About Lee-Ann Meredith

"The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." Lao Tzu Lee-Ann Meredith is a second grade teacher, author, Department Chairperson and education advocate who has spent the duration of her time in public education at John B. Murphy Elementary School in inner city Chicago. Often characterized as funny, dynamic, and an independent innovator, Lee-Ann cites her idol as Ms. Frizzle from The Magic School Bus. Fluent in a wide range in instructional strategies for the elementary level, Lee-Ann is dedicated to being an advocate for children everywhere by implementing 'cutting edge' strategies to increase student achievement. Some of the issues that she spearhead included: promoting literacy throughout the building, leading community meetings to advocate for full day kindergarten for all students and helping implement the Responsive Classroom strategies throughout the school. In addition to working closely with the curriculum, she also had the honor to supervise (and mentor into teaching positions) numerous student teachers and practicum students from various post-secondary institutions around the Chicago area such as: Erikson Institute, National Louis, DePaul. Northeaster Illinois, Roosevelt, and North Park Universities.

GlobeOur students often have a difficult time connecting to the big world outside their everyday lives.  I had a rich and in-depth activity that I loved to do with my students to allow them the opportunity to connect themselves to a bigger world and to each other. It often resulted in comments like these:

“My parents came to Chicago from Kosovo in 2000 because of a war.”

“My great-great-great-great, or something, Valentin Schwartz, came from Prussia in 1871 to help rebuild Chicago after the Great Fire.”

“My grandparents came to Chicago in 1968 from Mexico to get a better life for their children.”

“Joseph Jones came to Virginia from England in 1629 as an explorer.”

“We aren’t sure but we think my family might have come from Ghana around 1800. We know my great-great-grandparents lived in Georgia. They came as slaves. Hmmmph!”

After each child reads a few sentences telling about their family’s immigration to the United States, they put a red topped pin into a world map to show their family’s country of origin.

This information came as the result of a homework project the second graders received to complete over a long weekend. It was in the form of a short questionnaire. There were only a few questions:

1. Who was the first person in your family to move to America?
2. What was their name?
3. When did they come?
4. Why did they come?

Every October, I sent a letter home with this project to explain that we were learning about all the reasons people came to America. The other second grade teachers and I filled out the questionnaire ourselves to send home as samples so moms and dads can see what we are looking for. Since my family came in the 1860s from Germany and she emigrated in 1995 from Ecuador, it helped parents to see that we were including us all. Most families willingly searched for the information. There were phone calls made to grandparents. It is always interesting to hear the places and the stories.

This month long unit had two parts. One was the Social Studies goals of realizing we all come from different places, that our family traditions influence our communities, and asking questions and seeking answers about history. The other component was Language Arts.

We read many books about immigration during the month. How Many Days to America? by Eve Bunting is about a family fleeing their homeland due to war. Molly’s Pilgrim, by Barbara Cohen is a story of how everyone’s culture has value. The story of the plaque inside The Statue of Liberty is Emma’s Poem, by Linda Glaser. These enhanced the Social Studies while tying the unit to language arts. We compared and contrasted how characters in a story respond to major events and challenges. We also practiced sequencing by creating timelines and story maps.

Somewhere between Columbus Day and Thanksgiving, we learn why our families made the difficult journey of leaving their homeland to come live in America. This unit is about how we are alike not to discuss who should be here. The school where I taught was over 80% Hispanic with of mix of everything else. Many of the identified Hispanics were, in fact, a mixture of nationalities. I was careful to make families understand this is not a check to find if families are legal. What we find out is that most people came to find a better life for their children, to leave war behind, or simply to make a living.

I encouraged parents to talk to me if they didn’t know their family’s history. I suggested to those parents that they make a reasonable guess as to which country their ancestors originally came from, when and why. For families from Puerto Rico, I asked children to find out the year their family moved to Chicago as they were not truly immigrating but migrating. I suggested moms and dads to be as honest as possible with their child and that included not being sure.

After we pinned our map, we sent it to the other second grade. They completed the activity with blue pins to mark their countries. Each class made a timeline with each child’s name and the year their ancestors, or perhaps themselves, immigrated. We marveled at all the places we began, only to end up in the same classroom in Chicago.

There are always surprises. One year we had two families who were Pilgrims, one came on the Mayflower. The other’s ancestor came two years later. It was fun to realize that their ancestors knew each other and here they were together in our Midwestern urban school a few hundred years later. The Spanish bilingual classroom was excited to have a Russian ancestor in a room full or Latino students. A favorite memory is how after we Emma’s Poem, a boy stunned me by reciting the whole poem from the plaque in the Statue of Liberty, “The New Colossus,” from memory. It obviously struck a cord with him.

The two main problems that occurred were lack of knowledge of family history or a parent’s refusal to participate. I’ve been known to let a child make a reasonable selection of country. “Janice, you have a German last name. That name could come from Germany, Austria, or Switzerland. You get to pick. Now pick a year between 1800 and 1950.” When we write Janice’s name on the timeline we put a “?” after the year. It’s more important she was included than our timeline was perfectly accurate.

Every single year, a parent of European descent sent the homework back to school with a note saying something like, “You can’t mean us?” I usually reply with a note, “You’re Native American? Do you know which tribe?” I sign it with a smiley face and attach it to the sample page of the teachers’ history. Inevitably, the paper comes back completed with an amazing family story.

While this unit was done in second grade, it is worthwhile with any age group. Understanding that we all came to America, often for similar reasons, gives us another chance to build an inclusive community.

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