Grounding in Our Roots: Preserving Family History Through Migration Narratives

By Emily Lee

Illustrator: Frances Murphy

Each household in my family has a jar of preserved limes sitting on their kitchen windowsill. Some date back decades. The brown globes floating in murky saltwater look like something out of a swamp, something that would give you the runs if you tried to eat it. But in fact, it was when I fell under the weather that my mom would crack open a jar, jab chopsticks to tear away a chunk, and plop it into a mug of hot water, offering it to me as a remedy. I loved it. I savored every warm sip and cherished the bitter salty dismembered bits at the end. 

I think of myself as in the work of preservation. Preserving my family history before it gets erased by hazy memories and generations of un-remembering. In my role as a language arts teacher, I am, too, in the work of preserving — kindness, dignity, curiosity, storytelling — things that maintain our humanity in the face of an increasingly disconnected world. When I teach my migration stories unit, I find that these qualities of “things that make us human” emerge naturally in the classroom. And because this unit is intertwined with my own family story and search for history, it feels life-giving and affirms my own identity as a daughter of immigrants and educator of color. Like with the limes, sometimes I find that the ugly, messy bits might also be the healing bits. 

Over the past 10 years, I tote this migration story unit along with me to the various public high school settings I have taught in as an ELA teacher. The unit shifts and shapes as I adapt it to fit me and the students in our particular contexts. To start, I like to have the class write “Where I’m from” poems, drawing heavily from Linda Christensen’s method. This is an approachable entry point because however novice the writer, their poems have a lyrical quality — the repeating line “I am from . . .” threads one detail to another. One student writes, “I’m from a quick love/ The love they gave wore out their own.” Another student writes, “I am from my mom’s injera and spices.” As each student shares their poem, I feel a softening that sets the tone for the rest of the unit. 

I introduce what we’ll do in this unit by reading aloud the migration story that I wrote about my dad. It’s my family’s escape from Vietnam to a refugee camp in Malaysia and eventually the United States. This first time I ask students just to listen — no need to annotate for writing techniques or plot structure. We open up an informal discussion about their reactions, and often students share ways their own family stories relate to mine. “My family also escaped from our country, but instead of by boat we walked over on foot through the desert,” one student shares.

I ask students to start thinking of who they’d like to write about. I cast the net broadly so that they don’t feel boxed in to necessarily write an immigration narrative or pressured to produce a harrowing escape tale. Their assignment is to write the story of somebody’s move from one place to another. It could be about a friend, a grandparent, a sibling, or themselves. I let them know that some of the most meaningful stories are about a simple journey moving from one city to another. What I emphasize, though, is that I want them to build on an existing relationship in their life. Who do you want to better know? What’s a story you never got a chance to fully hear? What’s a story you hear all the time, but haven’t written down yet?

As they brainstorm, I ask students to set an intention. I say, “Aside from a grade, what do you hope to gain from this assignment?” I give a series of sentence starters to help them get going, and I offer each student a marker to record their intention on a piece of chart paper that I keep up in the classroom throughout the unit. 

  • To record . . . 
  • To remember . . . 
  • To heal . . . 
  • To learn . . . 
  • To celebrate . . . 
  • To honor . . . 
  • To appreciate . . . 

“To remember what my parents went through,” writes Manuel. “To heal from our past struggles and become a better person each day!” writes Kutre. “To connect to my ancestors who lived in Germany with Hitler,” writes Jenna. “To honor where my mom came from and celebrate her journey,” writes Isabella.

We read one or two more mentor texts written by former students or published authors. I drew texts from the website Made into America as well as excerpts from memoirs like The Latehomecomer by Kao Kalia Yang, The Girl Who Fell to Earth by Sophia Al-Maria, and The Circuit by Francisco Jiménez. This time, I give students crayons and ask them to highlight each part of the mentor texts a different color:

  • Life in original country/place
  • Why they moved
  • The journey
  • Settling in new country/place
  • Hopes and dreams for the future

They compare colors on the mentor texts — now freshly splashed in rainbowy crayons. One text is mostly one color while another has an even spread of each color. My story about my dad, for example, primarily focuses on “the journey,” which we colored-coded blue. I let students know that every story is unique. The five parts serve as a guide to help outline their interviews and story, but they may find themselves spending much more time interviewing and writing about one part than others. 

When I first developed this unit back in 2015, I was fortunate to partner with Elliot Margolies, founder of Made into America, and my collaborating social studies teacher Nanor Balabanian. At the time, Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric was gaining traction and our unit felt like an urgent rebound to these hateful narratives. Yet, I come back to this unit year after year because this preservation work seems perpetually relevant and important — remembering our stories to connect to our humanity. Writing these migration narratives might not exactly be an elixir of life (I’ve yet to find students thinking this about any of my units), but perhaps it’s a small antidote to the increasingly dystopian society we live in. Like nibbling at the murky limes — going through the process of interviewing and writing might look unappealing, but this is the stuff that’s good for us. In my family we call these preserved limes “ham ling mong,” literally translated to “salty lemons.” Learning about our past can sometimes serve as remedy, grounding ourselves in our roots. 

With the help of my brilliant collaborators, we generated interview techniques and steps to coming up with questions that I use to this day. In these steps, we practice how to ask good questions, working backwards from a set of mentor texts. I ask, “What kind of questions did this writer need to ask in order to write this story? What kind of details are memorable to you as a reader?” We notice the specificity of numbers in the mentor texts — the ounces of gold it cost to buy the boat, for example — and the dates, anecdotes, sensory details. I emphasize the value and art of follow-up questions. (I learned the magical interview phrase “Tell me more . . .” from Elliot.) In addition to having the five parts as a guide for their interview questions, students contribute to a bank of questions that everyone could draw from as they conduct their interview. Often, students come up with questions I never would have thought of on my own.

  • What was your first meal?
  • Who came with you? Who did you leave behind? 
  • What was the weather like?
  • What do you miss the most?
  • How did you feel when you left? When you first arrived?
  • Where did you sleep?
  • What doubts and fears did you have during the journey? How did you overcome them?
  • What did you expect when you arrived?
  • Was it all worth it?

“My grandaunty doesn’t want to talk about it,” reports one student. “It’s too touchy of a subject,” chimes another the day after I assign the interview. Over the years, I have found that, understandably, the interview portion of this unit is sensitive and faces pushback from some students. It might bring up anxiety talking with an elder about wounds from their past. Or some folks just don’t want to talk at all. Similar to the jars of preserved limes sitting on our windowsill for decades, some stories have remained untouched for years. And yet, even with the passage of all this time, they can still offer healing. A morsel of a 20-year-old lime can be a cure. Perhaps at the right moment, a morsel of an old story can be healing, too. However, the process is delicate. I have learned that it’s useful to proactively validate and address these concerns before sending students off to conduct interviews.

I pose some questions to students: How might it feel to be the one getting interviewed? What happens if your interviewee doesn’t want to talk? What if they’re undocumented? What do you do if your interviewee starts to cry? I encourage students to approach their interviews with empathy and compassion and offer ideas for creative workarounds. Intuitively, many students can sense the tenderness in these interviews and we agree upon some guidelines. Be sensitive. Trust the boundaries that you feel from the interviewee. It’s OK if the interview isn’t perfect. I let students know to feel free to speak and write in their home languages for the interview. Then I send home a letter to guardians giving context about the assignment we are doing. While I welcome students to frame this assignment as a task they need to do for school and “use me as an excuse,” I never ask them to push too hard. We can forge ways to make this assignment feel meaningful, even in tricky circumstances.

I give students about a week to complete the interview and build in as much flexibility as I can. Students capture their interview through a variety of formats depending on their access and comfort with technology — audio recording, typing on a phone or computer, and handwriting are all viable options. With many parents working multiple jobs or night shifts, it can be difficult for some students to find time to sit down to talk. One student, for example, needed to schedule her interview with her dad who was in prison, and it felt important to accommodate for that. I create cushions of space in this unit to account for the time it takes to interview and meet the challenges of life circumstances. 

In the meantime, we research social, economic, and political push and pull factors of migration patterns. Contextualizing individual stories within larger historical forces brings life to otherwise sterile statistics and historical backdrops. And if we can see how our stories are embedded in a larger political story, it might also make us feel a little less lonely. As my social studies partner said to me once, “Healing can happen when we feel less alone.” I overheard this take place, for example, when Sumaya extended care to Bisan when she realized how the impacts of war was a central theme in both their families’ stories. “I care about you because my family was also living in the middle of war, and we could not eat or sleep.”  

After their interviews, students transcribe them into outlines using the five parts. Again, I remind students that some parts may be longer or shorter than others. Once all the information is laid out, they select details they’d like to incorporate in their drafts and find gaps in information where they may want to go back and ask follow-up questions.

As students start the drafting process, we try on different narrative openings. I give students a list of narrative openings written by former students from which we glean writing techniques. Students notice dialogue, different languages, action hooks, repurposing of lines from “Where I’m from” poems, and the way writers can paint a scene with smells and sounds. Equipped with examples as inspiration, I ask students to decide on a type of narrative opening they’d like to try out, and they start writing their first paragraphs.

From waking up to the sound of roosters, to now waking up to the sound of an alarm clock. This is the story about how my mom’s life changed.

“Dame mi muñeca!” [Give me my doll!]
“Sólo si me das tu dinero de trabajo.” [Only if you give me your money from work.]
“Yo no trabajo!” [I don’t work!]
“Bueno, es tu pérdida,” [Well, it’s your loss,] he said as he lit the doll on fire.

I come from a province called Bayambang, Pangasinan Philippines. I come from the smell of jeepney terminals and our native dishes, like chicken adobo, sinigang, and dried bangus (fish). I come from the hot tropical weather striking my face and my body on my way to work.

Seconds, minutes, and hours pass on by. Her legs are cramping. The market is very crowded with people buying food, clothes, and utensils. Her stand is filled with vegetables, and fruits that she and her family have grown. This is how they earned money [in a village called Lafu in Mauritania, Africa].

The sound of the prayer call echoes through the refugee camp. It’s the first prayer of the day. The sun was glaring down as my mom gathered buckets. Wrapping my youngest siblings in a makeshift blanket swaddle, she starts her long journey of getting water.

Then I say, “What happens if you change points of view?” I ask students to rewrite their narrative opening in a different perspective. For example, if they wrote from the point of view of themselves, I ask them to try on the point of view of their interviewee or third person point of view. What kind of tone does each perspective communicate? As they rewrite, one student says, “It feels weird to write like I’m my grandpa, but it makes the story feel more real.”

As Linda Christensen puts it, I try to “milk” the same mentor texts throughout the unit for more writing techniques and avenues to talk about decisions that they make as writers. For example, we look at the various ways that authors embed home languages into their writing. This is where students who speak multiple languages show off their linguistic richness. 

I walked day and night. I didn’t want to sleep because I was afraid I would get bitten by poisonous animals. . . . I had a necklace that had virgins and saints and I was praying to them so they could protect me from accidents. Diosito por favor no dejes que nada malo me pase por favor cuídame. God please don’t let anything bad happen to me, please take care of me.

My family anticipates the day we get on that plane. It’s a bittersweet moment because my dad isn’t coming along. All we can do is spend the last moments we have together. As I’m getting up, Mom says, “Kaalay saca iga caawi inaan liso.” [Come help me milk the cow.] My heart is excited to hear such a simple phrase. This is a big responsibility, and I’m excited to do this task for my mom.

As we wrap up the drafting, peer review, and editing process, I ask students to bring in photos of their interviewee if they can. On the day we share and celebrate the final drafts of their migration stories, we sit in a circle. Students share about their writing process and read aloud a portion of their work. Marci says, “I didn’t realize how much I was going to learn. I thought writing this would be boring. I went in to ask my mom questions expecting a fast and short interview, but it was completely different. My perspective did change. I always knew small details about her journey but I didn’t know the reason she had coming to America.” 

We celebrate each writer and give verbal and written feedback. One way I do this is to have students write their name on a piece of scratch paper, toss it into the middle of the circle, and then pick up one of the pieces of paper; that’s the person they’ll write a note of praise to. These are final drafts, so I tell students it’s time for positive feedback and prompt for an appreciation, a compliment on writing technique, a detail that stands out, or a way they can relate. After everyone has a turn, there is space for students to offer their praise aloud and share overall impressions. Often, I see them having you’re-like-my-family-too kind of moments and express deeper understanding of one another.  

We end the unit reflecting back about the intentions they wrote on chart paper. “My intention was to learn about my mom’s immigration with hopes of getting to know her better as a person,” shares Felix. “I was able to accomplish this through the interview. We talked and talked for hours. I never knew we could do such a thing. She was always so distant.” Christian says, “I have never understood my father because of our separation during my growing up years of childhood. Now I understand him better in an appreciative way. This project made me reflect that my father led a very daring life. And that makes me rethink my own past.” 

I love this unit for so many reasons, one being how it adds depth to students’ relationships with their loved ones. I also find that this unit flips the usual script in the classroom. Students whose families have recently immigrated often feel empowered with fresh details — they have a heightened sense of status amongst their peers. Writing about their stories places students in the position of historians. They unearth histories that are often hidden or less visible in mainstream social studies curriculum. “I’m writing about a part of history that doesn’t get much mention. It makes me wonder why I never learned this in school,” Vivian says about Poland in the aftermath of World War II. “Knowing where you’re from really does shape you because it’s crazy how everyone has a story but sometimes some people aren’t heard,” says Kelly. I’ve taught this unit many times and every time imperfectly, with copious notes titled Things to (Not) Do Next Time. When we get such an intimate peek into details of people’s stories, it is often difficult to step back and together reflect on how our stories connect with one another, what they teach us about roots of migration in today’s world, and the forces behind how people struggle to live dignified lives. 

But as the last reflection circle finishes up, I am left ruminating on people’s stories — people who are strangers to me yet extensions of the students I see every day. The world feels just a little cozier. 

* * *

Wash a bunch of limes (get them at Costco where they’re cheaper), cover in salt, and place in a clear jar. Put the jar somewhere that gets plenty of sunlight. In a few weeks, they’ll be ready. I had taken out a notepad and pen, expecting to write a long multi-stepped recipe, when my Aunt Pam tells me these instructions. But instead, it’s simple and straightforward. And I love that this recipe includes the ingredient of sunlight. We need warmth and light to help the preservation process along, akin to what’s needed to write migration stories. The light to find our way to stories hidden in a dark past. And warmth in our relationships and care for these stories. 

Piecing together who we are and where we come from is an act of remembering — re-membering, as in to put parts together to make a whole. As filmmaker Shakti Butler says, “Remembering allows me to see how I am part of a world that’s infinite.” When I remember the fortitude of my ancestors, my capacity for love and connection expands. The daily anxieties of teaching and lesson planning shrink. Maybe, like the limes, bringing light and warmth to the stories of our past makes for some lip-puckering — at times ugly — mending to a small part of our shared humanity.

Emily Lee ( is a public high school teacher who lives and teaches in the Seattle area. She teaches language arts, English language, and art classes at Highline College.

Illustrator Frances Murphy’s work can be seen at