, Abraham immigrated to what would later become known as the land of Canaan from his home of Ur, Jacob's family immigrated to Egypt, the nation of Israel immigrated back to the Promised Land. We looked forward at more modern day immigration and compared what is still similar challenges, and what are new ones.

We have an invaluable resource in Victor's own parents, who left Argentina and made the U.S. their permanent home. And so we thought it would be fun for the kids to "interview" Lela (short for Abuela) during one of her upcoming visits. We are still in the process of coming up with questions for her.

We watched the movie again, and then discussed the real life experiences that were portrayed, but softened for a young audience. Hardships such as losing their homes and livelihoods, life on the ship voyage, and poor living conditions upon arriving. Tragedies like leaving loved ones behind, sickness and death on the voyage, families being separated, children truly being orphaned, and forced labor that many had to endure. As well as the disillusionment most were slapped with upon arrival. That life was still racially and economically divided and riddled with strife and poverty.

And that though it's improved somewhat in more modern times, it's still a far cry from the dream that it is still believed to be. I invited them to really try to imagine leaving almost everything they know and have known behind. And what it might be like to be faced with an entirely different place, people, language, food, culture, home, entertainment, transportation, and technologies or lack thereof.  It was not an easy thing for them to envision.

We found several amazing books, out of many, that especially helped open our eyes wider. If you only read three, I recommend these. While designed for young readers, they retain the qualities of authenticity and honesty which makes them especially endearing and the best teachers.

The Matchbox Diary By Paul Fleischman

This beautifully illustrated book takes us through an young boy's journey to America. Since he cannot write, he saves memories in matchboxes, each representing a special moment in his life, some joyous, some sad, but each a contribution to his journey from boyhood and beyond. Written for younger readers, it still is a warm but honest documentation of the struggles faced by many families of that time. It was by far our favorite, each of us having favorite pages and parts.

Mexican Immigrants in America: An Interactive History Adventure  By Rachel Hanel

This was Zak's other favorite. It is a You Choose novel, so there are quite a few choices that you can make resulting in very different endings. Zak went through the book until he had chosen them all one way or another. His first several attempts actually got his character killed. I appreciated though that it didn't gloss over subjects such as boarder crossing, obtaining legal documents, seeking citizenship, and yes separating from family and even death. It doesn't approach it from a right or wrong view, but rather a matter of fact, exploration of choices that most of us are never really faced with. This is good for kids maybe fourth grade and up.

Inside Out & Back Again  By Thanhha Lai

This is our current read aloud. Somewhat written in a poetic style, this story is based on the author's real life experience of escaping her beloved home the night South Vietnam fell. It's not an exact accounting of her experience, but many of the things that Ha faces or feels in the book were real. Especially moving to me, is how frustrated Ha feels over feeling like her difficulty in learning English truly makes her feel like she is not as smart as she once was, and how it really sometimes is the little things in life that when they are gone we miss the most, or appreciate the most when others understand.

After we finish with our read aloud and our interview, we will wrap up our unit with a story. The kids will write their own story about immigrating to a foreign land, with a new language, customs, foods, and home. I want them to tell what they might feel about leaving, what they would find exciting, or scary, or sad. What would stay the same and what would change? And does it have a happy ending?

Doing this as a unit for school, or a family project over a school break, are ways to take a topic that is often boring and easily forgotten in school, and make history come alive. To better get a real sense of it and that the textbooks often get it wrong by glossing over the real life elements. But it was and is these elements that, when smelted and shaped through life's experiences, reveal the often amazing gifts and character of those who have carved a challenging path across daunting borders.

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