Common Threads:
Teaching Immigration in Elementary Classrooms

Robin Haskell McBee, Kristine Bone, Gail Mossop, and Carrie Owens

America is not like a blanketóone piece of unbroken cloth, the same color, the same texture, the same size. America is more like a quiltómany pieces, many colors, many sizes, all woven together by a common thread.

óJesse Jackson


We are a nation of nations, a collection of people from many lands who, from pre-colonial times to the present, have settled in the portion of the Americas we call the United States.1 For young children to begin to grasp this concept, they need to explore the story of immigration to this country. Nearly 40 million people in this century alone have immigrated to the United States, and four of every ten Americans has relatives who passed through Ellis Island en route to American residence and citizenship. If, as U.S. historian Oscar Handlin puts it, the history of the United States is the story of immigrants in America,2 how can elementary school teachers introduce this story?

As a professor and three pre-service elementary teachers interested in social studies and multicultural education, we set out to learn how experienced teachers in the field were teaching their young students about immigration. Based in southern New Jersey, the fifth most popular state of intended residence among U.S. immigrants,3 we believed that immigration would prove an important topic to elementary teachers and sought to learn what creative approaches they used in teaching it. We invited elementary school principals from 53 districts to nominate teachers who had developed units on immigration and would be willing to talk with us about the genesis of their units.

From our interviews with selected teachers, we learned that their approaches vary widely, from oral histories and family trees, to childrenís literature and real or virtual travel to Ellis Island. Nevertheless, some common threads exist among the approaches we encountered. First, while these teachers occasionally use social studies textbooks as references for their students, they more frequently rely on their own resourcefulness to generate the interactive and hands-on activities that characterize their instruction.

Second, in teaching about immigration, these teachers share the primary goal of encouraging pride in the multicultural variations in our national population. Although certainly not an attempt to transform the whole curriculum, as James Banks describes it, they all appear to have gone somewhat beyond what he describes as an ìadditiveî approach to multicultural education.4 This is evident in their attempts to personalize instruction by seeking out true-to-life accounts and vicarious experiences that make the anticipation, struggles, rejections, and triumphs encountered by newcomers to the United States real to their young students.

The study of immigration allows students to acquire knowledge and understanding of many different thematic strands of the social studies standards. For example, a teacher can introduce students to themes 1 (Culture) and 3 (People, Places and Environments) by examining the traditions, values and countries of origin of immigrants. Teaching the history of immigration addresses theme 2 (Time, Continuity and Change). The life stories of immigrants can be an excellent introduction to theme 4 (Individual Development and Identity). The tale of how immigrants adjusted to the life, work and society of their new country highlights theme 5 (Individuals, Groups and Institutions). The subject of international migration is also a natural vehicle for teaching theme 9 (Global Connections).

Since nothing tells a story like the story itself, we offer the following three synopses of teachersí ideas and experiences in dealing with the topic of immigration in elementary classrooms.

The Statue of Liberty as Impetus

Jackie5 began teaching immigration to her third grade students after being enthralled by her own visit to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Feeling that the Statue of Liberty is ìthe most important symbol for kids to learn about,îóand that her middle income, mostly Caucasian students would benefit from learning more about immigrationóshe approached her principal about developing such a unit, and he agreed. She then worked with the districtís Social Studies Committee and Curriculum Coordinator to develop an immigration unit for all third grade classes in the districtís four elementary schools.

The resulting curriculum includes 24 lessons taught over an eight-week period and encompassing various hands-on activities for students. These include reading childrenís literature about immigration, such as If Your Name Was Changed at Ellis Island; taking notes from the board (an activity not usually begun until fourth grade); viewing films such as ìThe Statue of Libertyî and ìRemembering Ellis Islandî; performing historical research; and writing creatively. Several of these activities combine when each student writes a Statue of Liberty story.

During the course of the unit, students explore historical and environmental reasons for why people immigrate by researching a particular country and preparing an oral report that is recorded on a video camera. Each child picks a country; dresses in appropriate costume; explains his or her reasons for immigrating to a new land; and describes the journey in terms of the land and water crossed and how long it took.

Jackie feels this unit is exciting to her students, who have at various times asked for more projects and writing assignments, and even a teacher-made test. She also feels that this hands-on approach to the immigrant experience helps students to better recall a great number of facts and details. Jackieís advice to other elementary teachers thinking about developing an immigration unit is: ìGo to the Statue of Liberty first!î For those not able to make the trip in person, a virtual tour can be organized by visiting or

Family History and Beyond

Diane begins her fourth grade unit on immigration with a personal approach that centers on family history. Students explore their family origins by interviewing a family member and completing a family tree. Diane encourages her students to talk to their grandparents, telling them, ìThey wonít be around forever. They have great stories to tell you. They know what it is like not to have TV.î Students also make their own passports, collect family recipes, and describe family traditionsóall efforts to personalize the notion that all families come from somewhere and act in ways that may reflect their different countries of origin.

The use of childrenís literature helps students to broaden their understanding of the immigrant experience and the varying cultural backgrounds from which Americans come. One favorite is Lily and Miss Liberty, which takes place just after France has given the Statue of Liberty to the United States. Lily belongs to a large immigrant Irish family. When money is needed to build a pedestal for the statue, she disagrees with her motherís and grandmotherís objections to making a donation, making apparent what the statue means to her.

Diane assesses her studentsí understanding of the immigrant experience by having each choose a country and assume the role of an immigrant at some period in history. Students then write a letter home incorporating all of the things they have learned about immigrationósuch as, why they came here, where they settled, and what kind of jobs they found. The culminating activity for this unit is a very popular cultural festival held at night so that all family members can attend.

Using One Novel as a Focus

Terry is a veteran fifth grade teacher who works in a sprawling middle income suburban community that until recently was mostly farmland. Her unit on immigration evolved from a fifth grade field trip to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island seven years ago. To prepare their students, Terry and the other fifth grade teachers read aloud Letters from Rifka, the story of a Russian girl detained at Ellis Island for three months because she has ringworm. By the second year of teaching the unit, their principal insisted that the novel become a regular part of the fifth grade reading curriculum.

Over the years, the unit has been modified and expanded, so that it now spans three months and most of the subjects that Terry and her colleagues teach. The novel serves as the focus of reading instruction. The students keep journals and demonstrate their understanding of historic context by writing sequels that describe Rifkaís experience of life in the United States. The class studies Russian geography, maps Rifkaís travels, and learns about aspects of Russian history at the time Rifka emigrated. They also maintain a current events bulletin board with current articles on Russia in order to compare past and present life in that country.

In math, students use data collected from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service website to estimate, calculate with decimals and percentages, and solve word problems related to immigration. These activities are intended to help them understand the relationships between the massive influx of immigrants to this country at different times and the reasons for the ensuing debates about restricting immigration. The students also use computers to graph immigration data and to obtain information about Ellis Island.

In preparation for their visit to Ellis Island, the students complete a family tree going back three generations, and view the videotape ìIsland of Hope, Island of Tearsî prepared by the Ellis Island Foundation. Once on the island, they take part in the standard tour and scavenger hunt, and use computers to locate relativesí names. When they return to school, they view the videotape ìThe Immigrant Experienceî in order to better understand what it is like for newcomers to the United States today.

Terry feels this unit helps her students ìdevelop a better understanding of life and what people have gone throughî to get to this country and become Americans. She shares the following anecdote about one class visit to Ellis Island in support of that view: ìEvery time we read Rifka... I remember this one little girlóshe actually went around, and she touched the walls, and she said, ëThis is where Rifka was.íî

In Conclusion

In the words of Ronald Takaki, ìAmerica does not belong to one race or one group... Americans have been constantly redefining their national identity from the moment of first contact on the Virginia shore.î6 Helping students to understand the constantly shifting ethnic and racial variations in our national identity, and the historic context for these shifts, is a critically important role for the elementary social studies educator. These teacher stories show that elementary grade teachers can and do provide richly varied instructional experiences and authentic exposure to diverse perspectives in weaving a tapestry of understanding about the diverse peoples who make up this nation.


1. Martin W. Sandler, Immigrants: A Library of Congress Book (New York: HarperCollins, 1995).

2. Ibid.

3. Immigration and Naturalization Service, Immigration Fact Sheet (Available at the INS website:, 1996.)

4. James A. Banks, ìEducation for Survival in a Multicultural World,î in M. E. Haas and M. A. Laughlin, eds., Meeting the Standards, Social Studies Readings for K-6 Educators (Washington, DC: National Council for the Social Studies, 1997), 231-232; originally published in Social Studies & the Young Learner 1, No. 4 (1989).

5. All teachersí names have been changed to maintain anonymity.

6. Ronald Takaki, A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1993).

Teaching Resources

Childrenís Literature

Karen Hesse, Letters from Rifka. New York: Puffin, 1993. Ages 9-12.

Kathryn Lasky, The Night Journey. New York: Viking, 1986. Young adult readers.

Maxine Rhea Leighton, An Ellis Island Christmas. New York: Puffin, 1994. Ages 4-8.

Ellen Levine, If Your Name Was Changed at Ellis Island. New York: Scholastic, 1994. Ages 9-12.

Sonia Levitin, Journey to America. New York: Atheneum, 1987. Ages 9-12

Betsy C. Maestro, Coming to America. New York: Scholastic, 1996. Ages 4-8.

Allen Say, Grandfatherís Journey. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993. Ages 4-8.

J. Silverman, The Immigrant Songbook. Melbay Publications, 1989.

Carla Stevens. Lily and Miss Liberty. New York: Little Apple, 1993. Ages 9-12.

Michele Surat, Angel Child, Dragon Child. New York: Scholastic, 1989.

Yoshiko Uchida. The Bracelet. New York: Philomel, 1993. Ages 4-8.

Gloria Whelan, Goodbye Vietnam. New York: Random House, 1993. Ages 9-12.


Ellis Island Museum and Foundation

Census Bureau

Basic Immigration Resources

Robin Haskell McBee is assistant professor in the Department of Elementary and Early Childhood Education at Rowan University, Glassboro, NJ. Kristine Bone, Gail Mossop, and Carrie Owens are students in the department.