What Happened To the Golden Door?

By Linda Christensen

Mexican immigrants near the U.S.-Mexico border, waiting for the cover of darkness to proceed to Los Angele

At Eureka High School, immigration equaled Ellis Island. We watched old black-and-white film strips of Northern Europeans filing through dimly lit buildings. My textbooks were laced with pictures of the Statue of Liberty opening her arms to poor immigrants who had been granted an opportunity to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” when they passed through America’s door:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shores.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost, to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

I felt pride at being part of a country that helped the unfortunate, including my own family.

Years later when I visited Angel Island in San Francisco Bay, I learned about another immigration that hadn’t been mentioned in my high-school or college texts. I walked through the deserted barracks where painted walls covered the poems of immigrant Chinese who viewed the “Golden Mountain” through a barbed wire fence. I felt angry that yet another portion of U.S. history had been hidden from me. Between 1910 and 1940, the “tired, poor, wretched refuse” from Asian shores were imprisoned on Angel Island before being accepted as “resident aliens” or rejected at the “golden door.” As historian Ronald Takaki notes, “Their quarters were crowded and unsanitary, resembling a slum. ‘When we arrived,’ said one of them, ‘they locked us up like criminals in compartments like the cages in the zoo.’”1 Turning their anger and frustration into words, the Chinese carved poems on the building’s wooden walls. Their poems stood in stark contradiction to the Statue of Liberty’s promise:

“America has power, but not justice.
In prison, we were victimized as if we were guilty.
Given no opportunity to explain, it was really brutal.
I bow my head in reflection but there is nothing I can do.”2

All Europeans were eligible for citizenship once they passed through Ellis Island, a right denied to Asians until the mid-1940s.

In 1995 when California voters passed Proposition 187, which, if implemented, will deprive so-called illegal immigrants of health care and schooling, I decided to teach about immigration, not just the traditional version, but the more dangerous and unspoken immigration that denies access to large numbers of potential immigrants based on color or politics.

Beyond these political reasons, I had personal and educational reasons to teach this unit. It was the last quarter of the year in Literature in U.S. History, a combined junior level untracked history and English class that met 90 minutes a day for the entire year. The days had warmed up and the students smelled summer. If I said the word “essay,” “interior monologue,” or “role play,” I could hear a collective moan rise from the circle and settle like stinky fog around my head.

For three quarters, my planning book had been filled with lessons attempting to teach students how to become critical readers of history and literature. They’d written essays, critiques, short stories, personal narratives, poems, and interior monologues analyzing their own lives as well as the history and contemporary issues that continue to deprive Native Americans of land and economic opportunities. They’d also reflected critically on the enslavement of Africans, starting with life in Africa before slavery as well as forced immigration and resistance.

We examined the literature and history of the Harlem Renaissance, the Civil Rights Movement, and contemporary issues. They read and critiqued presidential speeches, historical and contemporary novels and poems written by people from a variety of backgrounds. They were ready to do their own investigation and teaching — putting into practice their analytical skills.

Fourth quarter I wanted them to conduct “real” research — not the scurry-tothe-library-and-find-the-closest-encylopedia-and-copy-it-word-for-word kind of research, but research that made them ask questions about immigration policies, quotas, and personal stories that couldn’t be lifted from a single text. I wanted them to learn to use the library, search for books, look up alternative sources, find the Ethnic News Watch, search the Oregon Historical Society’s clipping files, photo files, and rare documents room. I wanted them to interview people, read novels and poetry that told the immigrant’s story in a more personal way. Through this kind of thorough research, I hoped they would develop an ear for what is unsaid in political speeches and newspaper articles, that they would learn to ask questions when their neighbors or people on the bus began an antiimmigrant rap.


I started fourth quarter by outlining my goals and expectations. I do this each term, so students know what kinds of pieces must be in their portfolio, for example, a literary essay comparing two novels, an essay exploring a historical issue, a poem that includes details from history, etc. As part of the opening of the quarter ceremonies, I passed out an outline of their upcoming project. [See box on page 5.] I wanted a lengthy deadline so students would have the opportunity to work the entire quarter on the project.

Before students started their research, I modeled how I wanted the lessons taught by presenting Chinese and Japanese immigration. While students who come through the Jefferson network of elementary, middle, and high schools get at least surface background knowledge of Native Americans and African Americans, they appear to know less about Asian or

Latino literature or history. In fact, students are often surprised that the Japanese and Chinese faced any prejudice.3

During the lessons on Japanese Americans, students examined Executive Order 9066 signed by President Roosevelt, which gave the military the right to force Japanese Americans from their homes and businesses into camps surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers. Because these “resident aliens” and U.S. citizens were allowed to take only what they could carry to the “camps,” they were forced to sell most of their possessions in a short period of time. Students read “Echoes of Pearl Harbor,” a chapter from Nisei Daughter by Monica Sone, where she describes her family burning their Japanese poetry, kimonos, breaking their Japanese records, destroying anything that could make them look like they cherished their Japanese heritage. Students wrote moving poetry and interior monologues imagining they were forced to leave their homes, businesses, and treasured possessions. “Becoming American,” was written by Khalilah Joseph:4

“I looked into the eyes of my Japanese doll
and knew I could not surrender her to the fury of the fire.
My mother threw out the poetry she loved;
my brother gave the fire his sword.
We worked hours
to vanish any traces of the Asian world from our home.
Who could ask us to destroy
gifts from a world that molded and shaped us?
If I ate hamburgers and apple pies,
if I wore jeans,
then would I be American?”

Recently, I came across Beyond Words: Images from America’s Concentration Camps, a fascinating book of personal testimony and artwork produced in the camps: black-and-white drawings, watercolors, oil paintings and pieces of interviews that gave me a window into the lives of the imprisoned Japanese. While I showed slides of the artwork, students I prompted ahead of time read “Legends from Camp” by Lawson Inada, “The Question of Loyalty,” by Mitsuye Yamada, and segments of the internees’ interviews that matched pictures on screen. With images and words of the prisoners in their minds, students wrote their own poems. Thu Throung’s poem is called “Japanese Prisoners”:

“Guards watch us. They wrap us around in barbed wire fences like an orange’s meat
that never grows outside its skin. If the orange’s skin breaks,
the juice drains out.
Just like the Japanese behind the wire fence.”

We watched and critiqued the somewhat flawed film, ComeSeetheParadise,5 and talked about the laws that forbade Japanese nationals from becoming citizens or owning land. Students read loyalty oaths imprisoned Japanese-American citizens were forced to sign. After learning about the “No No Boys,” men who refused to sign the oath, and their subsequent imprisonment in federal penitentiaries, students argued about whether or not they would have signed the loyalty oath if they’d been interned.6

Students also looked at the number of immigrant Chinese allowed in the country compared to European immigrants. For example, in 1943 when Congress repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act because of China’s alliance with the United States against the Japanese, 105 Chinese were allowed to enter Angel Island while 66,000 English immigrants passed through Ellis Island.7


Students started on their own projects during the same time period I presented the Chinese and Japanese immigration. They had two 30-minute sessions the first week to discuss what they knew, itemize what they needed to find, and list the resources they had (people to interview, books at home, potential videos to use, outside resources like Vietnamese, Russian, or Latino teachers or districtwide coordinators.) During the following weeks, while I continued my presentations, they were given varied amounts of time to conduct research: 45 minutes to prepare for the library, a full day at the library, additional 90-minute periods as we got closer to deadline, etc.

At the end of each period of “research/ preparation” time, students turned their information in to me so I could see if they made headway, ran into a block, needed a push or help. During this research period, I moved between groups, listening in, asking questions, making lists of questions they raised, but didn’t answer, questioning literary choices when a piece was by a writer from the immigration group but didn’t deal with any of the issues we were studying.

During this time, it was not unusual to see some of my students gathered around a television in the hallway outside my door or in the library as they watched and critiqued videos, looking for potential sections to show to the class. Travis, Roman, and Sophia, who were individual researchers, could be seen translating notes or cassette tapes for their stories. Sometimes they met to talk over stories or ideas for their presentation.

The Mexican group had the most members — too many, really. They watched videos together and then split the rest of the work: Danica and Komar collected and read books to find a story; Shannon researched Cesar Chavez and wrote a profile to hand out to the class; Heather gathered information fora debate on Proposition 187; Stephanie and Stacey coordinated the group, collecting information from each subgroup, fitting research into a coherent lesson plan, and creating a writing lesson that would pull information together for the class; Rosa, the only group member fluent in Spanish, talked with recent immigrants in ESL classes and the Latino coordinator to find speakers, videos, and stories to feed to her group.

Before I end up sounding like a movie script starring Michelle Pfeiffer, let me quickly insert into this idyllic classroom a word or two of other things you might see: kids whining and competing for my attention, RIGHT NOW; students gossiping about a fight, a guess-who’s-going-out-with…, an upcoming game, or a movie they saw last night; a sly student attempting to take advantage of the chaos to catch up on math or Spanish; the slippery students who said they were going to the library or to see an ESL coordinator, but who actually sneaked into the teachers’ cafeteria for coffee or outside for a smoke. There were also two students who attended regularly and might have learned something through other people’s work, but who produced no work themselves, and a few others who rode the backs of their group’s work, contributing a little in spurts, but not making the sustained efforts of most students. The ESL coordinators and librarians and I developed an easy communication system regarding passes. I called students and parents at home to talk about their lack of work. While the calls pushed the back-riding students who made some effort, I failed to bring the “slackers” into the research fold.

Besides the usual chaos a teacher might expect when turning over the curriculum to students, I simultaneously hit another problem. I’d set up immigrant groups that I knew would have some interesting and contradictory stories because I was familiar with their history and literature. While students did accept some of the groups I’d proposed: Mexican, Haitian,

Cambodian, Irish, and Vietnamese, others argued vehemently that they be allowed to choose the immigrant group they would study. Our previous lessons on resistance and solidarity had certainly taken root within each of the class members, and I was the object of their solidarity. A few wanted to research their own family’s immigration stories: Greek, Jewish, Macedonian, and Russian. Several African American students wanted to study immigrants from Africa or from the African Diaspora. Most were happy to study Haiti, one of my original groups; one student chose to study Eritrea, since Portland has a larger population of Eritreans than Haitians. I agreed; in fact, he made an excellent choice. We ended our first rounds with the following research groups: Cambodians, Eritreans8, Greeks, Haitians, Irish, Jewish, Macedonians, Mexicans, Russians, and Vietnamese. This first dialogue marked the end of my control over the history and literature presented in class. And I was nervous because I knew almost nothing about Greek and Macedonian immigration and not much more about the Russians.

Ultimately, the contrast between groups made for great discussion. In my class of 31 students, three had immigrated from Vietnam, one from Russia, one from Cambodia; several students were second generation Americans from Greece, Ireland, Nicaragua, and Mexico; half of the class’s ancestors had been enslaved Africans, and one girl’s grandmother was the only surviving member of her family after the Holocaust. But I can imagine a more homogenous classroom where this might not be the case. In my high school

English class over 20 years ago, 29 students were white and one was Black. Around Portland today, I can cite similar profiles. These ratios would have made me demand more diversity in the research if all students wanted to study their own heritage. I do think it is important to negotiate the curriculum with students, and I’m sure some students would be more interested in researching their own past than researching the past of others, but sometimes, in order to surface issues of race and class inequality, it is necessary to move beyond our personal histories.


Prior to the beginning of the unit, I spent time in the public library and the Oregon Historical Society (OHS) library, finding sources, articles, books, practicing computer research programs, before bringing my students across town. OHS officials were friendly and helpful, but told me that I couldn’t bring the entire class to their library: I’d have to bring one or two at a time after school or on Saturdays. And they closed at 5 p.m.

In addition to limited library time, I discovered that the easily accessible research materials did not have a critical page in their spines; they just restated the textbook version. I wanted students to learn the “whole truth,” not just a watered-down version that left out facts that might complicate the issues. I figured that part of research is getting lots of material and then deciding what is important to present so that others hear a fuller truth. But when

I discovered that much of what students were reading only told one side of the immigration story — the same side I learned in high school — I made an effort to put other facts in students’ hands as well. We searched computer files of Ethnic News Watch and alternative news and magazine sources. Although many students dutifully read the computer-generated articles, most of these pieces were too academic or required extensive background knowledge to understand. If we had relied solely on these sources of information — either textbook or alternative — many students would have come away with material that they might have been able to cite and copy into a readable paper, but they wouldn’t have understood much about the underlying political situations their immigrant group faced.

After the library research, I linked students with people or information that might provide facts and stories not available in the library. The Haitian group, for example, read articles but hadn’t comprehended what was going on: Who was Papa Doc? How was the United States involved? What was happening with Aristide? I distributed copies of the Network of Educators on the Americas’ (NECA) booklet Teaching About Haiti, which gave them historical and political analysis they needed in order to make sense of the newspaper and magazine articles. The novel Krik? Krak! by Edwidge Danticat developed their personal connection; she gave faces and voices to the people on the boats, to those who lived in fear. The names in the newspaper became real: Aristide, Tontons Macoutes, boat people, refugees. (The group’s enthusiasm for the novel caught on. I’d purchased five copies, and there were arguments over who got to read Krik? Krak! after group members finished.)

Students became wonderfully devious researchers, using their own connections to gain information. They learned to find back doors when the front doors closed and windows when all of the doors were locked. But sometimes these back door, through-the-window type researches posed another problem: What if personal history omitted vital historical facts and perspectives? While I could help students who studied immigrant groups that I knew something about, I had little time to read and research the Macedonians, Greeks, and Russians. Travis was thoroughly confused when his research revealed a snarled web of history involving Greece, Bulgaria, and a historic trade route through the mountains. His research took him back to 146 B.C., when Rome conquered the Kingdom of Macedonia, and forward to today. He wanted to know why his grandfather immigrated. Instead of untangling the web of Macedonian history, he spent time with his grandfather, talking, asking questions, going through photo albums, relying on his personal relationships to decode the past. He arranged for a day at the Macedonian lodge, where he interviewed men his grandfather’s age about their immigration experiences. Because of my own limited knowledge of events in Macedonia, I let him. This was history via personal story — how much or how little of the history was included, I wasn’t sure.

Likewise, when Meghan and I met one Saturday at the Oregon Historical Society, we discovered the letters James Mullany, an Irish immigrant, wrote to his sister in Ireland in the mid 1800’s. In one letter, he pleaded with his sister not to mention that he was Catholic: “their [sic] is a strong prejudice against them here on account of the people here thinking it was the Priests that caused the Indian war three or four years ago.”9 Interesting. But in another letter he wrote of the Snake Indians who attacked a train of 45 whites, “only 15 survived but some of them died of starvation…[A] company of soldiers…found them living of [sic] the bodyes [sic] of them that were killed by the [I]ndians.”10 Could we count these letters as historic evidence? Whose voices weren’t included? What stories might the Snake Indians have told?

Students using voices of immigrants or novels to tell the history created a dilemma for me: What happens when personal narratives exclude the stories of large groups of other people or neglect important historical facts? When and how do I intervene? If students tell only their own stories or draw on personal testimonies, is that “inaccurate” history? As an English teacher who weaves literature and history together, who values personal stories as eyewitness accounts of events and who encourages students to “tell their stories,” I began to question my own assumptions.

The Vietnamese group, occupying Tri’s corner between the windows and closet, underscored my “history versus personal story” dilemma. Their student-told account emphasized a pro-American stance around the Vietnam War but said nothing, for example, of U.S. support for French colonialism, its creation of “South Vietnam,” or its devastating bombardment of the Vietnamese countryside. How could I challenge the story these students grew up hearing from parents and elders in their community?

With Meghan’s research, we’d studied historical accounts of Native Americans in the Northwest, so we knew that Mullany’s letters lacked facts about land takeovers and Indian massacres. But I didn’t have time to teach the unit on Vietnam that Bill Bigelow and I developed when we taught the class together, so I also worried that the rest of the class would come away without an understanding of the key role the United States played in the Vietnam War; and without that understanding, how would they be able to critique other U.S. interventions?

I talked with Cang, Tri and Thu and gave them resources: a timeline that reviewed deepening U.S. involvement in Vietnam and numerous readings from a critical standpoint. I also introduced them to the film, Hearts and Minds, which features testimony from numerous critics of the war, as well as prominent U.S. antiwar activists like Daniel Ellsberg. Without a sustained dialogue, this insertion seemed weak and invasive. More so than my talks with Travis and Meghan, because their research was at a greater distance from their lives. But I learned a lesson: Personal story does not always equal history. This lingers as a vexing teaching dilemma.


Once presentation deadlines hit, students argued over dates and order — who got to go first, last, etc. Our biggest struggle came around the issue of time. Students lobbied for longer time slots. The Mexican group was especially ardent.

They’d found great movies as well as short stories, informational videos, and a guest speaker from PCUN, the local farm workers union, about working conditions and the boycott of Garden Burgers, a national veggie burger sold in stores and restaurants across the country.11 They figured they needed at least a week, possibly two. We had five weeks left: four for presentations and a last sacred week to finish portfolios and evaluations. Rosa said, “Look how many days you used when you taught us about the Japanese and Chinese. Two weeks on each! Aren’t the Latinos as important as the Asians?” They bargained with single person groups, like the Russians and Greeks, for part of their time.

A week or so prior to presentations, groups submitted detailed lesson plans. I met formally with each group to make sure all requirements were covered, but also questioned choices. During previous weeks, I’d read every proposed story and novel selection, watched each video, went over writing assignments: I didn’t want any surprises on their teaching day.

The power of my students’ teaching was not in just the individual presentations, where students provided historical information in a variety of mostly interesting and unique lesson plans, but also in the juxtaposition of these histories and stories. Students created a jazz improvisation, overlaying voices of pain and struggle and triumph with heroic attempts to escape war, poverty, or traditions that pinched women too narrowly into scripted roles. Their historical research and variety of voices taught about a more varied history of immigration than I’d ever attempted to do in the past.

But the presentations were also like improvisation in that they were not as tightly connected and controlled as a rehearsed piece I would have conducted. There were off notes and unfinished strands that seemed promising but didn’t deliver an analysis that could have strengthened student understanding of immigration. Few students found research on quotas, few had time left in their presentation to engage in a discussion that linked or compared their group to another. The Haitian group, for example, tied our past studies of Columbus and the Tainos to present Haiti, but didn’t develop the history of Duvalier or Aristide or the involvement of the United States.

Although presentations varied in length and depth, most gave us at least a look at a culture many students weren’t familiar with, and at best, a strong sense that not only did racial and political background determine who gets in to this country, but also how they live once they arrive.

The Cambodian group arranged for Sokpha’s mother to come to class, as well as a viewing of the film, The Killing Fields. Sokpha’s mother told of her life in Cambodia, of hiding in the deep tunnels her father built to keep them safe from

U.S. bombs, of her fear of snakes at the bottom of the tunnel that scared her almost as much as the bombs. She talked about the Khmer Rouge, the Vietnamese, and the United States. On her father’s death bed, he said, “Go to America. Leave Cambodia.” She did. Shoeless, nine months pregnant with Sokpha, and carrying a three year old on her back, she walked for three days and three nights from Cambodia into Thailand, dodging land mines that killed some of her fellow travelers. She also spoke of difficulties here — how her lack of language skills have kept her from finding a good job, her reliance on Sokpha, the breakdown of their culture, the Americanization of her children.

The Haitians presented background history tying the modern struggle in Haiti with previous history lessons; their strengths were chilling descriptions of the refugees, their choice of story, their research into Haitian culture, and their writing assignment. Read aloud by a male and a female student, the two-voice story, “Children of the Sea,” portrayed a political young man who dared to speak out against the Haitian government, writing to his lover as he rides a sinking boat in search of refuge in the United States. His lover writes of the increased military violence of the Tontons Macoutes, who make parents have sex with their children, rape and torture suspected supporters of Aristide (Danticat).

Cang, from the Vietnamese group, recounted Vietnam’s history through a timeline. Thu’s stories of escape and life in the refugee camps created nightmare scenes for her fellow students of drownings, rapes, and the difficulties of families who got separated. Tri pointed out the geographical settlements of immigrant Vietnamese and their induction into the United States. He talked about the struggle of the Vietnamese shrimp fisherman in the Gulf, the attempts of the KKK to drive the fishermen out of the region12, and the creation of Little Saigon in California, a space where the Vietnamese have forged a community inside the United States, not unlike many immigrants who came before them.

The student writing assignments generated excellent poems and personal narratives. After Sophia spoke about her mother’s experiences, she said her inheritance from her mother was the strength to pursue her goals even when she faces opposition. Her assignment for the class: “Write about something you treasure from your family. It might be an heirloom, like a ring, but it can also be a story, a memory, a tradition, a personal trait. Write it as a poem, a personal narrative, or a story.” Komar Harvey wrote an essay about his family’s love of music:

“You can hear music on the porch before you enter our house. Tunes climb through those old vinyl windows and mailbox and drift into everybody’s ears in the neighborhood. If you came during the holiday season you could hear the Christmas bells chiming through the static of that old crackling phonograph needle. You hear the rumbling voice of Charles Brown as if he were digging a hole up in the living room, ‘Bells will be ringing’… Nobody graces our door during those Christmas months without a little Charles ringing his bells in their ears.”

After talking about the efforts of his grandfather’s struggles to get to the United States, Travis asked students to write a personal narrative about an obstacle they overcame in their life. Cang wrote about his difficulty learning English in the face of classmates’ ridicule. His narrative had a profound effect on students. I have not changed or corrected his language because it is part of the story:

[After he left Vietnam, he was in the Philippines.] “In 1989 we came to America. That’s when I started to go to school. I went to all of the classes I had, but I felt the blonde and white-skinned people not respected me. They make joke over the way I talk … I’ll never give up, I say to myself … One day I’m going to be just like them on talking and writing, but I never get to that part of my life until now. Even if I can understand the word, but still I can’t pronounce it, if I do pronounce it, it won’t end up right. Truly, I speak Vietnamese at home all the time, that’s why I get used to the Vietnamese words more than English, but I’ll never give up what I have learned. I will succeed with my second language.”

The Mexican group took several days for their presentation. They taught about the theft of Mexican land by the United States, immigration border patrols, the effect of toxic sprays on migrant workers, the migrants’ living conditions in Oregon. During this time, we also debated Proposition 187: Should the United States deny services to illegal immigrants? Then the presenters asked the class to write a persuasive essay taking a point of view on the question.

One day we watched the movie Mi Familia, about a “Mexican” family whose original homeland was in California. As we watched, we ate tamales and sweet tacos that Rosa and her mother-in-law lugged up three flights of stairs. Then we wrote food poems that tied us to our culture. Sarah LePage’s “Matzah Balls” is a tribute to her grandmother:

“Grandma’s hands, wise, soft, and old, mold the Matzah meal
between the curves of each palm.
She transforms our heritage into perfect little spheres.
Like a magician
she shapes our culture as our people do.
This is her triumph.
She lays the bowl aside revealing her tired hands, each wrinkle a time
she sacrificed something for our family.”


On our last day, students overwhelmingly voted that immigration was the unit they both learned the most from and cared the most about. Komar, the first to speak, said, “I never realized that Cambodians were different from Vietnamese. Sokpha’s family went through a lot to get here, so did Tri’s, Thu’s and Cang’s.” Stacey, a member of the Haitian group added, “I learned that the United States isn’t just black and white. I learned that my people are not the only ones who have suffered in this country.” Khalilah noted that she hadn’t realized what research really meant until she struggled to find information about the Haitians. While others added similar points about various groups or presentations they learned from, Travis summed up the conversation by saying, “I didn’t know anything about Proposition 187 or the discrimination immigrants have faced because that wasn’t part of my family’s history. I didn’t know that there was discrimination about who got in and who was kept out of the United States, and now I do.”

I felt that students learned from each other about immigrants’ uneven and unfair treatment. The Statue of Liberty’s flame and rhetoric had met with a history, told by students, that dimmed her light. But they had also learned lessons that would alter their interactions with the “Chinese” — actually Korean — store keeper at the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. and Fremont. At Jefferson, one of the most offensive scenes I have witnessed in the hallways or classrooms is the silencing of immigrant Asian, Russian, and Mexican students as they speak their own languages or struggle to speak English. Throughout the year, Cang, Thu, and Tri’s personal testimony during discussions or read-arounds about the pain of that silencing as well as their stories about fighting with their parents or setting off fire crackers in their school in Vietnam created much more awareness in our classroom than any lecture could have. I credit our study of history, for example, the Mexican-American War, as part of that change, but through this student-led unit on immigration, I watched students crack through stereotypes they had nurtured about others. Students who sat by their lockers on C-floor were no longer lumped together under the title “Chinese”; they became Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian. Students no longer mimicked the sound of their speech as a put down. Latino students who spoke Spanish near the door on the west side of the building were no longer seen as outsiders who moved into the neighborhood with loud cars and lots of children, but as political exiles in a land that had once belonged to their ancestors. The Russian students who moved together like a small boat through the halls of Jefferson were no longer odd, but seekers of religious freedom.

Throughout fourth quarter, I tossed and turned at night questioning my judgment about asking students to teach such an important part of history — and the consequence that much history would not be taught. But after hearing their enthusiasm and their changed perceptions about their classmates, the world and research, I put my critique temporarily on hold. Turning over the classroom circle to my students allowed them to become the “experts” and me to become their student. While I lost control and power over the curriculum and was forced to question some key assumptions of my teaching, I gained an incredible amount of knowledge — and so did they.


Asian Women United of California, Making Waves: An Anthology of Writings by and about Asian American Women (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1989).

Chin, Frank, Jefferey Paul Chan, Lawson Fusao Inada, Shawn Wong, Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Chinese American and Japanese American Literature (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1991).

Danticat, Edwidge, Krik? Krak! (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1991).

Gesensway, Deborah and Mindy Roseman, Beyond Words: Images from America’s Concentration Camps (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1987).

Harvey, Komar, Khalilah Joseph, Sarah LePage, “We Treasure Music.” Rites of Passage (Portland, OR: Jefferson High School, 1996).

Houston, Jeanne Wakatsuki and James D. Houston, Farewell to Manzanar (Boston: San Francisco Book Company/ Houghton Mifflin, 1973).

Inada, Lawson Fusao, Legends from Camp (Minneapolis, MN: Coffee House Press, 1993).

Kim, Elaine H., Asian American Literature (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1982).

Lai, Him Mark, Genny Lim, Judy Yung, Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island 1910 1940(San Francisco, CA: San Francisco Study Center, 1986). PO Box 5646, San Francisco, CA 94101.

Lowe, Felicia, Carved in Silence (San Francisco, CA: National Asian American Telecommunications Association, 1988). 415-552-9550.

Okada, John, No-No Boy (Boston: Charles E. Tuttle Co, 1957).

Sone, Monica, Nisei Daughter (Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 1979). (Originally printed in 1953 by Little Brown and Company.)

Sunshine, Catherine A. and Deborah Menkhart, Teaching About Haiti — 3rd Edition (Washington, DC: Network of Educators on the Americas, 1994). 202-806-7277.

Takaki, Ronald, Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans(New York: Viking Penguin, 1989).

Yamada, Mitsuye, Camp Notes (San Lorenzo, CA: Shameless Hussy Press, 1976).


1 Ronald Takaki, Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans (New York: Viking Penguin, 1989, p. 237).

2 Him Mark Lai, Genny Lim, Judy Yung, Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island 1910 1940 (San Francisco: HOC DOI, 1986, p. 58).

3 I have to thank my former student Mira Shimabukuro, who pointed out my own lack of attention to these groups, and Lawson Inada, professor at Southern Oregon State College, who served as my mentor in these studies.

4 Many of the student poems used in this article are printed in our literary magazine, Rites of Passage. The magazine may be purchased through the NECA catalogue or by contacting me at Jefferson High School, 5210 N. Kerby St., Portland, OR 97217.

5 For example, like many films about an oppressed people, Come See the Paradise, features a white man in the lead role.

6 Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston, Farewell to Manzanar (Boston: San Francisco Book Company/ Houghton Mifflin, 1973, p. 58).

7 Felicia Lowe, Carved in Silence (San Francisco: National Asian American Telecommunications Association, 1988).

8 The student studying Eritreans left school, so I will not report on his project.

9 Letters from James Mullany to his sister Mary Mullany, August 5, 1860. Oregon Historical Society Mss 2417, p. 10.

10 Mullany, November 5, 1860, p.14.

11 For more information on the boycott, write PCUN, 300 Young St., Woodburn, OR 97071 or call them at (503) 982-0243.

12 See the film Alamo Bay, which despite its “white hero main character” flaw, does tell some of the story of Vietnamese immigrant fishermen.

Linda Christensen (LChrist@AOL.com) is a Rethinking Schools editorial associate. She is on sabbatical from Jefferson High School in Portland, Ore.