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Whether you agree or disagree with the end of the war in Afghanistan, as the conflict draws to a close, our attention now must shift to the challenge of resettling tens of thousands of Afghans across America.
Of critical concern will be how we welcome and accommodate Afghan children within our education system. Today’s Afghan evacuees will be our students tomorrow. Long a magnet for newcomers, California will become home for many of these refugee students. More than 1,700 Afghans are expected to settle in the Sacramento area by the end of the year.
How we respond to their needs will shape their future and ours.
I speak from personal experience. In 1978, after the Vietnam War, my family fled persecution with only what we could carry. We traveled shoulder to shoulder on an overloaded boat in a desperate and dangerous attempt at freedom. After two years of asylum in Malaysia, the United States accepted my family for permanent residence. In 1983, at the age of nine, I was sitting in a third-grade classroom in Sacramento.
It is difficult to reconcile the typical growing pains of childhood with the scope of that transformation. What is clear is that I and many others did not get what we needed as refugee students in the ’80s.
This was long before schools were using culturally or community-responsive teaching, social and emotional learning, and trauma-informed instructional practices that have specific approaches for student wellness and learning. Together these practices help to recognize, heal and strengthen students’ self-identities and their relationships with each other, their families and their communities. A key aspect of this is understanding that each student’s unique socio-cultural context may inform how they show up to learn and how teachers can prepare for their needs and interests.
That was not my experience. Creating a family tree and other genealogy projects brought me great distress in elementary school. I did not own a baby picture, nor could I explain why. No part of me or my ancestors were represented in school, not even in my junior year of high school when the history of an unpopular war filled me with anger and shame.
Throughout my education, K-12 teachers gave me the impression that Vietnam only mattered as a lost war. In fact, that’s arguably what most Americans associate with Vietnam. This is a terrible travesty and undercuts the cultural wealth that refugees bring with them in expanding the richness of America.
We can do better today. For the sake of all students, educators should resist reducing and freezing in time Afghanistan as a place of war. Just because pundits, historians and politicians will argue every facet of the war for the next decade, does not mean that K-12 educators must follow suit. We need to teach our students that Afghanistan is not synonymous with war or terrorism, or any other single description. Afghanistan’s history and people are so much more than that.
It is both appropriate and imperative that teachers discuss the political and humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan with students. We need to help students make sense of the dramatic and heartbreaking exodus of Afghans from their homeland by air and land. With so much going on in the world and the pandemic, it is much too easy to become desensitized to current events.
However, the ongoing crisis in Afghanistan is preceded by 20 years of war that has produced a generation of veterans, service members and Afghan allies. Refugee students will soon attend the same public schools as children of military families. It is our collective responsibility to make sure each of our students is seen and heard. Substantive practice with perspective-taking — understanding another’s point of view and what shapes it — reinforces that differing experiences and stories can coexist and enlighten. We can all learn from one another.
Tuyen Tran, Ph.D., is the assistant director of the California History-Social Science Project at University of California, Davis. A longer version of this post is available on the CHSSP blog.
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