The Italian Americans

For Educators

Birds of Passage:  Italian Immigrant Labor in the U.S.

Grade Level

5 – 12 (A variety of discussion questions below, along with flexible writing prompts, allow for a wide grade range)

Lesson Overview

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the U.S. experienced a second industrial revolution – and immigrant labor fueled factories, construction, mining and other economic growth.  Over the first two decades of the 20th century, over 3 million Southern Italian migrant laborers passed through Ellis Island. Like many others before and after them, this group included migrant laborers who hoped to make money in the U.S. and return home, and others who envisioned a new life in America. What rings true for all, is a challenging experience of transatlantic travel, rough work, often-deplorable living conditions – and an undeniable contribution to the United States. 

By viewing the video “Birds of Passage” and through discussion and independent writing of historical fiction, students will connect the personal experiences of immigrant families to broader historical events. Additional reflection questions and an extension offer the option to connect learning about Italian Americans to other immigrant groups and times. This lesson invites students to look deeply at the central role of immigration in the American story – to examine the reasons people leave their families and homes to take on risky work. And, to understand the pivotal work of migrant labor in literally building the systems of water, transportation, industry and buildings that we use to this day.

Learning Objectives

  • Observe and describe Italian American experiences from the late 19th and early 20th centuries
  • Contextualize individual stories with broader historical events and ideas, including the modernization and urbanization of the U.S.; immigration and migration to the U.S.,  and working class living/labor conditions at the turn of the 20th century
  • Research specific historical events and characters, and then synthesize detailed information in a creative writing project
  • Examine the role of immigration in the growth of the U.S. economy
  • Make connections between Italian migrant laborers and other immigrant groups past and present

Lesson PDFs

Multimedia Resources

Birds of Passage (video)


Also See:

Who Killa Da Chief? (video)


Fruits of Thy Labor (video)