Destination America: Our Hope Our Future

Version 2


    Unit Summary

    History comes alive for students as they develop immigrant personas and become immigrants who make the journey from Europe to the United States. Throughout this process, students analyze primary source data to create multimedia portfolios that illustrate their experiences. Once on American soil, they participate in a simulation of the Ellis Island immigration station. Students then assume the roles of their immigrants and share their experiences with the class. This exercise in creating historical fiction, based on actual documents, photos, and records, enables students to understand the motivations of immigrants and the challenges they faced. This can be part of a larger immigration unit where students also study the experiences of other immigrant groups, or look at immigration during different time periods or to different countries.


    At a Glance

    • Grade Level: 6-8
    • Subject: History
    • Topics: Immigration
    • Higher-Order Thinking Skills: Critical Analysis and Interpretation of Data, Questioning, Assessment and Evaluation of Information, Metacognition
    • Key Learnings: Push and Pull Factors, Ellis Island, Immigration Quotas
    • Time Needed: 3-4 weeks, 1 hour daily


    Things You Need




    Download this Unit (zip)


    Mobile Learning

    Mobile apps, reviewed by professional educators for related instructional content.



    Windows 8*


    Common Core Alignment

    This unit is aligned to Common Core State Standards for Social Studies.

    • Literacy in History/Social Studies RH.6-8


    Curriculum-Framing Questions

    • Essential Question
      Why take the risk?
    • Unit Questions
      Why do people immigrate?
      What was it like for immigrants as they traveled to, arrived at, and lived in a new country?
      What are immigration trends and patterns based on data?
    • Content Questions
      Why did immigrants leave their homes to come to the United States between 1870 and 1930?
      How did the United States try to restrict immigration between 1870 and 1900?
      What is immigration and emigration?

    Assessment Processes

    View how a variety of student-centered assessments are used in the Destination America: Our Hope, Our Future Unit Plan. These assessments help students and teachers set goals; monitor student progress; provide feedback; assess thinking, processes, performances, and products; and reflect on learning throughout the learning cycle.


    Instructional Procedures

    Prior to Instruction
    Compile resources on European immigration to the United States from 1870 through 1930. Select primary source materials to help students uncover patterns and trends as they study the "push" and "pull" factors that influenced immigration. Resources might include government records, economic reports, newspaper articles, ships' registries, diaries, and oral histories. Use a social bookmarking Web site to share resources with students.

    Getting Started
    Discuss the Essential Question, Why take the risk? Engage students in a discussion about experiences in their lives or other people's lives that have motivated them to take a big risk. What were the results of the risk? Was it worth it? This can also be done as an online discussion or using an online whiteboard tool if students have their own computers. They can share and comment on each other's ideas.

    After a discussion, have students individually reflect on the question in journals.

    Introduction to the Unit
    Discuss the question, Who is an American? As a group, come up with an operational definition of American. To illustrate the rich heritage in the classroom, compile a list of all the countries students represent ethnically. Locate and mark the countries on a world map. This can be done with online maps. Students can also conduct surveys in the school and display the data in maps and charts.

    Explain that between 1870 and 1930 approximately 30 million immigrants came to America from all over the world. Many of them were fleeing poverty, oppression, or disease in their native countries. Tell students that they are going to assume the role of a European immigrant who came to the United States during this time.

    Share the project, explaining that students will choose an immigration group and use primary source data to research the group's immigration experience, come up with a research question, and collect data to answer their questions. Tell students that, based on their research, they will create an immigrant portfolio, which may include the immigrant's profile, diary entries, letters home, and artifacts to demonstrate why the immigrant left his or her country and describe experiences in the United States. This can be done as a multimedia presentation, a wiki, or a Web site, for example. Provide choices for students throughout the project. During the course of the project, all fictitious immigrants participate in a simulation of an immigration station.

    Immigration Waves
    Show an interactive timeline of different waves of immigration at The Peopling of America* Web site. Focus students on the waves of immigration that occurred during the nineteenth century. Looking at the data, discuss the patterns that they see and what may have caused these. Introduce the idea that migration has two parts-emigration (leaving a place) and immigration (entering a place).

    Discuss how the factors that influenced migration in the latter half of the nineteenth century included pushing factors (such as economic depression; climactic conditions, such as drought; social unrest; and overpopulation), and pulling factors (such as government incentives, personal opportunity, and free expression).

    Have students begin thinking about the country of origin they would like to study. Introduce students to the human face of immigration through Seymour Rechtzeit's story at Scholastic's Immigration Page* or other stories at Family Histories* on the Ellis Island Web site.

    To begin exploring the Unit Question, Why do people immigrate? have students interview someone with direct or indirect (such as second generation) experiences as an immigrant. Students may be able to interview family members or coworkers of family members. You may be able to arrange interviews with a local immigrant group advocacy organization. Interviews can be by phone or web conferencing if interviewees are not local. When arranging the interviews, ask interviewees to bring any artifacts related to their immigration experience.  During the interviews, students should find out as much as they can about the person's origins and record the responses in journals. Questions might include, Where did you/your ancestors come from? When did you/they come to this country? Why did you/they leave their country? How did you travel here?

    Students can practice interviewing peers before the immigrant interviews. Also prior to the interviews, have some sample artifacts on hand to demonstrate how to collect data from artifacts. Use the Artifacts Analysis Worksheet*, from the National Archives, to conduct a mini-lesson. Explain that artifacts are qualitative data, and they can include items such as photographs, war medals, old letters, and documents. As students examine the artifacts, they can uncover information about someone's life and the past as they group, sort, and classify the information.

    After the interviews, have students share information and compare for similarities and differences.

    The Research Process
    Identify Questions
    Have students, individually, in pairs, or small groups, select a national origin. Encourage them to choose national origins from which they descended or would like to learn more about. Choices may include German, Irish, Scandinavian, Hungarian, Italian, Greek, Turkish, Russian, Czech, Slovak, or Polish.

    Provide time for students to conduct exploratory research on their immigration group to generate questions and choose a research question(s) before uncovering more details about the immigrants' experiences. Example research questions include, Why did Turkish immigrants come to the United States? Or, What was it like to be an immigrant from Ireland?

    Provide the following Web sites as good places for students to start gathering immigrant information:


    See Resources for a list of other useful Web sites to get started.

    Collect Data
    Once students establish the questions they want to answer, they need to determine what types of data will give them the information they need to draw meaningful conclusions.

    Guide this process by sharing the types of data that students can consider, and point out the advantages and disadvantages of different data sources. Data may include original records, government reports, photographs, diaries, newspaper articles, oral histories, maps, and birth certificates, for example. Data may also include secondary data that has been collected and compiled by others, such as government reports, ship records, or museum collections. Emphasize to students that they should use a variety of primary and secondary sources so they can get different perspectives.

    Before students begin their data collection, discuss how they can collect, analyze, and interpret data. They can consider the following questions:

    • What kinds of data are most convincing?
    • How can you find meaning in a collection of information?
    • What kinds of sources tell us about the past?
    • How do we organize a lot of information so we can think about what it means?
    • What kinds of questions can be answered with data?


    Distribute the Data Collection Plan to help students begin planning how they conduct their research. Once students have figured out the type of data they are going to use, they can seek answers to their questions with the appropriate data sources. For example:



    Information Needed

    Kind of Data

    Where to Find It

    • Why did Irish immigrants come to the United States?
    • Conditions in Ireland that caused people to leave
    • What they expected to find in the United States
    • Previously collected data about economic conditions in Ireland
    • Diaries of immigrants
    • Web
    • Town historical museum

    As students conduct research, they will keep a Research Log to track the data they use and how they use it. Reinforce specific research skills. This can be done with mini lessons or modeling. For example, when students are reading immigrant diaries or looking at other primary source data, they should think critically about the source and reliability of the data, by asking questions such as:

    • Is the author credible?
    • Is the information supported by evidence?
    • Does the bias of the author need to be considered? Does the content need to be objective?
    • Why was this document/object written or made?
    • Is the data relevant and suitable to the project?
    • How does this source help answer the research questions?
    • How does evidence from this source alter or fit into existing interpretations of the past?


    As students collect data, they formulate an individual immigrant's experience based on actual experiences of that particular immigrant group. Notes may be collected in a journal or on the Research Log. The Research Log may be created and accessed as an online collaborative document.

    Analyze Data
    When students collect data, they look for trends in order to create a portfolio that represents a typical immigrant from a particular immigration group. Since students will primarily use qualitative data, teach them how to code and categorize the data to help with their interpretation of the data. As they analyze data, they can look for common themes in order to best represent a typical immigrant's experience. Demonstrate the following techniques.

    Analyzing Qualitative Data

    1. Read through all the data to get a general impression of the topics that are addressed. Take notes on possible themes or repeated words or phrases.
    2. Based on the reading of the data and the research question, identify some categories of terms and keywords that appear throughout the data. For example: push and pull factors, feelings about immigrating, and immigration challenges.
    3. Create a coding system that will help identify the places where the keywords and categories of words appear. Use color-coding, abbreviations, or symbols. Codes should be easy to remember, record, and identify in the data.
    4. Code data by going through the data and marking the relevant sections with the appropriate codes.
    5. Revise codes. After coding some of the data, divide or combine some categories as needed to be more efficient or descriptive.
    6. Count instances of different keywords and record the numbers in a spreadsheet for quantitative analysis.
    7. Pull out the data into the categories established earlier.
    8. Create diagrams and charts, such as flow charts, Venn diagrams, and hierarchical charts, to show the relationships among the categories.

    Understanding Maps
    Students will undoubtedly come across maps in their immigration research. You may want to review map-reading strategies with a mini lesson. Showing an immigration map, explain the LLLP Strategy to read a map: Legend, Labels, Location, and Patterns. Maps may be theme-based, such as a type of map that shows the number of immigrants from a particular area. With these types of map, students can identify patterns and see how the maps support or contradict other information from their research.

    Analyzing Photos
    Photos are another useful primary source that can provide information. Using a photo from the American Memory collection*, demonstrate how to analyze photos to get information. Use the Photo Analysis Worksheet* from the National Archives to explain how to observe, ask questions, and draw inferences from photos. Students can compare photos in order to make generalizations based on commonalities of the photos.

    Draw Conclusions
    Once students have researched and collected data on an immigrant group, they are ready to synthesize their research by creating a fictitious immigrant's experience. Based on prevailing trends, they create a portfolio of a typical immigrant's experience. The portfolio may include:

    • A Persona (this can be written as a diary):
      • Name
      • Age
      • Family history
      • Occupation and work experience
      • Education
      • Health history
      • Description of life in the old country
      • Push factors and personal reasons for wanting to leave the old country
      • Pull factors, and personal reasons for wanting to enter the United States
      • Plans once in the United States


    • Letters Home
      Students can share their immigration experience with family members back in their countries. They do this by writing letters to relatives or friends in their old country. In their letters, each student should share details and feelings about the crossing, Ellis Island processing procedures, first impressions of the new country, challenges faced by new immigrants, and so forth. Have students get peer feedback before final revisions are made to their letters. Letters may be done as blogs with students commenting on each other's experiences from the point of view of their immigrant persona.

      After students have been through the immigration process, revisit the Curriculum-Framing Questions: Why take the risk?What was it like for immigrants as they traveled to, arrived at, and lived in the United States? and How did the immigration experience differ for different immigrant groups? As a class, discuss students' answers to these questions and how their answers may have changed with their new perspectives.


    • Documents
      Students can prepare for their journey to the United States by creating fictitious documents, such as birth certificates, passports, health records, and so forth. You may want to prepare templates for these in advance.

    Share Findings
    Have students combine their work into an electronic portfolio about their immigrant's immigration experience. The portfolio may be presented as a multimedia presentation, a Web site, or a wiki for example. The student example shows a portfolio as a wiki. The portfolio can be used to support an oral presentation, in which each immigrant dresses in character and tells his or her personal immigration story, based on their research. These can be recorded and turned into podcasts, displayed on an interactive online map, or shared on a blog, for example.

    Once the different immigrant groups have been represented, students can draw comparisons by classifying and displaying information visually in graphs, tables, or charts across immigrant groups, identifying similarities and differences. For example, categories may include: push and pull factors, challenges, types of jobs, and so forth.

    Immigration Station Simulation
    Through this simulation experience, students learn about European immigrants' first stop in America-Ellis Island-through a simulation. Because this takes quite a bit or organizing, you may choose to teach about the Ellis Island experience without doing the simulation. Many Web sites provide a detailed look at the immigration station, including the following:


    In preparation for the simulation, ask other adults to act as immigration inspectors. Set up a room with different areas, such as a waiting room, medical inspection area, interrogation area, detaining area, money exchange booth, and cafeteria.


    Be sure that each student is familiar with the character he or she will be portraying. Explain to students that they will be going through a mock physical and psychological medical inspection where a doctor will look for medical and physical defects, and for signs of disease. Students will be interrogated by a legal inspector. If granted permission to enter the United States, the students will be administered the Loyalty Oath, or they will be deported.


    Wrapping Up
    Have students revisit the Essential Question, Why take the risk? and respond in their journals based on their research and experiences.


    Differentiated Instruction

    Resource Student

    • Make modifications as dictated in the student's IEP
    • Preselect Web sites and other research material appropriate for the student's reading level
    • Assist the student with note-taking techniques by making photocopies and having the student first highlight important information and then record that information in note style
    • Set up heterogeneous groups

    Gifted Student

    • Have the student compare the immigration experiences at Ellis Island and Angel Island
    • Call upon the student to assist with setting up the simulation to help make it a realistic experience
    • Have the student read the book Letters from Rifka, about a young girl's immigration experience

    English Language Learner

    • Create templates to help the student with the immigrant profile
    • Review the interrogation questions with the student before the simulation
    • If possible, have the student share immigration stories and call upon the student as a resource and "expert"
    • Set up heterogeneous groups



    Karen March participated in the Intel® Teach Program, which resulted in this idea for a classroom project. A team of teachers expanded the plan into the example you see here.

    Background: From the Classroom in California, United States

    Students gain an understanding of why people immigrate and what life was like as an immigrant at the turn of the 20th century by traveling back in time by using primary sources.