Amina Mohamed’s English-language learner students read along with her during story time at Glenwood Elementary.
“There was an old woman who swallowed a pie, a Thanksgiving pie, which was really too dry,” they read. The story continued, punctuated by giggles and expressions of concern at all of the things the old woman ate.
Books are one tool Mohamed uses to reach her students, first- through fifth-graders who come from 17 countries. While Thanksgiving is as American as apple pie, her classroom is a treasure trove of multicultural books, handpicked herself, that depict students’ countries and cultures. Mohamed sees children make connections as they turn the pages.
Editor’s note: This story contains an obscenity widely reported to have been used by President Trump. We regret having to use the word, but after much discussion decided it was necessary in order to convey the insult felt by Amina Mohamed, and her concern for the self-image of immigrant and refugee students.
“I always tell people that kids are very conscious of their backgrounds,” she said. “They are much more conscious than we think they are. I want them to see a book and be like, ‘Oh, that’s about me!’ and feel that sense of pride and empowerment in who they are.”
Mohamed knows the value of speaking many languages and having roots in more than one culture. She celebrates it with her students, immigrants and children of immigrants, many of whom are refugees. The message she continually conveys to them is: You are American. You are also Congolese or Burmese or Haitian or Mexican or Vietnamese or Chinese or Cuban or Nepalese. Apple pie pairs well with ethnic cuisine.
“I think there is a place to hold onto their culture and be part of this grand American culture,” said Mohamed. “It’s very much possible to do both. Success is not contingent upon the background that you come from. I try to be a living example of that.
“You don’t have to look a certain way or sound a certain way to be successful.”
Let’s Talk about How We Talk
Mohamed, who has taught at Glenwood for three years, grew up in Abu Dhabi, the capital of United Arab Emirates. Her mother is from Kenya and her dad from Somalia. She speaks English, Swahili, Barawa and Arabic.
“There is value in knowing another language,” she said, stressing that multilingualism is beneficial for more than just improving career potential. She wants her students to know English, but to keep using their native language too, because it is part of who they are: “There is value in that inherently, just by itself.”
But children are often embarrassed to speak their native language, she said.
“Even those who are born here in the U.S. are very aware that their home culture is very different than the culture of their classmates. They are not the dominant culture. They aren’t white students whose parents speak English. That’s the same background as me. I don’t speak English at home.”
Mohamed moved to Michigan, where she has relatives, in 2011 after her family was selected in the U.S. Green Card Lottery. She earned her bachelor’s degree in education at Grand Valley State University and will graduate from the GVSU master’s program in April.
“There are lots of parallels between my background and my students’ backgrounds,” she said. “Also, given my fluency in other languages, I knew (teaching ELL) was my calling and where I could make the biggest impact.”
Second-grade teacher Adam Munoz said Mohamed brings a unique background to Glenwood, and that she has challenged teachers to rethink instruction so ELL students, who spend a chunk of their days with Mohamed, grasp a deeper understanding of content.
“Miss Mohamed is a huge resource to our teachers, as well as our students,” Munoz said. “Her love and enthusiasm for her students is evident by the smiles, hugs, and high fives that they receive on a daily basis.
“Miss Mohamed is able to relate to her students because she has walked in their shoes, and is able to break down information in a way that students understand.”
Second-grade teacher Jessica Spence said Mohamed has brought important perspectives to the staff and is a “game changer” in education.
“Her background as an immigrant brings with it a passion to give students texts and experiences that are diverse and relatable,” Spence said. “I remember Amina telling about her experience as a reader thinking, ‘Where are characters with names like mine?’
“That is a powerful thought that I, as a white American, have had the privilege not to have to think about growing up. So many of the students we serve do not have this privilege.”
Lifting Up Role Models
Last semester, Mohamed took the idea of challenging students to think deeper and started iLEAD, which stands for Institute for Leadership, Empowerment, Activism and Dialogue. Seventeen Kentwood Public Schools elementary students spent three months researching successful immigrants who have backgrounds similar to their own, including business people, musicians, politicians and activists. Local immigrants also visited to share their stories.
Students’ work culminated in a Student Wax Museum Exhibition, during which local immigrants judged their projects. She plans to start a second cohort of iLEAD.
‘I want them to see a book and be like, “Oh, that’s about me!” and feel that sense of pride and empowerment in who they are.’ — Amina Mohamed, teacher of English-language learners
Mohamed’s vision is to demonstrate that immigrants coming to the U.S. is not a new trend. They have been coming for centuries and many are excellent role models for her students.
“There are lots of people who have walked their paths and they have led very successful lives here in the U.S. Just because people don’t mention that Steve Jobs comes from a refugee background or that Barack Obama’s father was an immigrant, it doesn’t mean they don’t have that background. I wanted them to be able to see that.”
She also wants iLEAD to have a far-reaching effect: “for the larger community to see that immigrants and refugees have had a huge impact here in America. They are not deficient. They are not empty vessels for us to fill in with English and American culture. They have their own culture and they can also have American culture.”
Munoz said students are in awe of Mohamed and many say they want to become a teacher, just like her. “In a sense, they see themselves in Miss Mohamed and (she) knows what the students are challenged by. It is a perfect yin-and-yang relationship.”
Said second-grader Christina Soe, “Miss Mohamed inspires me to do good in school.”
“She’s kind. She’s nice and she helps me with my homework. She helps me learn,” said second-grader Melody Sang.
Third-grader Ruth Sang studied news anchor Betty Nguyen, an immigrant from Vietnam, for iLEAD. She said she now wants to become a news reporter herself.
Teaching Immigrants During a Polarized Time
Mohamed said she tries to take an unbiased framework when teaching, while not glossing over issues and current events. She wants to teach students how to think, not what to think. But she realizes what she is up against, with anti-immigrant rhetoric and proposed changes to immigration law coming out of the White House.
“I would definitely not have been able to come into this country if it had not been for that lottery. A lot of people I know including myself would not be in the country if (newly proposed laws) would be implemented.”
Last month, President Trump reportedly referred to Haiti and African countries as “shithole”countries. It’s a comment Mohamed can’t help but take personally.
“I come from a shithole country in his eyes,” she asserted. “We are not deficient. We are not shithole people. We have a culture and we have had an impact here in America. I am not going to wait for my students to say, ‘Do I come from a shithole country?’ I do not want them to get to that point where they ever feel like that.”
That and other current events surrounding immigration are tough issues to address with students, she said.
“What the president says is not a reflection of who they are,” Mohamed said. “Even at a very young age sometimes they are taking it as a joke, as many people do, but this man has power. He is changing laws and policies. I don’t think at this age they have fully comprehended the severity of what this man is doing and the effects of what he’s doing in the long run.”
It is no doubt a complicated, confusing time for immigrant students.
But in Mohamed’s classroom, where books show people’s stories matter and success comes from all ethnicities, religions and countries, students relate to a young teacher who sees herself in them — as they do in her.