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  • Lesson plan
  • Grades 9-10

Humanizing Immigrant Stories


Pre-requisite: Either in class or as homework prior to the lesson, ask students to read a general history of Cuban immigration to the U.S. since the rise of Castro in 1959. This could be the Background Information section of POV's discussion guide for Voices of the Sea, one of the Resources listed in this lesson plan, or even Wikipedia. Your choice should reflect the reading level and research skills of your students.

Step 1: The Assignment

Ask students what they know about current immigration issues facing the U.S. – not their opinions; just the issues people are debating.

After a very brief discussion (including any clarifications you might need to offer), explain to students they are going to do a writing exercise that asks them to think about why people emigrate from their home countries.

Give them the assignment:

  • In dialogue form, script a conversation between people deciding whether or not to migrate to the U.S. (Based on the skill level of your students, you can determine the minimum length required).
  • There must be at least two people involved in the conversation, but it is okay to include more. The conversation could be between spouses, friends, parents and children – whomever you wish. The people can be from any country you choose.
  • The dialogue should reflect the realities of the country you choose (i.e., the reader/listener should know what nation the people are from). You will need to research what is happening/has happened in the country you choose in order to make your dialogue realistic.
  • You can choose the year.* (*If the class has been studying a particular time period, you may want to require that the dialogue takes place during that era).

Let students know the due date.

Step 2: Cuba

To help students prepare, tell them you are going to share with them clips from a documentary – Voices of the Sea – that features a wife and husband who currently live in Cuba and are contemplating leaving as they watch friends and family emigrate. Mariela is in her thirties and the mother of four. Pita, her second husband, is older and a third generation fisherman.

To provide context for the clips, ask what students learned from their reading on the general history of migration from Cuba. Be sure they understand the special status that Cuban immigrants have enjoyed in the U.S. (and the reason for that special treatment), the "wet foot, dry foot" policy, and the current policy.

Step 3: The Video Clips

As they view each clip, students should pay attention to the issues that Mariela and Pita discuss. What factors are important to them? Is their decision easy or difficult? What do they say or do that lets you know how they feel, as well as what they think?

Show the four clips, pausing briefly after each so students may share reactions.

After the final clip, ask students to choose countries and time periods and, as time allows, let them start researching and writing.

[Optional] Step 4: Reflection

On the day that students turn in their dialogues, give them time to do a free write reflection on the relationship between the assignment and current events. What did they learn about why people choose to leave their own countries and come to the U.S.? Is that decision typically easy or difficult? How do their new insights influence their thinking about current immigration policy and how the U.S. should handle immigrants or refugees?

About the authors

Faith Rogow

Faith Rogow, Ph.D., is the co-author of The Teacher's Guide to Media Literacy: Critical Thinking in a Multimedia World (Corwin, 2012) and past president of the National Association for Media Literacy Education. She has written discussion guides and lesson plans for more than 250 independent films.