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What happened when my daughter came home singing a deportation song — and how I’d handle it in my classroom

As the beginning of the school year inches closer, teachers are preparing to meet their students with the usual questions: “How was your summer?” “Did you learn anything new?”

In a summer filled with extended news segments on parent-child separations at the U.S. border, educators should ready themselves for questions and comments about immigration, too. They may even come in the form of a song.

My six-year-old daughter is on the cusp at figuring out nearly everything this world has to offer. She reads independently, tackles Common Core math faster than me, and has a bustling social life. But this summer after her first week of camp, she came home singing a song about deportation — a song she clearly didn’t understand.

“I don’t want to go to Mexico no more, more, more. There’s a big fat policeman at my door, door, door. He grabbed me by the collar, he made me pay a dollar. I don’t want to go to Mexico no more, more, more.”

Immediately, my interrogation began. “Where’d you hear that song? What did your teacher say? Do you understand what it means?”

She offered up who taught her the song pretty easily and that the teacher hadn’t heard it. She said she sang along with the girls because she liked the rhyme.

“I think it means that the person doesn’t want to go to Mexico like on vacation.”

“But, what do you think about the policeman? Why is he knocking on the door for money?”

She said that they’re perhaps neighbors like our neighbor (who is in fact a police officer), and the singer must have owed her neighbor some money. But she did have one question.

“What’s a collar?”

After I showed her what a collar was, she asked: “Why would the policeman grab her by the collar? Did she do something wrong? Or was it a bad policeman like the Bad Cop in ‘The Lego Movie’?

This was a conversation I wasn’t ready to have about a song I wasn’t ready for her to be singing or even knew existed. Running through my mind were the news stories and testimonials that displayed the horrors the migrant children and their parents were facing at the U.S.-Mexico border.

If an instance like this came up in my classroom, my high school students would do a close reading and look at present-day articles to understand why this easily rhyming children’s song is offensive to many. But at six years old, my daughter had little to no prior knowledge that would indicate to her that this was a harmful song, and I believe she isn’t old enough to see the realities of deportation on the Internet or read about them in The Washington Post.

Unable to convey the whole reality to my child, I told her the song didn’t mean what she thought it did. I talked to her about how it wasn’t a nice song to be singing, and I would talk to her soon about why.

That night, I Google-searched the song and found the lyrics and videos of children singing it. It became clear to me that the song isn’t new, but because of current events, it has taken on a new meaning that makes it problematic for children to sing.

I also looked for children’s books about Mexican immigration. Books had worked well with my daughter before on current issues: Someone gave her “Malala’s Magic Pencil for Christmas, and from it arose a lot of questions, but she also began to understand when I told her that not every child gets the chance to go to school.

I ordered “Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote: A Migrant’s Tale,” in which a father rabbit illegally crosses into “El Norte” to help feed his family. His son, Pancho Rabbit, then does the same to find his father with the help of a scheming coyote. After I read the book to my daughter, it was easier to talk to her about borders, the reasons and dangers of immigrating, the fact that people are immigrating daily across our border, and the problems with her song.

In the high school classroom, students’ questions often arise in conversation. In my own school library and writing center, many students had questions about the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program after DACA protections were not continued, as some of our students are DACA recipients. I created a short “web-quest” to introduce them to the issue and held an informal discussion about the issue. Should the need arise on the topic of migrant family separations, I have a similar plan in mind.

Although current events may not be part of an early childhood curriculum, we can be sure that our children have caught on to some of the controversial stories this summer has had to offer. When my daughter brings her curiosities coupled with limited prior knowledge to her classroom, I hope her teacher engages in the conversation instead of dismissing it.

I’ll be ready at home, thinking of ways to slowly integrate the realities of our complex world into the innocence and hopefulness of the childhood she currently inhabits.

Gina Caneva is a 15-year Chicago Public Schools veteran who works as a teacher-librarian and Writing Center Director at Lindblom Math and Science Academy. She is a National Board certified teacher and a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellowship alum. Follow her on Twitter @GinaCaneva.

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