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They’re Coming to America: Immigrants Past and Present
Lesson Overview

(Click here for a printer-friendly version of this lesson.)

Grades 5-7

Three 45-minute class periods (excluding homework time)

In the 2010 PBS series FACES OF AMERICA, Harvard professor Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. states, “if you scratch an American family, sooner or later, you’ll find an immigrant ancestor.” Between 1820 and 1924, no less than 36 million people migrated to the United States. . .but America’s immigrant history is much vaster than that statistic. The country has been an immigrant destination throughout its history, a trend which continues to the present day, with immigrants from across the globe making the United States their home.

In this lesson, students will explore the history of this nation of immigrants. In the Introductory Activity, students will identify their own countries of heritage, as well as those of their classmates. Students will then identify ethnic groups that migrated to the United States during various historic “waves” of immigration. In the Learning Activities, students will explore video segments from FACES OF AMERICA to develop an understanding of key motivations for immigration, and explore online resources to examine specific immigrant experiences from various points in American history. In the Culminating Activity, students will utilize their historical knowledge and examination of case studies to develop a brief narrative summarizing the experiences, aspirations, and emotions of a hypothetical immigrant to the United States in the past or the present. This lesson is best used as an introduction to a unit on immigration, or as a stand-alone educational experience to enhance viewing of FACES OF AMERICA.

Social Studies; American History


Students will be able to:
• Articulate that the United States is a nation of immigrants, and that America’s immigrant past is reflected in our language, culture, and traditions;
• Identify their own countries of heritage on a world map;
• Describe the historic waves of immigration to the United States, and the countries related to those waves;
• Explain motivations and rationale for immigration to the United States at various points through its history;
• Provide specific examples of historic and contemporary immigrant experiences;
• Compare and contrast the experiences of historic and contemporary immigrants to the United States.

History Standards for Grades 5-12

Historical Thinking
Standard 2:
The student comprehends a variety of historical sources; therefore, the student is able to draw upon data in historical maps; in order to obtain or clarify information on the geographic setting in which the historical event occurred, its relative and absolute location, the distances and directions involved, the natural and man-made features of the place, and critical relationships in the spatial distributions of those features and the historical event occurring there, and draw upon visual, literary, and musical sources including: (a) photographs, paintings, cartoons, and architectural drawings; (b) novels, poetry, and plays; and, (c) folk, popular and classical music, to clarify, illustrate, or elaborate upon information presented in the historical narrative.

Standard 3:
The student engages in historical analysis and interpretation; therefore, the student is able to consider multiple perspectives of various peoples in the past by demonstrating their differing motives, beliefs, interests, hopes, and fears; and draw comparisons across eras and regions in order to define enduring issues as well as large-scale or long-term developments that transcend regional and temporal boundaries.

Standard 4:
The student conducts historical research; therefore, the student is able to formulate historical questions from encounters with historical documents, eyewitness accounts, letters, diaries, artifacts, photos, historical sites, art, architecture, and other records from the past; obtain historical data from a variety of sources, including: library and museum collections, historic sites, historical photos, journals, diaries, eyewitness accounts, newspapers, and the like; documentary films, oral testimony from living witnesses, censuses, tax records, city directories, statistical compilations, and economic indicators, and employ quantitative analysis in order to explore such topics as changes in family size and composition, migration patterns, wealth distribution, and changes in the economy, and support interpretations with historical evidence in order to construct closely reasoned arguments rather than facile opinions.

Era 6: The Development of the Industrial United States (1870-1900)
Standard 2:
Massive immigration after 1870 and how new social patterns, conflicts, and ideas of national unity developed amid growing cultural diversity. Therefore, the student understands the sources and experiences of the new immigrants.

selected segments
Clip 1: Opportunity Beckoned in the New World
This segment details the immigration of Stephen Colbert’s German ancestors to Pennsylvania in the early 1700s.

Clip 2: Tenant Farmers
This segment details the difficult living conditions faced by Stephen Colbert’s Irish ancestors.

Clip 3: “A Very Sad Period in Irish History”
This segment details the catastrophic effects of the Irish Potato Famine.

Clip 4: Pioneers of the American West
Chef Mario Batali learns about his ancestors who left Italy for the American West.

Clip 5: To Hawaii from Japan
This segment reveals the circumstances that led Kristi Yamaguchi’s grandfather to move from Japan to Hawaii.

Access the streaming and downloadable video segments for this lesson at the Video Segments Page.

For the Introductory Activity:

Immigration Explorer
This interactive map depicts how foreign-born groups settled across the United States.

National Geographic Map Machine
An online interactive atlas that enables users to locate nearly any place on Earth, as well as search for and print historical, weather, and population maps.

For the Learning Activity:
Scholastic: Stories of Immigration
This website features statistics on immigration, profiles of immigrants to the United States from the past and the present, and an interactive tour of Ellis Island. The Realplayer plug-in, available for free download at, is required for this website.

For the class:

• Computers with internet access
• Computer, Projection screen, and speakers (for class viewing of online/downloaded video clips)
• Chalkboard of whiteboard
• A world map
• “Where Did It Come From?” Quiz Answer Key (download here)
• “Waves of US Immigration” Answer Key (download here)

For each pair of students:

• “Where Did It Come From?” Quiz (download here)

For each student:

• “Waves of US Immigration” organizer (download here)
• Small “sticky notes” or flags
• “Immigrants: Past and Present” organizer (download here)
• “A Letter Home” template (download here)

Prior to teaching this lesson, you will need to:

Preview all of the video segments and websites used in the lesson. Examine the Immigration Explorer website to familiarize yourself with its functionality, and examine the stories on the Scholastic website to familiarize yourself with the immigrant experiences.

Download the video clips used in the lesson to your classroom computer, or prepare to watch them using your classroom’s Internet connection.

Bookmark the websites used in the lesson on each computer in your classroom. Using a social bookmarking tool such as or diigo (or an online bookmarking utility such as portaportal) will allow you to organize all the links in a central location.

Print out the “Where Did It Come From?” Quiz Answer Key and the “Waves of US Immigration” Answer Key for your reference.

Print out the “Waves of US Immigration,” “Immigrants: Past and Present,” and “A Letter Home” organizers and make copies for your students. Make copies of the “Where Did It Come From?” Quiz for each pair of students in your class.

Next: Proceed to Lesson Activities

Lesson plans for FACES OF AMERICA were created by the LAB@Thirteen, Thirteen’s Community and Educational Outreach Department.

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