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Teaching and Learning

Lessons and insights from the classroom.

Books About Immigrants and Refugees

An educator and author picks books that celebrate newcomers to the U.S.

We teach our students that the U.S. is a nation of immigrants—a place that welcomes and celebrates those with the courage to take a chance and risk everything to seek a better, safer life for their families. But when kids hear about travel bans, border walls, and refugee quotas, they start asking questions. When educators struggle to find the best answers, books can help. We talked to children’s author Ruth Freeman, an English language learner (ELL) teacher from Maine about children’s books that deal with the experiences of students who are new to this country. 

“Thankfully, there are more and more books exploring this topic,” Freeman says. “Not only do they allow our ELL students to see themselves represented on the printed page, but they allow other readers to gain more understanding and empathy for newcomers.” Here’s what Freeman had to say about her favorite titles: 

Picture Books

My Two Blankets by Irene Kobald and Freya Blackwood (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

What I especially love about this sweet story is how the illustrator has drawn the way a newcomer first hears English. There are streams of symbols and shapes coming out of people’s mouths, not sounds. A new friend teaches her words and she begins to feel at home. As the book says, “Moving is hard—friends make it easier.” She slowly learns to weave her old and new cultures together until, at the end, she comes to know that no matter where she is she will always be herself. 

Joseph’s Big Ride by Terry Farish, art by Ken Daley (Annick Press)

A boy who comes to America from a refugee camp desperately wants a bike, and a girl in the neighborhood has one. There is a funny mix up of names. He calls her Whoosh because she rides by so fast. Will the boy find a way to befriend her and get a ride on the bike? The big, bold illustrations help tell this wonderful story about making friends in a new country.

All the Way to America: The Story of a Big Italian Family and a Little Shovel by Dan Yaccarino (Knopf)

A story told about four generations of Italian-Americans with a little shovel that was used differently by each of them. The last character in the story is the author himself! Colorful illustrations, simple text, and a heartwarming message passed down to each generation (work hard, enjoy life, and don’t forget to call home) make for a wonderful picture book.

Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family’s Journey by Margriet Ruurs, artwork by Nizar Ali Badr (Orca Book Publishers)

A beautiful and poignant story, told in English and Arabic, of one family’s journey to escape the war in their country. While the country is not named as Syria, the amazing illustrations are by a Syrian sculptor. Each picture is a collage of polished stones bringing to life the parents, children, and burdens they carry on their backs as they walk to a new life. The sadness of saying goodbye, the bombs, and the lives lost at sea are balanced carefully and sensitively with hopes and dreams for peace in their new home.

Other Recommended Titles

  • The Color of Home by Mary Hoffman, illustrated by Karin Littlewood (Dial)
  • Grandfather’s Journey by Allen Say (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
  • Here I Am by Patti Kim, illustrations by Sonia Sanchez (Capstone)
  • I’m New Here by Anne Sibley O’Brien (Charlesbridge)
  • The Journey by Francesca Sanna (Flying Eye Books)
  • Lailah’s Lunchbox: A Ramadan Story by Reem Faruqi, illustrations by Lea Lyon (Tilbury House)
  • My Name is Sangoel by Karen Lynn Williams and Khadra Mohammed, illustrations by Catherine Stock (Eerdmans)
  • My Name is Yoon by Helen Recorvits, illustrations by Gabi 
  • Swiatkowska (Farrar, Straus)
  • The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi (Knopf)
  • One Green Apple by Eve Bunting, illustrations by Ted Lewin (Clarion)

Middle Grade

Coming to America: A Muslim Family’s Story by Bernard Wolf (Lee and Low Books)

This is the true story of an Egyptian family’s adjustment to life in New York, told through photographs. Readers see the three children settling into their elementary and middle schools. We see the father at his job and the mother going to school to learn English. Pictures of the family shopping, doing homework, praying, and eating dinner together give readers a real sense of what it is like for members of one family as they work hard to pursue a better life.

It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel by Firoozeh Dumas (Clarion Books)

What a fantastically funny book! Set in the 1970s, 11-year-old Zomorod comes from Iran with her family to California and, to fit in, promptly changes her name to Cindy. After several years there, and moving four times, she has become almost a typical American middle school student, except that she still has to explain things to her parents like: snack foods, bean bag chairs, and Gilligan’s Island on TV. However, when the Iran hostage crisis occurs, life for her Iranian family in America turns more serious. A funny, distinctive voice and original story.

One Good Thing About America by Ruth Freeman, illustrations by Kathrin Honesta (Holiday House)

This fictional story was inspired by my wonderful middle and elementary school students. Anaïs was the best English student back home in Congo. Here in Crazy America she feels like she doesn’t know English at all. Nothing makes chicken fingers on the lunch menu! She writes letters to her grandmother back home who tells her to find one good thing about America every day. Slowly, Anaïs does. Even while she worries about her father and brother left behind in Africa, she discovers pizza, autumn leaves, sledding, friends, and teachers, until, at the end, they tell her she is one good thing about America. 

Other Recommended Titles:

  • Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan (Scholastic)
  • Home of the Brave by Katherine Applegate (Feiwel and Friends)
  • Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai (Harper)
  • A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park (Clarion Books)
  • Lowji Discovers America by Candace Fleming (Atheneum)
  • Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman (Harper)
  • Shooting Kabul by N. H. Senzai (Simon and Schuster)

Young Adult

Outcasts United: The Story of a Refugee Soccer Team That Changed a Town, adapted for young people by Warren St. John (Delacorte)

This is the inspiring true story of a boys’ soccer team in Georgia made up of refugees and the Jordanian woman who coaches them. Calling themselves the Fugees, the boys struggle to adjust to life in the U.S. while the town of Clarkston, Ga., struggles to adjust to them. Many on the team have traumatic memories of the conflicts they left behind in their home countries. Their coach has to care for her players while finding a practice field, uniforms, and funding. Not just for soccer fans, this is a story of hope, determination, and achievement.

Something About America by Maria Testa (Candlewick)

A girl comes to the U.S. with her family to get medical treatment after she was badly burned in her home in Kosova, Yugoslavia. The story opens when she is 13. She has recovered, but has scars on her neck that she covers with scarves. She tells her story in lyrical free verse, how she feels American, and how her parents do not. Then, an incident in a nearby town raises the issue of hatred and anger towards immigrants and she and her parents must decide how to respond. A beautiful, thoughtful story.

The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon (Delacorte)

This book has everything: The two main characters who tell the story are distinctive, appealing and funny; there is romance and tension as one of the teenagers is due to be deported to Jamaica the next day with her family. But, on this last day, Natasha falls in love with Daniel, a Korean American. They spend one day together while she tries to stop the deportation. Telling their stories in alternating chapters, this is a touching and captivating novel.

Other Recommended Titles:

  • Blue Gold by Elizabeth Stewart (Annick Press)
  • Either the Beginning or the End of the World by Terry Farish (Carolrhoda)
  • The Good Braider by Terry Farish (Skyscape)
  • Out of Nowhere by Maria Padian (Knopf)

Animate Your EduLife!

Five ways to add impact

Have you fallen in love with Bitmoji yet? This fun, free app has been around for a few years and now can be easily used to transform and animate your professional life and classroom. For the unfamiliar, Bitmoji is an emoji or avatar that you can customize to look just like you (or in my case a younger skinnier version of me!) which is then automatically inserted into all kinds of colorful cartoons. You can use Bitmoji stickers as your Twitter avatar, on Snapchat stories, within Seesaw and Google Apps for Education, rubrics, within Gmail, on your blog, or for classroom or library signage. It’s also a fun way to add spice to your texting life with friends and family, and there are at least four fab ways you can animate your edulife and use in the classroom!  

There are other avatar creators out there, I have blog posts, articles, and resource web pages that go over more than 15 of them, but Bitmoji is, by far, the easiest one to start with. I also have to assure you, I don’t work for them, this is not sponsored or a “paid advertisement,” nor do they even acknowledge my positive Tweets or social media love, though I wouldn’t be mad at them if they sent me a T-shirt!  

Begin Bitmoji

With Bitmoji you can create your face, hairstyle, shape, dress it up, and boom! Your creation is automatically placed into fun cartoon stickers that become an alternate emoji keyboard on your cell phone, Chrome extension, Snapchat, and more! Even my 70-something-year-old mom and dad have them, and we use them with each other all the time. It’s hilarious and a blast! Though I gotta warn you, they’re a bit addictive! 

Sweet Setup: 

Once you’ve downloaded the free app (available for  iOS iPhone and Android), just open it and begin designing your avatar. Don’t like your first attempt?  Don’t worry, you can always change it. 

First, choose a cartoon style: either the more anime or squished Bitmoji style or the regular cartoony Bitstrips style. You can play around with skin tones, eye colors, eyebrows, hair color and style,  body shapes and even outfit styles. Keep choosing and testing until your digital doppelganger looks just like you. Once you finish, Bitmoji will automatically create an entire library of fun—and just a tad bit silly—images. Like this one of me.

Add the Keyboard and Give Full Access

To use these Bitmojis you have to add them as an additional keyboard on your phone. For an iPhone go to General Settings > Keyboards > Add new keyboard and make sure you select allow full access. This way you can use them on your iPads, too. For Android, Wikihow says: “Enabling the Bitmoji Keyboard. Open your Android’s settings. It’s the gray gear icon in the app drawer. Scroll down and tap Language and Input. It’s in the Personal section. Tap Current Keyboard. Tap Choose Keyboards. Slide the Bitmoji Keyboard switch to the On position. Tap OK.”

While you’re texting, there are six categories of Bitmojis, you select them by just touching, copying, and pasting them into the text message box. To take them from the app and to send them into your computer, you can save them to your camera roll, upload them to Flickr or email them to yourself. That way you can easily edit them in Photoshop or with PicMonkey.  

Savvy Signage

Once you have your Bitmoji on your computer you can make signage for your classroom or library. Think of Back-to-School Night signs and a classroom door welcome sign with your room number and name, or a “Place Homework Here” sign, the possibilities are endless. 

I created a sign by adding text using PicMonkey, (another free site!) with creative tools for photo editing and graphic design.  

Classroom do’s and don’ts signs can be so boring, Bitmojis really jazz them up! My friend Andrew Tyler aka @atylerlibrarian in New Hampshire, created a really neat Computer Lab sign featuring Bitmojis for his school! 

Andrew also shared on Twitter how he created a fantastic photo booth sign for his middle school library for Grandparents Day!

Fresh Feedback

Bitmoji is now available as a Chrome extension that puts your cartoon avatar stickers super handy on your browser toolbar to use within Google Apps for Education, Gmail, Seesaw, and a growing list of other platforms. Getting feedback from teachers, in cartoon form, makes that feedback fun and much more personal. Super educator, speaker, blogger, and author Alice Keeler, says about Bitmojis: “When using digital tools try to put yourself into them to help students feel there is a teacher guiding them through the lesson. Bitmojis are great for adding ‘you’ along with some personality into digital resources. Google Forms are awesome for flipped learning, formative assessment, checks for understanding, and so much more. Bitmoji and Google Forms…the awesomeness meter here might explode,” Keeler says. For step-by-step directions, search for her blog post titled: “Bitmoji Feedback in My Google Doc.”   

Mr. Parkinson, a Primary ICT teacher in Britain, uses Bitmoji stickers in a rubric for writing prompts. What a great way to give kids a visual feedback for their assignments. Anything we can do to make Rubrics more approachable and useful, the better! 

Social Sharing

Bitmoji avatars are super for sharing on social media. Whether it’s as your Twitter profile picture, on a blog, in Snapchat stories, or on Instagram—these cartoons really bring personality to any platform.

One of the coolest ideas I’ve heard lately was from Tara M. Martin aka @TaraMartinEDU called #BookSnaps. Tara shares how she takes a picture of a section of text, uploads it to Snapchat, adds a filter, re-types the quote from the book, draws arrows, and then brings in a Bitmoji to add more zip. This is a cool way for the reader to express their connections to text with a digital visual representation. Search BookSnaps for articles, directions, blog posts, and videos on how to join in the fun.  

Cool Communication

Leveraging the power of the Chrome extension (it’s free, too!) puts your Bitmoji right in your browser toolbar for easy use with Gmail and Drive. Linda Lindsay aka @mauilibrarian2, a teacher-librarian in Hawaii says: “If I had my druthers, I would use my Bitmoji all the time! So I have to restrain myself. My favorite use is in Gmail (Chrome extension) to punctuate my ideas and responses to make my colleagues laugh. They’re always pleased, and it makes me so happy imagining the looks on their faces.”

Our wonderful school data clerk Kimberly Walley (you know, she’s the one who saves us when our Synergy electronic gradebook goes wonky or changes) uses it to transform a possibly boring newsletter into something bright when it’s time to share directions or updates with school staff. 

Caution: For Grownups Only!

I have to warn you that Bitmojis are to use for kiddos and not with kiddos. This is because some of the stickers or cartoons have to do with drinking alcohol, some have trendy, bad-ish language (FML), and some are sorta flirty. Not R rated, maybe not even PG-13, but just not for kiddos in my humble opinion. My kiddos are middle schoolers, and sure, some of them may have their own Bitmoji, but I’m not going to be the teacher to promote their direct use. This is for your professional classroom branding and fun. 

Why Bitmoji? 

Emojis have become necessary in recent years because they fill a gap people didn’t even know they had. When texting, they add feeling to conversations and allow you to tell if someone is being sarcastic or sweet. Bimoji’s give those conversations identity and personality. Maximizing that super power of a customized and engaging cartoon and using it in your professional practice brings it to the next level. Give it a whirl, and discover more ways to use them in your classroom! I’d love to see your Bitmoji. Share and Tweet them to me @GwynethJones so our cartoons can be friends!


If you’re reading this on paper, Google these titles and enjoy them online! 

  • Gmail Just Got Zanier, Thanks To BitmojiHuffPost
  • Using Bitmoji In Your ClassroomBISD Learning Technologies 
  • Bitmoji Feedback in My Google DocAlice Keeler
  • Why and how I Bitmoji in my classroomSahar 
  • @MyMathscape
  • #BookSnapsTara M. Martin

And check out these online offerings from me, The Daring Librarian:

  • It’s a Cartoon, It’s An Avatar, It’s a New Animated you!
  • Got Bitmoji?
  • A Super List of 15+ Avatar Generators & Creators
  • Bitmoji Flickr Gallery

@GwynethJones, aka The Daring Librarian, is a blogger, a Tweeter, an International Ed Tech keynote speaker, Google Certified Innovator, PBS Graduate Champion of Change, and the author of the award-winning Daring Librarian blog. Gwyneth also is a career-long NEA member and the teacher librarian at Murray Hill Middle School in Howard County, Md. And, of course, it goes without saying, she’s ridiculously humble.  

Take a Math Bath

Each year, during our study of liquid measurement, I encourage parents to obtain plastic measuring cups, spoons, and containers for their children to practice measuring. The children are to take their plastic containers to the bathtub and practice measuring (e.g., How many teaspoons are in a cup?). For students without a bathtub at home, the kitchen sink works just as well. The children love to surprise their parents with the silly assignment, and they really do practice their measuring skills.

Don’t Let Tech Tie You Down

When using technology to teach, don’t tie yourself to the front of the room where the technology is situated. Walking around the room while teaching allows you to quietly move toward students who are off task. Your physical presence reminds students that they are supposed to participate in the lesson. 

So how can a teacher still use that laptop and document camera at the front of the room? Add it to the list of student jobs. Students can be taught how to manipulate the pages under a document camera or click to advance to the next slide or bookmarked web page.

Starting the Parent-Teacher Dialogue

I always begin parent-teacher conferences by asking the parent, “What does [child’s name] say at home about my class?” The response gets the dialogue started. I explain what we are studying and talk about how the child is doing. I point out resources available to students such as tutoring, after school study center, etc. I also ask for email addresses so that I can contact parents more efficiently. I ask parents of high school seniors what their child wants to do after graduation. This helps me advise them on what classes they should take next term.

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