Immigration and Project Based Learning

In the kingdom of silence even parents are afraid to tell the kids who they are.”

The man speaking to my middle school class, a Syrian refugee, sat at one end of the conference table. Seven middle school students, ages 10 to 14, had their red notebooks open, but they forgot, in the presence of a story, to take notes. They would remember regardless.

This was not a class. This was life and death. This was about a journey that spanned an ocean and linked worlds.

Qutaiba Idlib was a young man in his twenties, his white dress shirt open at the collar, sleeves rolled up, speaking softly with a musical lilt to his words.

“We chanted for freedom in the courtyard of the mosque in the old city in Damascus. The people who came for the demonstration are looking for a space where they can be who they are. People who live in freedom underestimate the value of what you have. They can walk tall, be who they are without fear of someone watching from behind their backs.”

“In the prison where we were tortured they have a reception party where they beat you for five to seven hours to break you down. Then you will tell everything. I told myself whatever I say, I shouldn’t use names. No one should be in my position. That gave me strength to not tell them what they wanted to know.”

“When I did leave Syria, I left with only the clothes on my back and my passport. But no place is like home. If I go back to Syria I will be arrested and executed for what I’ve done. I thought when I left that the United States would be the country closest to Syria — a country of refugees.”


I had two full days to run an elective class on the story of immigrants in modern day America. Our middle school at the Berkeley Carroll School in Brooklyn, New York, ends with two full-days of elective courses designed by faculty that cover a wide array of topics and activities in the five boroughs. We call this pivot in the ordinary school calendar: Project Brooklyn.

As project-based learning takes ever-greater importance and resonance in our curriculum, about a dozen teachers over the past few years have incorporated it into their own course work, and many have been supported by World Leadership School’s Virtual Teacher Institute. As a division director, I thought I could best be of help as we seek to expand PBL’s reach if I trained and carried out a project myself. Hence, my superb good fortune at working for some six months with WLS Director of Educator Development, Jennifer D. Klein by occasional Skype calls.

Our sketch pad, so to speak, was quickly filled with vivid charcoal lines delineating a project that came to be called “New to America”. It would focus on younger people who have arrived in the United States. Urgent to the success of such an abbreviated focus, Jennifer and I went back to the drawing board to design an experience that ambitiously hoped that the kids would learn and, most importantly, would make meaning out of what they learned. On this final point Jennifer, easygoing as she is, stressed her absolute belief in one of PBL’s core tenets: until and unless you provide audience, an agency in the fact that students create meaning by sharing their work with a world outside their own immediate sphere, then a richness and resonance of purpose and meaning is lost.

I was quietly haunted by my fear that two regular school days of time (8:30 a.m. to 3:40 p.m.) was an absurdly short amount of time to learn what needed to be learned, especially if a good deal of the investigation was to be carried out in classic PBL style (to wit, what do we need to teach ourselves to answer the essential question or questions of this class) and how and to whom on a hot summer hour or two would we pull it all together? I was on the phone and working email connections with a range of kindhearted contacts, but not every adult knows how to tell a story and convey information to middle school students that catches the delicate nuance that ensures successfully enrapturing their formidable powers of concentration and latent passion to make meaning.

No question that when the catalog of choices went out to the student body and their parents that I wanted to only have kids for whom this course would be their first choice. I knew at this point that we would be meeting recent immigrants for whom this was as personal as it could be and that they would instantly suss out any disengagement or misplaced frivolity as a chilling barrier to free and frank exchange of questions and answers. Also, I wanted students who would not be content with learning to learn but learning in order to do something. Key to the description was the clear statement that we would be asking in this elective what we could do to support immigrants new to our community in New York City. Jennifer and I spent time discussing the need for a fundamental equality of position as part of the teaching. We were not, in our microscopic encounter with the topic, looking to “help” which of course implies a superior to inferior dynamic with all those attendant complexities and half-submerged assumptions which ultimately cloud and degrade relations between people.

Seven youngsters signed up, and although I was under friendly pressure from an administrative colleague to “lighten up” such a heavy and kid-unfriendly topic, I refused. And when given the opportunity to cancel the elective with “only” seven kids with such a wide range of ages, I finally yielded to the following extent. I went to each youngster, explained the size of the class and gave them the opportunity to drop out. None did; quite the contrary — I think the narrow gate made them feel that this was a special mark of entry. My loyalty and appreciation for this squad certainly was enhanced, and I felt without a shadow of doubt that the right people had come together. Although impossible to quantify, it surely added some positive aspect.


Summary always leaves detail out, but the core tenets of Project Based Learning that sank in during the planning and carrying out of this course were several.

First, there is a shift in authority. The teacher is a guide rather than the sole authority. Children do the wondering; the teacher helps with the finding out process. The teacher provides the context and to the ever-shifting degree feasible provides cues and guidance that help sustain focus on the arc of inquiry and validation.

Second, there is always a need for a public community facet that somehow provides an opportunity for feedback and validation.

In “New to America” we spent one day on gathering information and the second day doing that as well with a closing emphasis on pondering implications and producing an action plan.

No question that certain points of engagement were lost or muddled in how the experience played out. For example, there was not ample time for students to track the process of their own learning and to consider the process of what they were doing.

I told Jennifer my key goal was to foster empathy. Her reply was a reminder of Dewey’s statement that learning is alive when we reflect on activity, not the activity itself. I’m not sure yet if I completely agree — perhaps reflection and action are independent and indivisible simultaneously.

By serendipity, the students were able to speak at the very end of the day with Yabome Kabia, Assistant Division Director, who is responsible for organizing a thematic discussion program for the whole middle school that is called BC Talks. They explained Qutaiba’s message and that they wanted to help plan something for this autumn because, in their words, the way they can best help is through educating others so that they know more and can act according to their expanded knowledge.

Yabome was invigorated and impressed by their attitude and eloquence. Hopefully, we will make this happen and the students will continue as an ex-officio group to take it through to completion. Although in education, completion is a word that belies the never-ending process.

In his closing remarks to the students, Qutaiba put it thus:

“What keeps me going is if we can keep one person from being oppressed and if we can care about something more than ourselves. I’m shifting out part of the responsibility onto you. This is what is going on. We need to see what we are able to do. Lists are not my responsibility.”

“Read more. Know more. Without knowledge, we have no passion, and without passion, you can’t do anything. Then you yourself can best judge what you are able to do.”

— Jim Shapiro, Berkeley Carroll School, Middle School Director, Debate Coach