Immigration: Then and Now
Use the poster and primary source material to share our nation’s legacy of newcomers with students.
- Grades: PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8
From 1840 to 1920, nearly 40 million immigrants arrived in the United States, most through the processing center at Ellis Island. This great wave doubled our young country's population and helped to shape our national identity. With the graphs on this month's poster and the activities in this unit, invite students to learn more about this era in America's history and guide them to understand how immigration continues to influence society today.
Begin by gathering together some immigration resources for your students. You might also send a letter home to families asking for any photographs, letters, or memorabilia documenting the immigrant experience to create a special “immigration museum.” You might also introduce the unit by inviting students to research the Statue of Liberty. Ask students, “What does this statue mean to you?” and “What do you think it means to other Americans?” Explain that to many immigrants, the Statue represents the freedoms U.S. citizens enjoy. Then encourage students to share what they know about the immigrant experience, both past and present. Start a T-chart to record facts about immigration “then” versus immigration “now,” and post it on a bulletin board. Invite students to add to the chart throughout your study.
Ellis Island 1892-1922
In 1907, ten-year-old Edward Corsi emigrated from Italy to the U.S. with his family. His journey on the steamship Florida, which held 1,600 other passengers, lasted 14 days. Edward grew up to become the U.S. Commissioner of Education! Share more about Edward and other immigrant children by reading the book Immigrant Kids by Russell Freedman. Then explore the experiences of turn-of-the-century immigrants with the activities below.
Traveling to America
Have students find out firsthand how much room a family like Edward´s would have to sleep and store their belongings on one of the crowded steamships bound for America. Divide the class into small groups. In an open space, such as the hallway or gym, have each group measure a 6- by 2-foot rectangle and mark it with masking tape. This space is the average size of a steamship berth, the small compartments where steerage passengers slept and stored their belongings. Women often shared a berth with their children. Ask the groups to sit in their “berths” and imagine what it would be like to stay in this space, surrounded by other families, for at least two weeks. What would it look, smell, and sound like? Encourage students to use these details in a diary entry.
The Ellis Island Experience
To give students a better idea of what actually happened at Ellis Island, first share one of the many read alouds describing this experience, such as Elvira Woodruff´s The Memory Coat. Then ask students to imagine that they are either Edward Corsi or one of his two sisters, Liberta or Helvetia, and that the family has just arrived at Ellis Island. Using the Ellis Island Experience Reproducible (PDF), have children make each of the necessary “stops” at the immigration center. As a class, discuss this Ellis Island “journey.” What do students still want to know about the process? Encourage them to answer these questions with further independent reading or research.
Immigrants at School
What was life like in America for children like Edward? In big cities where immigrants frequently congregated, children often attended school with students from more than 25 different countries! To demonstrate this lasting legacy of immigration, invite students to create a display that shows the degree to which your classroom is “built” on the immigrant experience. Have students interview family members to find out what nationalities are in their background. Then, ask students to write each nationality on a red construction-paper “brick.” Post these bricks on a bulletin board to create a special wall titled “Our Class Was Built on Immigration.”
Quynh immigrated to the U.S. from Vietnam in 2001, traveling by plane to Atlanta, Georgia. Quynh and her family are not yet U.S. citizens but hope to eventually become naturalized, or acquire citizenship. Your students can read more about Quynh and other recent immigrant children at the Immigration: Stories of Yesterday and Today student activity, before completing the activities on modern immigrants.
Push and Pull Factors
Historians call the reasons why emigrants leave their home country push factors and the reasons why they want to come to another country pull factors. To reinforce these terms in a fun, kinesthetic way, divide the class into four groups. Challenge each group to think about either Quynh's or Edward's immigration stories and brainstorm a list of that child's push or pull factors. Then give each group construction-paper arrows on which to write these factors. Affix two masking-tape strips on the ground, one representing the “home country” and one representing the U.S. Have the groups each spread their arrows between the tape strips. Students can then walk from the home country to the U.S., reading the push and pull factors as they go. To wrap up, sort and discuss the arrows as a class. How are Quynh's and Edward's decisions to emigrate similar or different?
Becoming a Citizen
What does it take to become a U.S. citizen? Explain to students that since 1924, strict laws have regulated both the number of immigrants allowed into the country, as well as the process by which they become citizens. Current law requires that in order to become naturalized, Quynh's parents must pass a citizenship test like this one.
Have your students try taking the test. They can exchange and grade tests with a partner using the answer key provided. Are they surprised by the results? As a class, discuss why the government wants immigrants to know all of the detailed information on the test before becoming citizens. Sorting the questions into categories, such as “American symbols,” “government responsibilities,” and “citizens' responsibilities,” may make analysis easier. Are there categories that students would change or add? To extend, host a Jeopardy-style game using the categories on the test.
Quynh says that one of her biggest challenges is learning English. While this struggle is common, as a result of immigration, trade, and colonization, many words from other languages have over time become incorporated into English. Invite students to choose one or two of the words in the international dictionary "From Bagels to Ukuleles" (see box.) Challenge them to use an English dictionary to find out where their words originated and when and where they first appeared in English. Was the adoption due to immigration, conquest, or another reason? Then have each student write his or her word definition and origin information on a blank piece of paper and illustrate it. Compile the definitions in alphabetical order to create a “Words on the Move” dictionary for your classroom library.
Teaching With the Poster
Use the suggestions below as a guide for getting the most learning from our exclusive immigration poster, Immigration Facts and Faces (PDF).
Reading Charts and Graphs (Using the Reproducible)
The graphs on the poster can be used as the basis for rich exploration of the numbers behind immigration. Have pairs of students take turns making observations about the charts. Pairs can answer the questions below the graphs. To extend, download the Web-exclusive Immigration Facts and Faces (PDF) below, which contains more graph-reading practice based on the poster.
To reinforce visual literacy skills, invite pairs to make observations about the poster´s photos. Then discuss the observations made. Which are subjective (e.g., “It seems sad”) and which are objective (e.g., “It´s crowded”)? Is one kind of observation more useful to historians? Why or why not? Consider these other questions: Who took the picture? For what audience was it intended?