Getting students to write can be difficult. Getting them to write in a non-native language can be even more difficult, according to Jason Velante, an ESL (English as a second language) teacher in the Paterson school district. But Velante, who has been teaching for 17 years, found a way to encourage his students to write about a subject they know very well: the experience of coming to America.

After P.S. 21 in Paterson hosted a Hispanic heritage assembly, Velante gave his grades 3-7 ESL students — all immigrants — in the school a writing prompt: “Why I came to America.” The stories flowed from the students. When he saw the student’s responses, he knew they had to be shared.

The stories told by the students, ages 8-12, are both heartwarming and heart-rending. In many cases, they are the stories that immigrants to America have told for generations.

Some samples of the student writing provide a glimpse of their lives:

  • “I came because I want a new future for me; I also hope my sister might have a future,” said one fourth-grade girl, “my father brought me here. I have not seen my mother in two years.”
  • “I want to be an adult doctor so I can take care of my mother and protect her when she is old…I came here because this country is better for studying…,” said a third-grade girl.
  • “In my country it was too dangerous to go out on the street,” wrote another fourth-grader. “Almost nobody can go outside.”

The higher-level students wrote directly in English, while the younger students wrote first in Spanish, then translated the narratives into English using translation tools. The students then edited the stories.

Velante gathered the stories together from his 70 students and published them in a black and white, softcover book format.

To fundraise for the project, he sold the books, mostly to the school staff, for $5 each. That sum paid for two books — one which was provided to the “benefactor” and one to the author. “Each student author got a free book,” Velante said. “Five dollars may not seem like a lot but some of these kids might back out of a field trip because of a five dollar charge, so we made sure to fundraise enough so that every child got their own copy.”

The students were thrilled to see their work in print form. Copies of the book are in the Passaic County Public Library, as well as in the “Jerseyana” section of the New Jersey State Library. “Now we are trying to get the book into the Library of Congress in Washington,” said Velante.

The children did a reading from the book at the library, and a reading for Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter. The project also garnered media attention, with local television and newspaper coverage.

According to Velante, he has seen a beneficial “spillover” effect from the project on his students. The children have gained confidence. “Newcomers are generally very shy,” he said, “there is a period of time when you come to a new country as you are adjusting; you observe and try to stay invisible.” The “Why I Came to America” project has encouraged the students to speak up more.

The students were surprised and delighted by one adult’s story that was included in the book — that of Velante himself. His parents immigrated from the Phillipines some 40 years ago. “My parents secretly eloped shortly before my mom came to the U.S.; and after a year, she was able to sponsor him to come to this country. He arrived with $30 in his pocket and they celebrated at a local hamburger joint in New Jersey,” he said. After spending 40 years here and raising three children, Velante’s parents still celebrate at the same local restaurant.

Velante, who also serves as a member of the Wanaque Board of Education, accepted a School Leader “Outstanding Program” award at Workshop 2019 for the “Why I Came to America” program. The School Leader award showcases creative programs in New Jersey schools.

Janet Bamford is managing editor of School Leader magazine