Mutual Learning Through Conversation


Certain encounters help young students develop values and virtues that open spaces in their minds and hearts so they can see the world and its people in broader terms.

When planning learning experience goals for my 4th graders, I often ask myself, "What is the heart of what we are doing here? Why will we expend time and energy on these activities with the children? What do I learn as their learning guide?" Such reflection sometimes tells me that certain curriculum goals are being met and, at times, that big ideas and powerful shifts in thinking and understanding have occurred in a young learning community. Certain encounters help young students develop values and virtues that open spaces in their minds and hearts so they can see the world and its people in broader terms.

The story I would like to share represents one such learning opportunity. It began when Sam Khazai, a friend of my daughter and a student at the University of Wisconsin, visited our family over winter break. He told us of his family's emigration from Iran during the Revolution, and of the challenges and opportunities they faced in adapting to life in the U.S. We also learned that Sam was in the process of becoming a naturalized citizen.

A New Immigrant Shares His Personal History

An ongoing study of family history and immigration in our social studies program gave a perfect opportunity for the children to enter into dialogue with Sam. I asked him if he would be open to an interview with my class to share more of his story. Interview is an extremely powerful way to engage in learning through the personal power of someone else's story, as many teachers are learning these days. Sam looked forward to the exchange. The interview would begin online and continue in person over the next couple of months.

In class, the children brainstormed a list of questions that we would to send as an e-mail document to Sam. We did not censor the questions, but together evaluated whether we were asking the questions to guide Sam in what we hoped to hear.

Developmentally appropriate for 9- and 10-year-old children, the questions were simple but straightforward.

  • How are you feeling about becoming an American citizen?
  • If you came at 4 years old, why did it take so long to become an American citizen?
  • Why did your family leave Iran?
  • Does your family miss Iran?
  • What do you like about America?
  • Is the way of life differing in Iran than life in the United States of America?
  • What do you think your America job is going to be?

When the group was satisfied with their questions, we pressed the "send" button, and off went our online interview to Sam.

Much to our delight, Sam responded the very next morning. To each question, Sam wrote a one- to two-paragraph answer. I printed out the e-mail and distributed it to the class. We broke into teams to read Sam's responses and then reassembled to discuss what we learned from him.

It was clear that we were lucky to be communicating with a young man who had not only a passion for political science but also a natural ability to connect with children. With each reply, Sam engaged and captivated my students' interest.

How are you feeling about becoming an American citizen?
"... Since I have lived in America for most of my life, I have a good idea of what it means to be an American. Of course, there are certain benefits of becoming a citizen. One good thing is that I will finally be able to vote. Voting is a very important part of being an American. There are many countries that do not allow the people to vote. Also, it will be easier to travel around the world with an American passport. Many people from all over the world dream of becoming a U.S. citizen, and I am very excited about the whole process."

Why did your family leave Iran?
"My family left Iran at a time when things were getting pretty messy there. Iran was going through revolution. That means that one group of people is taking over power of the country from another group. During a revolution, it can be pretty chaotic and even dangerous to live in that country and ... my parents chose to come to America because they thought that it would be a more secure place to raise a family."

Does your family miss Iran?
"Yes, there are many things my family misses about Iran. We miss the beautiful mountains and the Caspian Sea. We miss the marketplaces (called bazaars). We miss the delicious food and the music. But most of all, we miss our family that live there. My mother and father miss being in a familiar place, where everyone talks like them, acts like them, dresses like them and looks like them. However, we have been in America for so long that we all feel that this is our home now."

Is the way of life different in Iran from life in the U.S.?
"Yes, there are many differences. The people speak a different language. Also, they have a different history of experience. Iran, like every country, has different traditions and customs.

People dress differently also. This is partly because of the different climate, and partly because of restrictions that the government puts on how people can dress. Women must wear a jacket over their clothes when they are out in public that covers their whole body and a scarf that covers their hair when they are out in public. This is common in countries that are Islamic.

There are also things that are similar as well. It is important to remember that it does not matter what language we speak, what religion we are, how we look or dress, or even what we eat. We are all still human beings. That is the strongest bond of all, which ties all people together from all across the world."

An Enriched Classroom Discourse

On George Washington's birthday, when I led a classroom discussion about the founding of our nation, I decided to direct the focus about this national holiday back to the story of Sam Khazai, who was taking the test for citizenship. I asked the children if they would like to honor the holiday by giving Sam support for his eventual naturalization process, and they were most enthusiastic. The 4th graders said they would like to draw for him a symbol of what America means to them. They also decided to and write Sam a letter of congratulations (by hand, not online).

That Friday afternoon, Sam surprised us with a visit to our class. After greeting him shyly, the children proudly handed him a manila folder of their drawings and letters to congratulate and thank him. Sam knew he held a treasure of student expressions in the folder in his hands and took them home to relish the messages expressed in their drawings and greetings.

Needless to say, these young students were as charmed by the live interview as they were with the on-line exchange. Sam shared some of what happened earlier in the week in taking the citizenship test, and later sent the students samples of questions from the test.

With the sharing of a true-life story through an online interview and the personal contact of Sam's brief visit, our classroom discourse was deepened and enriched. We could have read several novels and looked over historical documents with a ongoing classroom dialogue dealing with immigration and adaptation, but the power of learning through this impromptu interview and exchange far surpassed the learning opportunities schools usually offer students. The following samples of the children's letters to Sam are representative of the range of expression and understanding often experienced in a heterogeneous group of young students.

From Richie:

"Congratulations, Sam, You're an American citizen! I bet you're excited, and thanks for the letter. My picture for you shows that we are free, and the broken chains show that it [freedom] did not come easy. The American flag is one of our symbols, and so is the eagle. The Statue of Liberty greets you into being an American citizen."

From Hannah:

"I drew the bald eagle because it is America's bird. To me, it is very special because I love animals and this bird is only in our country. I think it's important to America because it is almost all over our country. You are very lucky ... It must be great to know and feel that you are now a U.S. citizen."

Alie wrote:

"I drew this picture to show that people died for freedom in the U.S. The graves are from the Revolutionary War, the Civil War and the World Wars. I put the flag to show freedom. I put the eagle to show America and the Liberty Bell again to show freedom. Then the fireworks say 'Freedom has come!' I hope you like the United States of America."

Jared wrote:

"Dear Sam. I hope you are very happy now that you are an American citizen. It is pretty cool. I know you miss Iran, but I bet it is pretty cool now being a citizen. I'm very happy for you, Sam."

From a very reflective Evan:

"Well, this picture is supposed to be a symbol that means that America prefers peace. But actually, due to the events of the last few centuries, I think that this symbol is sort of off-track. After all, there have been seven conflicts involving the United States, and we did invent the atom bomb. I think America might prefer peace, but it sure hasn't had a history of peace ... Personally, I think that the whole world needs a lesson in peace. Anyway, congratulations on becoming a U.S. citizen, and sorry if I bored you with that long talk about history."

Students Becoming the Teachers

There is nothing as authentic as children's heartfelt communication, and Sam was affected by these messages in such a way that he responded to them, again online, with the following letter:

"Over the past couple months, as I have been preparing to get ready to become a citizen, it has been a pretty crazy time. I have been trying to memorize this fact, remember that date. When was the Constitution accepted? Who said "Give me liberty or give me death"? How many justices are there in the Supreme Court? ... I have been so caught up in the motions, my friends, I have been so focused on the fine details of getting ready to become a citizen that I let the big picture slip right by me. That was until I got home from Chicago and actually had a chance to sit down and read all of your letters. With each one that I read, I got a better understanding of why I went through all of the trouble of becoming an American citizen.

Every single one of your letters taught me a little more about why my parents sacrificed so much to bring me to this country, and why so many people from all over the world want so badly to become United States citizens. You see, it has nothing to do with the Chicago Bulls, with Disney or with the Backstreet Boys. They came here because of those very things you all drew and wrote on your letters and explained to me so eloquently. They came here for freedom. Freedom to be who they want, to do and say what they want, to wear what they want. Freedom to write and read what they wish, and to go wherever they can. The liberty to be equal to everyone else. The liberty to not have people hurt you, or hurt your family, the liberty to give all they can to their families, the liberty to not have people control you, or censor everything you say, see, and do.

These are things I had forgotten about. They are the essence of the United States of America. They are what make each one of you so individual and so very special. They are why I am here today. Thank you all for helping me to remember that. I would have been cheated if I would not have realized these things, for they are truly the best things about America. So I am sending an extra special, humongous-sized thank you to each and every one of you. You have each played a very significant part in my process of becoming an American citizen. I will always remember meeting you and talking with you, and I will always, always keep those wonderful and amazing letters to read and to cherish."

Yours truly,

Your friend,

Sam Khazai


The children were stunned by the Sam's earnest and heartfelt response to their letters. In our discussion, it became clear that the exchange with Sam influenced their own perspectives about living in a democracy. "He made us think about what we really feel and think about being citizens of the United States," one student commented. "We don't think about that too often. So he helped us think harder, and learn more about ourselves too."

The experience took on a life of its own because of the way individuals were authentically sharing and giving through their stories and their responses. Think of the stereotypes that melted away on all sides of the exchange, the sensitive listening on everyone's part, and the trust shown by sharing stories and thoughtfulness. It seems that we have experienced here the key to learning of this kind. Rather than learning about, we learned through each other.

Sam thoughtfully summarized the project's impact in an e-mail message to me:

"For myself, I must admit that I at first thought that I was helping out with a 4th grade assignment, an opportunity to teach the kids about immigrants. I had no idea that by answering these questions, I would become the student. But that is exactly what happened. As I went through and answered each question, I learned a little more about myself. I learned more about who I am as an Iranian-American, I began to understand more about my parents' experience coming to America over 20 years ago, and what it must have felt like to have had to escape from their country in the midst of a complete governmental overhaul, and find someplace to settle down roots and raise their family.

The greatest part of this experience for me came not from what I gave the students, writing answers to a few questions, but what I got from them. Those little treasures they wrote on paper changed the way I looked at becoming an American citizen, as I mentioned in my letter back to the class. You asked me how I felt about "teaching and learning through this exchange." Sally, I feel I did very little teaching. Actually, I feel that the real teachers here were the unconventional teachers -- the students."

Sally Ryan teaches at Crow Island School in Winnetka, Ill. She wishes to extend her gratitude to Sam Khazai, who is newly naturalized citizen, for his assistance with this article.

Group of adults listening to one person speaking.

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