Do you teach immigrant children? Or, would you like your students to understand the perspectives and have compassion for immigrant children? Here is a lesson plan for elementary school students that discusses personal names, moving from one country to another, and adopting aspects of the new culture while maintaining cultural identity. I have chosen several books representing characters from different countries, for different ages levels, that tell about children that have struggled and succeeded with this assimilation. Many stories show why children have decided to keep or change their name for different reasons. These stories provoke discussion on the significance of our names and identities, the process of adapting to a new culture and language, and the challenges of making new friends.
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I have been involved with the immigrant community in teaching, training, and translating for almost 20 years, and I believe that when we allow our children to understand the perspective of others, they will be compassionate and welcoming towards newcomers who might first appear “different.” After a brief summary of the books, I have included a list of discussion questions and writing prompts that ignite critical thinking skills, and allow students to put themselves in the shoes of others.
1) What is your full name? Do you know the meaning of your names? Why did your parents choose your name?
2) Would you ever want to change your name? What new name would you choose? How would you feel if someone else decided that you would change your name?
3) Have you ever moved to a new house or school? Was it easy or difficult to make new friends? What did you miss about your old home/school?
3) Has anyone ever made fun of you because you were different? How did that make you feel?
After discussing the questions with your students, choose a book on immigrant children (or several) from the following list. The age guidelines are not to be followed strictly- though the length and complexity of the books might make some books more appropriate for older or younger kids. Pre-read the selection so that you can be prepared to answer difficult questions that might come up about identity loss, the immigration process, adoption issues, etc. These books stimulate great conversations, and teachers and parents should be familiar with the stories before presenting them to their children.
My name is Yoon by Helen Recorvits, tells the simple story of Yoon, young girl who has just arrived in the US from Korea. She is lonely, and doesn’t want to write her name in the English alphabet. Yoon tries out different names: “CAT,” “BIRD,” “CUPCAKE,” until she decides that she is comfortable with Yoon. Our favorite part is when a friendly girl shares a cupcake with her on the playground, and Yoon begins to feel that “Maybe America will be a good home… Maybe different is good, too.”
Yoko Writes Her Name, by Rosemary Wells is a wonderful short story about a little cat from Japan, who is excited for her first day of kindergarten. When she arrives and shows her class how she can write her name and numbers, some classmates think the Japanese characters are only scribbles. While these students make fun of her, one friendly mouse reaches out to Yoko and shows the class how special it is to know two languages. In the end, the cultural differences enrich the class as everyone learns a little Japanese with Yoko, as she learns to write in English. I loved the Japanese characters sprinkled throughout the book, and the sushi bedtime snack!
The Name Jar, by Yangsook Choi, tells the story of Unhei (pronounced Yoon-Hey): a little girl who just moved from Korea to the US. She decides that in order to be liked and to fit in with her new classmates, she will let them choose a new name for her. When I read that description, I almost did not check the book out of the library. (spoiler alert!) To my delight, on the day Unhei will pick her new name out of the jar, the jar disappears and her classmates encourage her to keep her own name. This is a beautiful story about acceptance, and respect for cultural differences.
René Has Two Last Names, by Rene Colato Lainez is a bilingual picture book (Spanish-English) that tells the story of a little boy from El Salvador who does not want to lose his second last name when he moves to an English-speaking country. Although his classmates make fun of him, during a project on family trees he explains why each name is important, and how he would lost half of his family if he had to erase one of his names. This story rings true for the many Latino immigrants who are told they must choose only one last name in English, and the feelings of denying half of their family as their names are tied so close to their identity.
My Name is Sangoel, by Karen Lynn Williams, is a wonderfully told story about the challenges and hardships of children maintaining their identity while integrating into a new culture. Sangoel (pronounced sun-goal) is an 8 year old boy coming from Sudan as a refugee with his mom and sister. He struggles at his new home in the US as he learns to eat with a fork, braves the cold snow, and even just tries to introduce himself at school. Although no one can pronounce his Dinka name, he fights to maintain it as his connection to his cultural heritage. In the end he discovers an easy way to help his new friends remember his name and begins to feel at home in his new country. This is a simple, clear story that helps even little kids understand how a new student might feel when they arrive in a new country.
One Green Apple, by Eve Bunting tells the story of a young Muslim girl (from an unidentified country) who feels isolated and alone in her new school in the US. She doesn’t yet speak English, she wears a head scarf, and she feels different. Yet on a class trip to an apple farm, she and her classmates learn some poignant lessons about acceptance and assimilation as they make cider together with different apples. Farah learns that there are many similarities between her home country and her new home and decides “I will blend with the others the way my apple blended with the cider.”
In Three Names of Me, by Mary Cummings, Ada’s name was changed when she was adopted from China. She thoughtfully remembers and reflects on her three names and their significance: an unknown name that her birthmom whispered to her when she was born; Wang Bin, the name the caretakers in the orphanage gave her that means “Chinese princess” and “gentle and refined;” and Ada Lorane Bennett, the name that her family gave her, that reflects her Chinese heritage (ai da is “love arrived” in Chinese) as well as her adoptive family’s. This story encompasses the different components of Ada’s identity, and demonstrates the love and respect her family and caretakers had for her.
A century ago, many believed that “adopting names that sounded more American might help immigrants speed assimilation, avoid detection, deter discrimination or just be better for the businesses they hoped to start in their new homeland” (NY Times Aug 25, 2010).
Naming Liberty by Jane Yolen, presents 2 parallel stories of coming to America in the late 1800’s. The first story describes a young Jewish-Ukranian girl, whose journey by ship takes years of preparation and culminates when she arrives at Ellis Island and chooses the American name “Liberty” as her new identity. The second story details the dream of young artist Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi to build a monument to honor the United States’ independence. We follow the Statue of Liberty, from conception to construction to installation. Note: While Amazon lists the book for grades 1+, I thought it was a little too long and detailed for more first graders. If you like historical fiction: also read Caldecott Award-winning Grandfather’s Journey, by Allen Say, a story from the turn of the century that tells of a grandfather and his love for both the US and Japan.
Post-Reading Discussion Questions and Writing Prompts
1) After reading 2 of the stories, create a Venn diagram to compare and contrast the children’s experiences.
2) If you were in their position, would you make the same decision as the character? Would you prefer to keep your name, or change your name if you move to another country?
3) How did the character feel at the beginning of the book? How did the feelings change by the end of the book? What was the problem in the book? What was the solution?
4) Did anyone help the character in the book? What did they do to help them feel better? Have you ever helped a new student feel more comfortable? What did you do?
5) If you were moving to a new country and you only could bring one suitcase with you, which 5 items would you bring? Why are they important to you?