Teaching the Refugee Experience

There seem to be many opinions all over the world about refugees, where they should go and how people should help. There are times when myths and misconceptions shape these opinions due to the lack of accurate information, fear, and the current political climate.

When I taught sixth grade at a public school, one thing that was extremely difficult for me was objectively answering tough questions my students would ask about current events and politics, including the refugee crisis. I struggled with how to allow students to form their own opinions without accidentally indirectly sharing my own beliefs. There was so much more I always wanted to say, but in the moment, I could never find the words to discuss these topics while at the same time avoiding alienating a group of peoples’ beliefs.

Consequently, I was careful and avoided saying much at all, besides discussing what happened and allowing students room to share their own reactions. Additionally, as a teacher at a very diverse school, answering these questions objectively while creating an inclusive environment for all seemed almost impossible. I struggled with the thought that my guarded approach was creating a culture of silence. If I didn’t engage my class in these tough conversations, was I perpetuating myths and misconceptions and perhaps getting further away from the inclusive culture I strived to create? Particularly within the last year, it felt like even if I answered objectively and based solely on factual information, I was taking a “side,” and excluding a group of people. I am sad to admit that sometimes, I even avoided the conversation completely, because I didn’t feel I had the tools or training to productively engage in some of these tough topics (please don’t hold this against me).

Toward the end of last year, I decided to address some of these issues through story. I assigned the novel A Long Walk to Water, written by Linda Sue Park, which is based on a true story about a child refugee from Sudan named Salva. I found that teaching this novel was an excellent tool for many reasons, including that it sparked wonderful class discussions that tied into current events. These conversations allowed students to reflect and form their own opinions, without anyone else telling them what to think.

There are many authors who have written some fantastic refugee stories that students can explore. My advice: give books to your students, and let them grapple with these stories; allow for discussion and the space to form their own ideas. Instead of giving students answers, ask questions, and use text as a tool to teach and transform your classroom.




Adrift at Sea: A Vietnamese Boy’s Story of Survival by Forchuk Marsha Skrypuch. 9781772780055. 2016. Gr 1-4.

Calling the Water Drum by Latisha Redding. 9781620141946. 2016. Gr 1-3.

Escaping the Nazis on the Kindertransport by Emma Carlson Berne. 9781515745464. 2017. Gr 2-6.

From Far Away by Robert Munsch. 9781554519392. 2017. Gr K-2.

Lost and Found Cat: The True Story of Kunkush’s Incredible Journey by Doug Kuntz. 9781524715472. 2017. Gr PS-3.

Teacup by Rebecca Young. 9780735227774. 2016. Gr PS-3.

Treasure Box by Margaret Wild. 9780763690847. 2017. Gr 1-4.

Where Will I Live? by Rosemary McCarney. 9781772600285. 2017. Gr 1-4.

Middle School



Angel Island: Gateway to Gold Mountain by Russell Freedman. 9780544810891. 2016. Gr 5-8.

Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park. 9780547577319. 2010. Gr 5-8.

Only Road by Alexandra Diaz. 9781481457514. 2017. Gr 4-7.

Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney. 9780316247825. 2015. Gr 5-8.

Refugee by Alan Gratz. 9780545880831. 2017. Gr 5-8.

Stormy Seas: Stories of Young Boat Refugees by Mary Beth Leatherdale. 9781554518951. 2017. Gr 4-7.

This Land is Our Land: A History of American Immigration by Linda Barrett Osborne. 9781419716607. 2016. Gr 5-9.

Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba by Margarita Engle. 9781250129819. 2017. Gr 6-8.

High School



Escape from Syria by Samya Kullab. 9781770859821. 2017. Gr 7-12.

How Dare the Sun Rise: Memoirs of a War Child by Sandra Uwiringiyimana. 9780062470140. 2017. Gr 7-12.

Land of Permanent Goodbyes by Atia Abawi. 9780399546839. 2018. Gr 7-10.

Lines we Cross by Randa Abdel-Fattah. 9781338118667. 2017. Gr 7-12.

Outcasts United: The Story of a Refugee Soccer Team That Changed a Town by Warren St. John. 9780385741958. 2016. Gr 8-12.

Out of Nowhere by Maria Padian. 9780375865626. 2015. Gr 8-12.

Taking Flight: From War Orphan to Star Ballerina by Michaela Deprince. 9780385755146. 2016. Gr 8-12.


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