National Writing Project

Words Have No Borders: Student Voices on Immigration, Language and Culture

Date: June 17, 2009

Summary: The College Board's National Commission on Writing collaborated with the National Writing Project to publish this series of essays from high school students around the country. The essays express the pain and joy of moving from one culture to another, and focus on how learning to write in English opens up new worlds for non-native speakers.


One in four children in the United States has a foreign-born parent. And nearly 10 percent of public school children—some 5.1 million students—are classified as English language learners, a proportion that rose 60 percent from 1995 to 2005 (see Children of Immigrants: National and State Characteristics ).

In Words Have No Borders: Student Voices on Immigration, Language and Culture, the seventh in a series of reports from the National Commission on Writing, students express a range of views on learning to write and becoming proficient in English.

These students, from more than a dozen different countries, describe where they came from and why they came, what they encountered and their dreams for the future. They also describe the challenges they face as they learn to navigate a new culture.

Writing Is a Celebration of Courage

Learning to write in English has eased the cultural transition for many.

"Before coming to this country I was very outgoing," says Luiz D., who was born in Brazil. "Not being able to communicate here made me shy. Writing in English has brought me back to the person I was before coming here."

"With writing I can take my time to think about what I want to say. For me, writing is more thoughtful than just talking," says Hanan K., whose parents spoke to her in Arabic.

Christina Zawerucha, an English/ESL Teacher at International High School at Lafayette in Brooklyn, New York, designed a curriculum for her classroom entitled "The Struggle to Be Strong Project."

Students publish their own book of "struggle" memoirs and family interviews about the challenges they've overcome regarding immigration, domestic violence, war and genocide, racism and discrimination. (For a related story, see New York City Writing Project Helps Teen Immigrants Succeed in Bronx High School.)

"Writing from personal experience is the best way to get their language going," said Zawerucha. "Their writing becomes a celebration of their courage."

Adds Mifetao A., "Writing about my life in Togo—the war and watching my friends die—helped me understand what I was feeling and has made me a better person."

The essays in the new report are drawn primarily from work submitted by 41 high school teachers around the country. In addition, some are essays written for Letters to the Next President: Writing Our Future, an online writing project for students cosponsored by Google and the National Writing Project.

Excerpt from Report

Beginning in kindergarten, children learn to write "I love you" for Valentine's Day cards and "happy birthday" for birthday cards. With that early beginning in kindergarten, writing becomes vital. Because of my Cuban roots I did not begin to write "I love you" and "happy birthday" until the fourth grade. I got a late start, but since then, my writing skills have consistently improved, thanks to dedicated teachers. Throughout life writing is the key: to exams, academics and attaining a bright future. Even though my skills have flourished, there's always room for improvement in the future and I'm currently learning to better develop my thesis statements, and to add more figurative language in my writing that sparks both the imagination and the senses of the reader.

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