States as refugees. My father had been
taken by terrorists and my uncle became
like a father to me. This was the hardest
challenge I have ever faced. I put his
photo here in my poster to let people
know how much I love him.
Abdar shared his tremendous sense
of loss when he thought his father had
The hardest challenge I have ever faced
was during the Iraq War when the ter-
rorists took my dad for many years. . . .
When I came to the United States, we
got a call from my family in Iraq and I
heard my dad saying “I am still alive.” I
was so happy when I heard those words!
As students shared these intense
personal stories in our photovoice
sessions, their peers supported
them. In turn, those peers felt comfortable sharing their own stories of
struggle both in and out of school.
Attending to the contexts of these
students’ resettlement opened up new
pathways for communication and
Although participants reported many
difficulties—such as the struggle
to learn English, discrimination in
schools and communities, and feelings
of loneliness and disconnectedness
from others—they repeatedly returned
to the strength of their families and
how family members helped them
become resilient and successful.
Amparo, a student from Mexico,
What is special about my immigrant
family is that we like to stay together.
The challenging part for my family and
I is that we don’t have family in the U.S.
with us. We’re alone in this country.
I would describe my home life and
culture as powerful, strong, and united.
The importance of family took on
Recognizing Every Student’s Story
another level of importance when
we worked with refugee students
from Muslim communities, some of
whom had faced stereotypes that they
or members of their families were
“terrorists.” Masud from Sudan shared,
I am proud to be Muslim, because my
religion represents peace, love, respect,
and many other things. I want people
to understand Islam and know that we
aren’t terrorists, and that we are good
Every student’s story matters—and
every immigrant student possesses
great resilience and determination.
Throughout our project, we saw
how each student had to process his
or her own individual difficulties in
relocating to this country. Many stu-
dents’ posters included a request to
others in school to support them in
facing obstacles. Mateo from Mexico
wrote, “People should understand that
just because immigrants are born in a
different country, it doesn’t make them
different; we are just the same as you.”
Posters also revealed how students
found ways to overcome problems they
encountered—and affirm the positives
in their situations. Leyla acknowl-
edged the difficulties of being a refugee
from Iraq (“It is a hard thing because
we left our home, family, and friends
behind”), but also the good side (“It
is special to be an immigrant because
I am free and get to do what I want
to do. I love that we are here in the
United States safely”). Mirlande wrote,
It was sad at first to live here, but now
I want to stay here because I can go to
school and learn. . . . I go to a beautiful
school, where I make new friends and
have great teachers. Living in Colorado
is the best for me because I am safe and
I am learning. . . . I can go back to Haiti
when I am done with college and help
my family, just like they helped me.
Amplifying Their Voices
Sharing their stories with peers,
teachers, and the broader community
empowered the newcomers in our district. Some people say projects like this
“give students a voice.” The reality is
that these immigrant students already
had strong voices. Photovoice gave us
a way to turn the volume up, to highlight the personal stories, challenges,
and gifts English language learners can
bring to our public schools. EL
1Delgado, M. (2012). Urban youth and
photovoice: Visual ethnography in action.
New York: Oxford University Press.
Author’s note: All student names are
Kevin Roxas ( firstname.lastname@example.org) is
assistant professor of secondary education at Western Washington University
in Bellingham. María L. Gabriel (maria
email@example.com) is family, community, and equity coordinator at Poudre
School District in Fort Collins, Colorado.
These strategies help motivate and
support English language learners—
especially recent immigrants.
n Create times for ELLs to share
with one another about their lives
and their challenges in and out of
school. It empowers students to
hear one another’s messages—
those reflecting loneliness, struggle,
and pain and those reflecting happiness, healing, and success.
n Build community among students. As we created a stable group
in which participants felt safe and
supported, they began to reach out
to and help one another in ways they
n Let students connect tasks and
assignments to their personal lives.
Students wrote a lot when facilitators gave them topics that connected closely to their lives. Starting
assignments with photographs
removed some of the fear of writing
in English. Scaffolding from students’ home languages helped ease
them into speaking in English.
n Remember that each student
matters. Our work is to honor ELLs’
stories and what they contribute to
our school community.