Destination America
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Teacher's Guide

Freedom to Worship | Freedom from Oppression | Freedom from Want | Freedom from Fear| Freedom to Create

Freedom from Want


In this lesson, students investigate reasons for immigration to America by various groups featured in the episode entitled "The Golden Door" including Scandinavian peoples, Irish, Chinese, and Mexicans, as well as problems they faced in trying to assimilate into American society. After collecting information, they will use the information to write a "first person" account of the successes and failures they have in realizing the "American Dream."

Grade Level: 7-12

Subject Area(s): US History, World History, Language Arts

Time Needed for Lesson: 2-3 class periods

Materials needed: Computer with Internet access, word processing software. A copy of "Destination America" (Visit PBS Shop for ordering information.)


As a result of completing this lesson, students will be able to:

  1. More completely understand the conditions which forced various immigrant groups to re-settle in the United States in the 19th and 20th Centuries.
  2. Understand the issues and prejudices facing these immigrants as they tried to assimilate in American life.
  3. Effectively research a historical period and interpret that information through writing a "first person account."


This lesson meets the following national content standards established by Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL)

United States History:

  • Understands patterns of immigrant life after 1870 (e.g., where people came from and where they settled; how immigrants formed a new American culture; the challenges, opportunities, and contributions of different immigrant groups; ways in which immigrants learned to live and work in a new country)
  • Understands challenges immigrants faced in society in the late 19th century (e.g., experiences of new immigrants from 1870 to 1900, reasons for hostility toward the new immigrants, restrictive measures against immigrants, the tension between American ideals and reality)
  • Understands changes in business and labor practices during the late 19th century (e.g., reasons for child labor and it consequences, changes in business operation, how workers lives were affected after the Civil War)

World History:

  • Understands the experiences and motivations of European migrants and immigrants in the 19th century (e.g., why migrants left Europe in large numbers in the 19th century and regions of the world where they settled; the consequences of encounters between European migrants and indigenous peoples in such regions as the United States, Canada, South Africa, Australia, and Siberia; the general appeal of Canada to European immigrants in the second half of the 19th century)
  • Understands influences on and consequences of European immigration and settlement (e.g., how European settlements affected the politics and economy of the local regions, as well as resources, labor, the flow of goods, and markets; the diverse motivations behind resettlement for specific groups of immigrants; the impact of new immigrants upon the environment and indigenous populations of Australia; how substantial European immigration in the 19th century had economic consequences for cities in the United States)

Language Arts:

  • Uses precise and descriptive language that clarifies and enhances ideas and supports different purposes (e.g., to stimulate the imagination of the reader, to translate concepts into simpler or more easily understood terms, to achieve a specific tone, to explain concepts in literature)
  • Uses a variety of techniques to provide supporting detail (e.g., analogies; anecdotes; restatements; paraphrases; examples; comparisons; visual aids, such as tables, graphs, and pictures)

Teaching Strategy:

Begin the lesson with a discussion of immigration trends in the post-Civil War era. Ask students to speculate on where the immigrants would have emigrated from, as well as possible numbers of immigrants who came to the United States at that time. (Note: The Destination America website page provides a wealth of information that may assist the class in answering these questions.)

The teacher may also ask students to speculate as to how immigrants would have entered the country, what processing steps they would have had to go through in order to be admitted to the US? The teacher may wish to review the Ellis Island website ( prior to beginning the discussion.

The teacher should then announce to the class that they are to assume that they are immigrants who have been selected by the US Government to write "first person" accounts about their immigrant experiences for inclusion in a national database. The government has asked that they be as accurate and candid as possible about their coming to America, and what they found here. (The teacher may wish the students to assume the name and character of one of the persons featured in "The Golden Door" or may elect to have students create a name and base their fictitious experiences on the true experiences of the persons in the film.)

Next, the teacher may wish to divide the class into groups, assign a particular immigrant group per group or student, or allow the class to individually select a particular immigrant group to collect information about during the film and online research.

Once immigrant groups have been selected, students should view "The Golden Door" taking notes and collecting information about their particular group. Examples of information students may want to collect include:

  • Reasons why the immigrant group might have left their home country for the United States
  • An account of their travel from their home country to the United States
  • How the immigrants entered the US (for example, going through Ellis Island)
  • The search immigrants went through in order to gain employment
  • The difficulties immigrants had in joining the "melting pot" of American society
  • How the influx of that particular immigrant group affected American society
  • What successes that immigrant group (or individuals in that group) had in joining the "melting pot"

Specific time cues for various immigrant groups featured in the film, "The Golden Door" include:

Mexican immigration: 1:50-10:45; 20:17-25:14; 38:32-53:20

Scandinavians: 12:30-20:15

Irish immigration: 25:20-36:10

Chinese immigration: 36:10-38:32

After viewing the film, students can find further information in the Online Resources section, below.

Using information from their viewing of the film and the online resources, students can then write their "first person" account. Remind students that they should be candid about their experiences, but should also be "believable." They are writing in the "first person" so they should assume the character of the person they are describing.

Each teacher can develop their own criteria as to the length of the "first person accounts". Teachers can also evaluate student work according to their own criteria, but evaluation criteria should include the following:

  • Historical accuracy
  • Spelling and grammar
  • How well the "first person account" holds the interest of the reader.

Extension Activities:

If possible, students can investigate their own "family tree" to see if their ancestors possibly could have been part of the migration discussed in "The Golden Door". Using that information, they might write reports about their family members who immigrated and settled in the United States.

Students might also research famous Americans whose families came to the US (for example, the Kennedy family) and settled. Students could create multimedia presentations or write reports on those families.

Online Resources:

Destination America

Destination America "Freedom from Want" page (includes Real Video presentation on the Irish Potato Famine

Destination America "When Did They Come" webpage

Destination America "Personal Stories" page featuring "Manuel," a Mexican migrant worker

The New Americans

Immigration: The Changing Face of America

Irish immigration:

Library of Congress Irish Immigration page

LOC Irish Catholic Immigration page

Chinese Immigration:

Library of Congress Chinese Immigration page

Angel Island

Library of Congress Chinese Immigration page

Scandinavian Immigration:

Library of Congress Scandinavian Immigration page

Scandinavian Roots, American Lives website

St. Olaf College "The Mind of the Scandinavian Immigrant" webpage

Norwegian-American Historical Association webpage

Mexican Immigration

Library of Congress Mexican Immigration page

"Beyond the Border"

PBS "The Border" page featuring the history of Mexican immigration to the US

Freedom to Worship | Freedom from Oppression | Freedom from Want | Freedom from Fear| Freedom to Create

Sources: Destination America

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