Almost from the start, Immigration to what would ultimately become the United States has been controversial as various nations claimed the same land for themselves. While controversy continues even today, immigrants continue to move to America for a number of reasons, and they continue to contribute to the culture and society of the nation.
Why Did They Come?
Explore the historic and contemporary reasons for immigration with your students. Discuss the primary reasons for colonization and immigration:
- Economic: The first Jamestown colonists came to the New World to seek their fortunes. As it became obvious that there was an abundance of land available, more and more people left Europe for the chance to own land and become financially successful. Georgia was established as a haven for debtors, offering them the opportunity to start over.
- Religious: The Puritans came to the New World in part to find a place in which they could practice their religion in their own way, although they did not offer that freedom to others who came to their settlement. William Penn offered religious liberty to Quakers, and Maryland was established as a Catholic colony.
- Political: Many settlers came to the colonies to escape oppressive government actions, while others were sentenced to transportation as the punishment for a crime.
Ask: “Why do you think that people move to the United States today?" Prompt further discussion by asking, “Do any still come for economic reasons? How about religious reasons? Are people still immigrating for political reasons?"
Encourage students to find news articles that illustrate the different reasons for immigration. Allow them to share briefly the articles as they bring them to class. Discuss the reasons found in the articles.
Where Did They Go?
Using history textbooks and other reading materials, explore where immigrants from different countries settled. Discuss why they might have selected the areas they did, and why immigrants seem to settle in the same areas as others from their home countries.
Continue the exploration by researching how the clusters of immigrants have affected the culture of the areas. Identify some contributions that are linked to the customs brought from the old country, such as foods, holidays or vocabulary.
Ask students to map the settlements on a poster-sized outline map of the United States, making the map three-dimensional by using a symbol that represents an element of the group’s culture or of their contributions to the American culture. For example, a student might use a riata to represent the vaqueros who settled in the Southwest, especially in Texas.
What Have They Done?
Create a class Who’s Who Among American Immigrants book. Assign small groups of students the task of researching a particular immigrant group to discover what contributions they have made to the American culture, including the arts, foods, inventions, celebrations, language and other areas. Groups should create yearbook-style spreads to highlight the people and ideas.
Extend the lesson with a cultural fair at which the groups set up tables to showcase famous members of the immigrant groups, as well as the other results of their research. Encourage them to include food samples or craft items that visitors to the table can take away to remind them of what they learn. Invite the other classes, the parents and the rest of the community to visit the fair.
Imagine Being an Immigrant
Share several pictures books about immigration, including How Many Days to America: A Thanksgiving Story by Eve Bunting.
Discuss how it might feel to leave your home and move to another country, especially in cases in which you know it is unlikely that you will see the people left behind again.
Point out that, in many cases, immigrants have also had to leave behind most of their possessions.
Ask students to make a list of three to five things that they would select to take if they were immigrating.
Provide each child with an empty pizza box and encourage him or her to decorate it like a suitcase, using paint or paper to cover the outside. Many pizza restaurants will donate the boxes, and others usually charge only a nominal fee for them.
Ask students to make models of the things on their lists, either from paper or from other materials. They should then place the items in their “suitcases." On the inside of the lid, students paste a copy of a composition explaining why they selected each item.
Learn What They Said
Share information from the Ellis Island and Angel Island websites and archives with students. Ask them to select a picture or a first-hand account from an immigrant that particularly appeals to them.
Have students practice writing skills by asking by creating journal entries describing the travel and resettlement experience from the perspective of the story or picture selected or from that of an immigrant child. As a part of the diary, ask students to write letters that might have been received from the people “back home," as well as letters the immigrant might write to friends and family left behind.
Where Were They From?
Gather immigration statistics, by country of origin, for several years. If possible, use data from several different centuries or decades. Alternatively, assign different time periods to partners and ask them to find the data.
Help students practice math skills by assisting them in creating various types of graphs using the data collected.
After learning from this immigration teaching unit for fifth grade, your students will better understand the feelings and experiences of newcomers to the United States, as well as recognizing the valuable contributions made to our society by these new Americans.
For more information or activities on immigration check out:
For more literature, check out the following website and titles:
Literature with Immigration Themes
- Brothers in Hope: The Story of the Lost Boys of Sudan Mary Williams
- I Hate English by Ellen Levine
- The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi
- How Many Days to America: A Thanksgiving Story by Eve Bunting
- American Voices from a Century of Immigration, Rebecca Stetoff
- In English, Of Course, Josephine Nobisso and Dasha Ziborova
- Watch the Stars Come Out, Riki Levinson and Diane Goode
- An American Face, Jan M. Czech
- At Ellis Island:A History in Many Voices, Louise Peacock and Walter Lyon Krudop
- Children of Immigration, Carola Suarez-Orozco
- Hard Times in Ireland: The Scotch-Irish Come to America, Jeremy Thornton
- Britta's Journey: An Emigration Sage, Ann Marie Mershon and Gail Alden-Hedstrom
- The Gold Rush: Chinese Immigrants Come to America, Jeremy Thornton