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New Lesson Plan: Child Immigrant Experiences of Early 1900s and Today

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Published on Sat, 04/07/2018

A classroom with students working at desks, teacher in long dress seated at a table next to chalk boards, surrounded by a group of 6 girls of varied heights, using her hands as she explains something.
1909 photo of immigrant children at school in Boston.

This elementary school lesson engages students with primary source materials that make vivid the journeys and lives of immigrant children in the early 20th century and today. It features video interviews with kids who have recently immigrated and archival photos of child immigrants from the turn of the 20th century.

The screenshot of a webpage shows a boy from Sierra Leone in photos, with a map showing Sierra Leone in Africa and a link to his video. Primary source interviews with five recent immigrants to the US from 2010.

Timothy Sheehan, the lesson plan’s author, writes:

Photo of low grasses (bog) with picking figures blurred in background, woman and two children sitting on the ground with small buckets in their hands. Girl (8) has headscarf, boy (6) has a cap over a headscarf, woman smiles bareheaded, long skirt, cranberries on a cloth in front of her. Syrian immigrant children picking cranberries in Massachusetts, 1911.

“Fourth graders are just beginning to develop a sense of the larger world around them, as well as learn about the interactions of human beings with each other and the environment. One topic that is new to them is immigration. This multi-day lesson is designed to help them examine immigration from their own perspective. Currently, the most readily available historical materials for children focus on the wave of immigration to America during the late 1800s through the early 1900s. This lesson will help them to examine historical primary source documents and compare and contrast the lives of immigrant children at that time period with those of today. By focusing on the lives of children, they will better be able to develop an understanding of and empathy for the immigrant experience.”

City sidewalk with two boys in shirtsleeves in doorway of storefront, "Shoe Shine Parlor 5 cents for ladies and gentlemen" Greek illiterate teen boys at shoe shine two months since arriving in US, 1912

The lesson is designed to help elementary school students learn from primary and secondary sources, and also uses historical fiction and imaginative prompts to develop understanding and empathy for the immigrant experience. Several primary sources picture children who arrived in the US not knowing English, making this accessible lesson one that has direct relevance to English learners in the classroom. The lesson plan includes a Universal Design for Learning (UDL) chart, examples of a double-bubble Thinking Map chart and an Inquiry Chart.

The lesson plan (link here) was developed through the Library of Congress’s Teaching with Primary Sources initiative.  Access our online library of lesson plans and teaching resources.

Alison Noyes

Assistant Director, Emerging America
Alison Noyes is the Assistant Director of the Emerging America program at the Collaborative for Educational Services. She has worked in the field of education for over 20 years, entering as a teacher of English Language learners and high school history, and working for many years with international students and college study abroad as a program director and assistant dean before returning to focus on engaging K-12 students.