October 25, 2006
This week, I did my first stint as a Junior Achievement volunteer. I was assigned a class of 7th graders at a school right down the street from my house.
All of the junior high stereotypes were in full play: the boys who were too cool to participate, the class clowns, the smart pretty girl who kissed my butt. From what I saw, very little has changed in the junior high classroom in the last 20 years.
The material I was supposed to go over with the kids was about how immigration in the 1800s led to such huge population growth, and to a lesser extent, how adding all those workers to the economy was the first step to our nation's prosperity.
We covered the impact of immigrants from Scandinavia, Germany, Italy, China, and Ireland. What made them come, where they settled, and we laid some stereotypes about what they came here to do.
Thousands of Irish immigrants worked on the railroads, while others became coal miners. They built sewers, canals, houses, and mills, and also worked as servants, cooks, miners, and dockhands.
What about being cops in Boston? Didn't a lot of them do that? And pub owners? I think there were a lot of those too. And did this passage mention that some of them were miners? I didn't quite catch that.
Chinese immigrants held many different jobs in America, working as merchants, gardeners, domestic help, laundry workers, and farmers.
Deleted during the editing phase was the statement that, "Chinese people never learned how to drive automobiles very well, and whatever it is that they pass off as chicken in their restaurants sure is delicious!"
There was some suggestion in the teaching manual that we get the kids to think about their own family history as it relates to immigration in the 1800s. I chose not to follow that advice. Not because the students weren't bright and enthusiastic -- they were actually an awesome group -- but because there wasn't a single white or Asian student in the entire class. I can just imagine the awkward pause when I asked, "Did any of your ancestors come to America to escape the potato famine in Ireland?"
I hope that next week's lesson is more interesting.