Jessica Lander is a history and civics teacher of newcomers still mastering English, at Lowell High School, Massachusetts, USA, whose first goal is to ensure her students know they are welcome and valued. She then tries to help them develop their voice, in part by encouraging them to take responsibility for their new home and learn to advocate for change.
Winning a variety of awards and fellowships, Jessica has dedicated her career to teaching immigrant children from across the globe, aiming to teach, mentor, and advocate for students so they find belonging in the U.S., to ensure they are academically prepared for college and careers, and to develop frameworks helping other teachers support immigrant-origin students. This passion for global education stems from her early experiences, writing an undergraduate thesis about an incredible school for low-income students in Tanzania and then teaching in Southeast Asia, first English and critical thinking on the faculty of Chiang Mai University in Thailand, then leadership skills to college women in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Returning to the States, she began teaching a global classroom at her large urban public high school with students who are recent immigrants from over 30 countries, drawn from refugee camps and inner cities, escaping war, gang violence, and the economic effects of widespread corruption. They come in search of safety, education, and new beginnings. Her National We Are America Project, co-founded with her former high school students, was inspired by a 2018 class project publishing two books about her students' personal histories and American identities. The Project’s aims to spark conversations about the many dimensions of American identity in classrooms across the country. For the past two years, she and her student co-founders worked with around 50 teachers in over 25 states who, in turn, work with thousands of students to tell their stories of American identity. Each class publishes a book of their stories to be shared in their communities and added to a growing national library on the website www.weareamericaproject.com.
Jessica and her former students feel their work is essential as the country grapples with systemic racism and centuries of injustice. She and her student co-founders believe that by telling their powerful stories, these students are building understanding and empathy among people of different backgrounds, ethnicities, and faiths and creating space for young people to find belonging in America.
As a history teacher of immigrant-origin students, the principles that guide Jessica’s teaching are learning from diverse voices, connecting the past to both the present and the personal, making change, teaching as a way to learn, and creating books to teach others. As a published author and op-ed writer, each year she teaches students to write persuasive op eds as they study suffrage leaders and modern-day progressives, learning how to advocate for change. Then the students take an issue they care about – bullying in schools, domestic violence in the city etc – instructed to keep it local, research and write it and then the best are printed in the city’s newspaper.
They also engage in action civics projects working with community partners and local and state government. One class collaborated with many partners to address food insecurity by creating a school-wide food pantry that is now being replicated in schools across the district.