WASHINGTON — The homework assignment scribbled on the blackboard in the seventh-grade social studies class read: "Draw what you think a typical immigrant in the year 2000 looks like."
One handout was a crossword puzzle with questions like "What's happening to Asian and Latin American countries today that causes many immigrants to come to the U.S.?"
All 240 seventh-graders at Gunston Middle School in suburban Arlington, Va., have spent the last month plunging into the history of immigration in the United States. For most of them, the lesson doesn't go back very far.
About 65% of Gunston's students are either themselves immigrants or the children of immigrants. And many say the immigration project has made them feel that their lives are an important part of U.S. history.
"I actually felt sort of proud to be an immigrant at this school," said Bangladeshi native Madiha Khan, 13, as she listed facts she had learned about her old country from her parents as part of a class assignment. "The food is spicy. We used to be part of India, and we are mostly Muslims. My parents really wanted to come here so I could have a better life. We are actually studying something that I am a part of."
The project, which lasts eight weeks and spans English, math, social studies and computer classes, included an Ellis Island reenactment in the school cafeteria. Students were packed onto "boats" and got squirted with water--to simulate the chilly ocean journey--and they weren't allowed to utter sentences longer than two words, so they could better understand the language barrier immigrants faced.
"This is the unit that the students get instantly," said Barbara Formoso, who teaches English to Gunston's immigrant students. "For once, it's in their backgrounds. For once, they are the experts. You may talk about the American Revolution, but that's not something they can bring a lot to."
Increasingly, schools nationwide with large immigrant populations are using classroom lessons to help students take pride in their heritage and share their roots. The units help foreign-born students feel accepted and increase empathy for the immigrant experience among American-born students, educators say.
"Students suddenly realize that their families are not that weird," said Pastora San Juan Cafferty, a University of Chicago social policy professor. "I think that, too often, the immigrant experience is not seen as a continuum. Somehow we treat this as if it never happened before."
In the halls of Gunston, maps of Africa and Central America and Asia are pasted above lockers. And many students said they now feel more sympathy toward their parents, whom they sometimes have been ashamed of because of their accents and different ways of dressing.
"Everybody was an immigrant at one point," said Julie Brobeck, 13, whose parents are from Spain and Cuba. "I guess I never realized that."
Formoso assigned her students to interview their parents about why they came to the United States, what their expectations were and how those have changed. They used the information to write an essay called "Hardships and Dreams."
Willy Ekasone, 12, a small boy with spiky black hair, learned more about Laos, his parents' native country. "I also learned how immigrants were treated badly, like my parents," he said. "It took them a long time to get jobs and get money."
Teachers said they also discuss arguments against immigration, and sometimes students--even those with immigrant backgrounds--don't want more people coming to this country.
Madiha recalled how she sometimes felt left out around non-immigrant students, so she melded into American life. Her favorite male pop band is 'N Sync, whose photos are taped inside her locker.
But sometimes she wants people to know she's from Bangladesh. And now, she said, it seems a little easier to explain.