A metaphor for the immigration debate

The People of Sparks

All the eighth graders at our school  do a novel unit on dystopia. In my ESOL/HILT reading class, we all read the same book as our class novel, along with students reading novels of their choice independently.

The novel we selected was The City of Ember.  We read both the graphic novel and the original chapter book.  We all loved this novel about a dysfunctional underground community on the brink of total failure.  Hope comes in the form of its brave young heroes Doon and Lina, who seek a solution and a way out to save the people of Ember.

The City of Ember is the first book in a 4 book series that traces the journey of this community from its original existence in Ember and beyond.  Having become totally absorbed in the first book, the class asked if they could read the second. It is not every day that your class asks for a novel, and all are even in agreement.  So, I knew that we had to continue with the series. The second book is called the People of Sparks.  I believe this is the capstone novel of the series.  The characters are so believable and well developed, and the plot is brilliant.  It is a metaphor for the modern day immigration debate.

This brings me to what happened last Friday  in class. We were about midway through the novel.  For a start-up activity, I wrote the following on the board:

If you were one of town leaders in Sparks, what would you have done when the people of Ember appeared in your town? Their population is as large as yours. Would you welcome them into your community?  Why or why not? What would your solution be to this new addition of people from Ember to your community in Sparks?

First, students wrote in their notebooks.  Then, I asked them to share what they wrote.  After a couple shared, I asked them to stand in 3 different parts of the room.  One group was the (G1)“We will welcome them and help them” area, one was the (G2)“They must leave” area and the third was the (G3)  “Willing to let them stay for a while, but with a deadline” group. They talked to each other within their groups. Then they shared their perspectives with each other in an attempt to win students over to their side.   The debate was fascinating, especially since many of my students are immigrants themselves. I say many, as some of my English Language Learners are only here for a short time, due to their parents’ work.

They began just talking about the people of Ember and Sparks.  

G1  “We have to help them.” “What would the Emberites do without us?”

G2  “Well, Sparks is a pretty small town that had to work really hard to get where it is, why should they have to give up so much to people they don’t even know?  The people from Ember need to leave.”

G1  “Where would they go?  They have no place else to go, if we don’t help them, who will?

G3  “So, okay maybe we let them stay a little  But, they need a deadline. They cannot stay here forever.  They need to go build their own town.

G1  “How will they do that?  They have nothing.”

G3  “That is their problem”

G2  “Besides, they could be dangerous.  You cannot trust people.”

G1  “Wait a minute, if they were dangerous, we would have already had problems with them.  They haven’t done anything to us. They don’t understand much about the world. They didn’t even know what trees are.  They are not clever. They are not trying to trick us. They are just trying to live.”

G2  “So if an old man in torn clothes came to your door and said he was hungry, would you let him into your house?  Or would you think that you want to help, but it’s dangerous and you can’t just let a stranger in?”

G1 (without hesitation)”Of course, I would let him in,  He is hungry and he is old. How could I sleep at night if I did not let him in and help him?”    “Yes, I agree with her, you have to help people, they are people” (My lead speaker here has a heart the size of Texas.)

G3  “Yes, but you don’t have to let them stay.  After you help them, they can help themselves.”

G1  “How will they do that?  They don’t know anything about our world here and they don’t have any materials.  No money, no food, what will they do?”

G2  “If we let them stay, maybe by then, they have taken everything from you  They might steal what you have, since they need so much. And, you cannot trust them.”  “Agreed, they need to go before they try to take over the town.”

Then I say, “ Okay, does anyone want to move to another group?”  Nothing changes. Next, I ask, “what if there were only two options?  Either you accept them, or you you reject them and say they have to leave immediately…… So, group 3, please join either group 1 or 2.”   Much to my surprise, all of group 3 moves into group 2, who cheer loudly, having won over the more moderate participants. They all agree that the people of Ember must go!

Group one only has 4 students in it.  Let’s look at who is there…… There are two young ladies, good friends, one from Ethiopia, and the other from El Salvador.   And, two of my Latino boys. If I had been asked to guess who might be in group one before beginning, I would have picked these four, no surprises there.  However, I was surprised to find so many students in group 2. It is interesting how immigration issues affect even those who are immigrating in such different ways.  

The golden moment comes when my student with the lowest standardized reading score in the class, but who is a critical thinker, all of a sudden blurts out… “Hey wait, the people of Ember, that could be us!”  “How would you feel if the white people told you to leave?” “What?” “I mean people here, what if they said go home? Would that be okay with you?” The discussion gets deeper and more intense. Students share stories and the bell rings.  The thread woven through this story and connecting us to it continues.

What I loved about this class and this whole week of reading that has followed is the passion in my students’ views and their connections to the characters and to elements of the plot.  

Today a heated debate broke out over whether or not it was wise for Lina to become a stowaway with roamers to see what lay outside Sparks.  There were students avidly defending Lina,and others attacking her for causing the unrest in Sparks that followed her departure. We got down to the core issue of principal character traits… is she a responsible person or not?  What do her actions, words, and her interaction with other characters tell us about her? That was our closing question today. We will start there tomorrow. Experiencing this book with my class, I feel like we all know the characters personally and we are chomping at the bit to give them advice, save them from sabotage, and help them heal.   

Tomorrow we will explore that question and we will create motivation maps to better understand Lina and the other characters and what lies behind their actions.  For the last two periods of the day, we will be back in Sparks…unsure of the future, and filled with fear and hope. Reading will propel us through the uncertainty, and the longing to know what will happen next.

4 thoughts on “A metaphor for the immigration debate

  1. What a great day having your students stand up and make decisions about the new people who have arrived. Tomorrow will be more interesting trying to understand and creating motivation maps. I wish I could be there.

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