What Not to Teach Third Graders

This news story out of Duluth, Ga. yesterday caught our attention. It spotlights a homework assignment given to third-graders at a Gwinnett County elementary school. One of the stories the students were expected to read bore the title What is an Illegal Alien?

“Illegal alien” is, of course, the pejorative term that immigration opponents use to stigmatize undocumented immigrants. That was bad enough in a class assignment for third graders.

But there was more. One of the questions on the assignment read:

What does the U.S. do with illegal aliens?

A. The U.S. puts them to work in the army.
B. The U.S. shoots them into outer space.
C. The U.S. puts them to death.
D. The U.S. sends them back where they came from.

Curious, we did some research. The lesson comes from edhelper.com, an on-line shop for educational resources. This website requires a subscription. But here is a portion of the offensive story:

It begins:

1    Sam was playing with Buster, his pet terrier, in the backyard. Taylor called and asked if he could come over.

2    "Sure!" Sam told his friend. "I'll be in the backyard. Just come through the side gate."
3     Sam heard Taylor coming down the walkway. Taylor hurried up to the gate, swung it open, and entered the backyard. He closed the gate behind him.
4     The two friends greeted each other. Then they began to play with Buster. What a shock they had when a third boy jumped the fence into Sam's backyard!”

Fortunately, the Gwinnett County School District concluded that “the material was not appropriate for the classroom.” That’s putting it mildly. We encourage healthy discussions about immigration in the United States within the classroom, even with third-graders. However, this particular lesson—with its marked political slant—was appalling and inappropriate.

Teaching Tolerance offers free resources that can lead to thoughtful discussions about immigration. A few of them cam be found here, here and here

And as providers of teaching resources, we have to wonder how many other school districts use this lesson or others like it. What is the process by which teachers judge these materials? And how much of this stuff is out there?

We’d like to know. If you have any personal experiences that might shed light on this, please post them in the comments section.

Williamson is associate editor at Teaching Tolerance.


A couple of posters seemed a

Submitted by Alan Zisser on 31 May 2011 - 3:00pm.

A couple of posters seemed a little too focused on whether the terminology "illegal alien" is offensive; rather than the overall issue of using this "lesson" with 3rd graders, which is totally negative, biased, and inappropriate for small children. It is clear that whomever put the lesson together, has a political agenda. I am pleased to see that the local school board pulled the lesson and is dealing with it, but concerned as to how prevalent this is. People need to get past the pettiness of "alien vs. immigrant" and "illegal vs. undocumented". The big issue is how do we as a country deal with immigration problem in a fair, reasonable, and humane way. These are not evil criminals. Being undocumented is a misdemeanor crime, and could be equated to stealing bread to feed your family. I volunteer teach a U.S. citizenship class to mostly working class Mexican immigrants, who all are legal "aliens" with green cards and qualified for citizenship. But I know that some of them were once illegal. But without exception, it is my impression that these are hardworking, honest, respectable people who are just trying to make a good life for themselves. It is also my impression that they don't really care about whether people call them aliens or immigrants, but I avoid the "alien" word because it is an old fashioned word (of my generation) that now has a negative connotation to it, even though it simply means someone from a foreign country. It also is old fashioned since alien has become more commonly associated with outer space creatures. Bottomline is that we shouldn't be teaching our children that these are horrible people, and that maybe the U.S. kills them off (as one of the possible multiple choices). Ironically, so many people who take this nativist attitude are also the benefactors of their work as housekeepers, restaurant workers, roofers, and of course agricultural field workers. Maybe a more kind and humane attitude could make this issue more resolvable.

I submitted this to the

Submitted by aboveriver on 28 May 2011 - 5:14am.

I submitted this to the edhelper comments form -

This lesson is educationally defunct and not only over simplifies complex policy matters at a grade level students need to understand more, but can also add to negative outcomes such as the entrenchment of racism and classism. This lesson ignores the American history of stealing land from Native Americans, unilateral and ignored treaty obligations after the Mexican-American war, the history of the bracero program and contemporary policy matters in its context.

If edHelper is to be considered as a possible resource by myself and other educators, then lessons such as these shouldn't be in here.

Academically yours

I was amazed by this and the

Submitted by Amy McMullen on 27 March 2011 - 5:08pm.

I was amazed by this and the Duluth paper article. So I wrote about it and constructed my own version of how the lesson should have been written: http://thepragmaticprogressive.org/wp/2011/03/27/immigration-for-third-graders/

Wonderful post! I would use

Submitted by aboveriver on 28 May 2011 - 5:19am.

Wonderful post! I would use the whole discourse for A.P. Political Science right on down to elementary Social Studies! : )

Very nice! If you cannot be

Submitted by Stephen Villano on 27 March 2011 - 10:46pm.

Very nice! If you cannot be part of a solution, become a partisan problem!

NEITHER is appropriate for a third grade student. Rather than teach partisan politics, one should EDUCATE our children. Rather than foist our problems upon very young children, teach them what the problem is and explain why it's a problem now and that many people are working to resolve it, but do disagree in various ways.

*I* would have started WITH explaining the TERM illegal alien, explaining its origin and what it means, then move on to the current term of undocumented worker or undocumented alien.
The purpose of education is NOT to distress children, but to TEACH them. Later grades can approach with similar lessons and seek suggestions, teaching of what was tried and what is legal.
In short, teaching knowledge AND problem solving skills. Would one think such solutions are preferable to divisiveness and not teaching solutions?

This is truly shocking! I

Submitted by Jill E. Thomas on 25 March 2011 - 3:22pm.

This is truly shocking! I don't think I've heard the term "illegal alien" in some time, but that probably tells you more about the circle of people I spend most of my time with. Still, just about four years ago I spoke about "illegal immigrants" to a Chicano colleague. He knew me well and knew my politics. This means he knew I wasn't opposed to immigrants coming to the U.S. legally or otherwise. He said calmly to me, "I prefer to use the term 'undocumented immigrants' because people are not illegal." This really stuck with me. Of course he was right. I was shocked to realize I had been so ignorant and I wished to take back every time I had said "illegal immigrant." "Illegal alien" is one step more vulgar and the idea of this terminology and ideology being taught to third graders makes me very said for our country.

Why is that? The term is

Submitted by Keith Moore on 27 March 2011 - 11:58pm.

Why is that? The term is accurate whereas the "sensitive" alternative is not. An immigrant who comes to a country illegally is literally an illegal immigrant and several of the people we refer to as illegal immigrants are actually not immigrants at all, since their intention is to enter the US for seasonal work, and then return home with more money than they could make in Mexico, thus improving the economic security of their families. "Undocumented", however, implies that the person is a legal immigrant who has yet to be officially documented by some agency; one could accurately call a legal immigrant who has not yet been tabulated in a census as "undocumented" because their presence has not yet been registered as an official component of the US population. However, illegal immigrants are neither legal nor are they always undocumented; there are many cases when their illegal status has been documented and is known but no effort is expended to enforce the law. I suppose it's regrettable that certain people choose to pretend that they understand the term "illegal immigrant" to mean that the person themselves is illegal but it is nothing more than pretending; they know what the term means and know what someone who uses the term means by it. There is never a reason to manipulate accurate and meaningful language because a given term is distasteful to some. Third-graders should certainly be taught the commonly-used term and what it means, not a politically-correct alternative that they'll only hear in certain company.

Very sad, not very said.

Submitted by Jill E. Thomas on 26 March 2011 - 3:37pm.

Very sad, not very said.