The Role of the Immigrant in United States History:
A Thematic Approach

Mary E. Connor

I teach AP United States history thematically, an engaging approach because each of the topics is distinct, relevant, and powerful.1 When I taught in the traditional chronological mode, I regarded the subject matter as fascinating, but many of my students were unimpressed. With the introduction of themes, I find that most young people become excited about the history of America.

One strength of the thematic method is relevancy. Within each theme, students examine the past, but are brought up to the present. Another advantage of this approach involves retention. Since my students journey from past to present at least ten times during the course, they remember history better. This is reflected in the high scores on AP exams achieved by the growing number of students who self-select the course (see Figure 1). Still another advantage of using themes is flexibility. If the class comprises a particular ethnic population, any teacher can modify the material to include appropriate information.

Immigration provides an excellent model for learning thematically because it is one of the most personal and engaging of topics. It is personal because each student researches his or her own familyís immigrant history. It is engaging because it enables high school juniors to reflect on issues that particularly concern them: individuality and fairness.

In examining how individuals from Jamestown to the present have struggled with adversity in pursuit of the American Dream, students are attracted by the sheer power of the narrative. To complement the textbook, they read journals or do oral interviews of people arriving in a new and foreign land. The class also explores community resources that promote ethnic and racial tolerance.

Learning about the history of immigration provides students with more perspective on recent debates over immigration; they see that issues of difference, rights, and tolerance have been raised many times before. Our classroom being located in California, their own debate over Proposition 187 was forceful enough to overflow into hallways and homes. At the end of the unit, students hear the personal testimonials of modern-day immigrants and reflect on the reasons these people are here.

A Brief History of U.S. Immigration

What do students learn about immigration using a topical approach? After a brief introduction to the French and Spanish colonies in the Americas, the class explores the reasons for English settlement and the experience of immigrants in Jamestown, Plymouth, and Massachusetts Bay. We then explore the reasons for continuing immigration in the 17th and 18th centuries, and discover that most foreigners arrived from Northern and Western Europe or were transported from Africa as indentured servants or slaves. Some forty years after the adoption of the Constitution, a new flood of outlanders began to appear in the vastly expanded American territory, many of them impoverished Catholics from Ireland and Germany. As an outcome of the Mexican War, many Mexicans living in conquered territory found themselves to be instant Americans.

A good example of how students become engaged in the material involves early resistance to immigration. When I taught a chronological unit on Jacksonian Democracy, the Know Nothing Party elicited glazed eyes, being submerged in a great tide of historical movements including nationalism, sectionalism, industrialization, abolitionism, and the womenís movement. This is akin to reading six novels simultaneously. However, within a theme of immigration, this pre-Civil War party is more clearly seen for what it was: an anti-immigrant, nativist phenomenon.

In the late 19th and early 20th century period, we examine the role of immigrants as homesteaders, railroad builders, and industrial workers. We witness the rising hostility against the Chinese and the Japanese in the West, and Eastern and Southern Europeans arriving on the Atlantic seaboard. Students evaluate the effects of race, economic uncertainty, religious differences, and diplomatic tensions in creating intolerance toward immigrants.

In the post-World War I era, students observe the increased xenophobia and consider its relationship to the war, the Red Scare, and labor unrest. They learn how recent immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe became stereotyped as anarchists and socialists and served as scapegoats for various social ills. And, they learn how Congress responded by setting in place country quotas favoring Northern and Western European immigration in the National Origins Quota Acts of 1921/1924.Without having to wait several months for the unit on the Great Society, students immediately connect this legislation with the more humane public policy of the Immigration Act of 1965, which literally changed ìthe faceî of America.

During this process of inquiry, students come to realize that virtually every ethnic and racial group in America has experienced some form of discrimination at one time or another (NCSS Standard 4 Individual Development and Identity). They also develop more perspective on the contributions of their own and other racial/ethnic groups. Children of earlier immigrants become more tolerant of those who have just arrived. Working in small groups, students develop timelines that include key dates in immigration history (NCSS Standard 2 Time, Continuity, and Change).

Teaching Activities

When approaching immigration thematically, a teacher has numerous options for developing creative and worthwhile projects. Through inquiry into oneís family history, research on a specific immigrant group, and interviews with recent immigrants, students have the opportunity to view their own story and the stories of others within the context of the American experience. Our class projects include the following:

Family History

On the first day of school, students are told that they have approximately six weeks to find out as much as possible about their own familyís history. After consulting parents, grandparents, and other relatives, students present their research to the entire class. Many bring posters with photographs of their ancestors derived from the family archives. Almost all students take pride in sharing their family history and begin to make connections between the lives of family members and historic events. They also take note of the amazing cultural diversity represented in their own classroom (NCSS Standard 1 Culture).

Class Family History Document

The culmination of these individual efforts is a class family history document. The teacher asks each student to submit the most interesting two facts from his or her research. These items are organized chronologically, and a tentative document is circulated for editing. The final class family history is kept in a personal notebook and serves to remind students that their families were participants in particular events in U.S. history. Some highlights from the document are shown in Figure 2.

Oral History: Interviews with Immigrants

In this project, students conduct oral interviews with immigrants and transcribe them using a word processor. These interviews are based on a list of questions provided to students, and any others they may want to ask. Prior to the interviews, students are instructed to inform the interviewee to be candid about life in the United States. If the interviewee has experienced discrimination, he is encouraged to report it. After the teacher has critiqued their papers, students read them aloud.

These oral history accounts typically reflect struggles raising children in America, concerns about preserving culture, and difficulties learning English. While much is said about the problems that exist in America today, those interviewed inevitably convey a message of gratitude for the freedom and opportunity offered in the United States. The cumulative effect of listening to these personal narratives is inevitably a very touching and inspiring experience.

The final step in this activity involves using a group of questions to generate student discussion of (1) any conclusions to be drawn from the experiences of recent immigrants and (2) the strengths and limitations of the oral history method. Figure 3 shows the components of the oral history activity.

Using Community Resources

Our study of immigration is further enriched by the use of community resources. Within the Los Angeles area, students take field trips to two museums: the Museum of Tolerance and the Japanese-American National Museum. Both deal very powerfully with issues of discrimination. The Museum of Tolerance contains displays that relate to intolerance toward most racial groups in America. At the Japanese-American National Museum, all tour guides are people who were interned during World War II or who fought in the famous 442nd Regiment, probably the most decorated unit in U.S. military history.

There are many other museums throughout the country that contain exhibits relevant to the issues of immigration and tolerance. If they are not accessible to your students, it may be possible for students to take a virtual field trip using the Internet. Some suggested sites for this purpose are included in the Teaching Resources at the end of this article.


1. For a fuller discussion of this thematic approach, see Mary E. Connor, ìTeaching United States History Thematically,î Social Education 61, No. 4 (April/May 1997), 203-204.

Teaching Resources


Daniels, Roger. Coming to America: A History of Immigration. New York: Harper Collins, 1990.

Davis, Marilyn P., ed. Mexican Voices: American Dreams. New York: Henry Holt, 1991.

Norton, Mary Beth, David Katzman, Paul Escott, Howard Chudacoff, Thomas G. Paterson, and William Tuttle, Jr. A People and a Nation. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994.

Rico, Barbara Roche and Sandra Mano, eds. American Mosaic: Multicultural Readings in Context. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991.

Takaki, Ronald. A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America. Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1993.

óóóóó. Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans. New York: Penguin Books, 1989.


ìAKA Don Bonusî (1993) Experience of an 18-year-old Cambodian immigrant in San Francisco. 56 minute documentary. Rental $75.00. Phone 415/552-9550, Fax: 415/863-7428

Mary E. Connor teaches United States history at Westridge School in Pasadena, California.

Figure 1. Student Scores in AP U.S. History

This chart shows the improvement in student scores on the Advanced Placement U.S. History exam since the thematic approach was implemented in 1994. The rise in the number of students taking the course from 1992 to 1993 represents a change in school policy from teacher selection of AP candidates to self-selection. This policy continued through the 1997-1998 school year.

AP Scores for United States History at Westridge


Year        Number            Scores              % Passing
            of Students       5   4   3   2   1

1992        17                4 8 3 2 0            88%

1993        34                2 7 13 11 1          64%

1994        23                5 8 9 1 0            95%

1995        48                8 25 11 4 0          91%

1996        41                2 16 17 6 0          85%

1997        31                12 8 10 1 0          96%

1998        40                19 14 7 0 0         100%

Figure 2

Family History Instructions

Find as much information as possible on your familyís history. Obtain information from your parents, grandparents, and relatives. Refer to a family genealogy. If you are fortunate to have lots of data, history might become more personal and meaningful for you. If your parents are separated or divorced, it is acceptable to get information from one side of the family. If you are adopted, obtain information from your adoptive parents. If your family has come recently to the United States, ask what historical events touched their lives in the country of origin.

Gather information on the place(s) of origin of your family (e.g., England, Germany, China, India, Mexico). When did your family come to the United States and what were the reasons for coming? Try to obtain family membersí recollections of personalities and events in our history (the Great Depression, World War II, the McCarthy Era, the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy, the Vietnam War, etc.). Show the summary of the class family history of 1998 to your family; this will give them a fuller understanding of the assignment.

You can submit your family history to me in written or poster form. You may show family photographs. You will have ____ minutes to share your family history with the class. While this assignment is required, it is not graded because some students cannot obtain as much information as can others. After the family history reports are presented, a class family history manuscript will be developed for your class. This is to be kept in your notebook as a reference throughout the year.

Highlights of an Actual Class Family History

Members of this class can trace among their ancestors Native Americans (Blackfoot, Cherokee, Creek, Seminole) and immigrants from the following places: many unspecified nations of Africa, Argentina, Barbados, Borneo, Brazil, Canada, China, Costa Rica, Denmark, England, Germany, Greece, Holland, Hungary, India, Ireland, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Korea, Lebanon, Malaysia, Mexico, Norway, Pakistan, Peru, Philippines, Portugal, Russia, Scotland, South Africa, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Taiwan, Trinidad, Vietnam, and Wales.

Among these ancestors by century are:

17th Century

> Came over on the Mayflower - Sells, Hambleton

> Came to America as an indentured servant - diZerega

> Puritans who settled in the Massachusetts Bay colonyó Axeen

> Germans who settled in Lancaster, Pennsylvania - Kunkel

18th Century

> Related to Patrick Henry - Kunkel

> Fought in the American Revolution - Rosedale, Harrington

19th Century

> Left Ireland during the potato famine - Tran

> Came to California during the Gold Rush - Deegan

> Descendants of slaves - Tomlin, Gibbs, Hines, Moore, Fennoy

> Plantation owner in Georgia - Lang

> Fought in the Civil War - Hines, Ruvolo, diZerega, Fennoy, Tomlin, Maloof

> Sharecropper in Alabama - Gibbs

> Came through Ellis Island - Maloof, Ruvolo, Lang

20th Century

> Fought in World War I - Quan, Moore, Readhead

> Did business with Frank Lloyd Wright - Leong

> Farmworkers in the Central Valley of California - Kunkel

> Fled from Civil War in China - Cherng, Gaw

> Fled from the Japanese during WWII - Lee, Kwong

> Fought in Japanese American regiment during WWII - Sells

> Japanese American who was interned during WWII - diZerega

> Fought in World War II - Tomlin, McGill, Talwar, Odell, Berg

> Family fled from invading forces during the Korean War - Kim, Jun

> Participated in sit-in at Woolworthís Dept. store during Civil Rights Movement and went to jail - Gibbs

> Fought in Vietnam War - Tomlin, Moore, Cruz-Gonzalez

Figure 3

Guidelines for Oral History Interviews

Suggestions for Conducting Interviews

n You may want to tape record the interview. Ask permission to do so, but realize that some people find this intimidating.

n Make an appointment. Allow plenty of time, but be sensitive to his/her time schedule.

n Thank the person in advance for helping you with this assignment.

n Realize that most adults love to talk about their life experiences.

n If the person does not answer a particular question, he/she might be unable to do so. Move on to the next question. Do not ask any major or controversial questions at the beginning.

n If the person is not specific, ask for additional details.

n If you do not know what they are talking about, ask for clarification. Do not be afraid to ask questions.

Some Possible Questions to Ask

n What are your memories about your country?

n What were the reasons you or your family left?

n When did you come to the United States? Where did you live? Did you know people here already?

n What was your first impression of the United States?

n What were some of the surprises about being in America?

n What did you do when you first came here?

n What were the initial challenges of life in America?

n How were you treated? Did you experience discrimination?

n How were Americans kind or helpful to you, or were they?

n Did other immigrants from your country help you get established?

n Do you feel you had a chance at the American Dream?

n What has been rewarding about living here?

n Do you have any strong feelings about American political institutions?

n Do you feel you have had opportunities to prosper?

n What have been the biggest cultural adjustments?

n What is right with America? Wrong?

n What are the challenges of raising children in this country?

n Would you advise people from your country to come here?

n What are the strengths of your native culture? the American culture?

n Is there a question I did not ask that you wished I had? If so, I would appreciate hearing what you have to say.

Excerpts from Interviews

ìIn Zacatecas, life was very hard...Mom never stopped working, and Dad was already in America trying to support us. My parents did not want this life for us; so, on October 31, 1965, my parents, my five brothers and sisters, and I traveled to our better life... Life was not easy here either. Once settled, I had to start working. I was only fifteen when I began working at a clothing factory. I was treated well, but I still felt racism all around me. But because of America, I did have a better life. Unfortunately, those who do come here do not get their own dreams, but instead they do it so their children can have a better life.î

Excerpt from student interview with mother

(The student attends Stanford on a full scholarship)


ìThere exists an undeniable consequence of raising my children here in America. With the desire or actually the need to fit in, came the gradual loss of our own culture. Many times I pushed them to learn how to read and write in Chinese, but seeing themselves solely as Americans, they were never quite interested. As Americans, they believed that there was no need and no point in learning Chinese. It has hurt me to watch them grow up here rejecting their ethnicity. Only recently have they begun to realize that they are Chinese as well as Americans.î

Excerpt from student interview with mother


ìAlthough I was a German, and a lot of people associate Germans with Nazis, I was never discriminated against. I have never had the feeling that I was not welcome. I have some Jewish best friends now and they never say anything that would hurt me. I have a very helpless feeling when Germanyís past is discussed. My family had nothing to do with the Nazis...but still I feel some sort of collective guilt and shame about that part of the German past. I then have to remind myself that Germany also contributed great works of writers, musicians, artists, engineers, and poets to the treasures of the world.î

Excerpt from student interview with mother


ìAlthough I never dealt with direct racism, I encountered a lot of biased attitudes. People were often patronizing or condescending when they spoke to me. They thought India was a jungle and were amazed that I spoke English so well. Little did they realize, I acquired my Masters in English Literature and that English is the second language that people speak in India. They thought I was an ignorant peasant girl who knew nothing of life or the world, but one year after I married I had been to England, Hong Kong, Kuwait, Europe, and the East Coast.î

Excerpt from student interview with mother


ìAlthough there are many negative aspects of American politics and culture, America is not an institution, but a process that is always remaking itself to deal with the problems it faces. That is the genius of America. Because America is a process and is always changing, I would advise people from my country (England) to come here today. But first I would hesitate for a moment in light of the anti-immigrant sentiment that is spreading throughout America, then I would encourage them, and finally I would tell them to be prepared for the challenges.î

Excerpt from student interview with father


ìI feel that I have had a good opportunity at the American Dream and have achieved it. I am living comfortably in a nice house with a beautiful daughter, and I am happy. The opportunity that most people here overlook is freedom which I found in the United States. In Vietnam with the Communists there is no freedom...If you say anything wrong, they put you in prison...Here there is freedom to say anything you want. Here you are allowed to prosper, to live your life with (your own) goals..î

Excerpt from student interview with father


ìAlthough I have fond memories about my homeland (the beautiful seasons, holidays, tradition, and family), I also have the memories of my new country and its opportunities. I was given the chance to achieve the American Dream, and attained it to the best of my capability. I have benefitted from the liberties and rights of American citizens. Here, the citizens are protected by the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence. Although this country has its shortcomings (rapid growth, crime, violence, and greed), it allows anyone with a strong will to prosper. Through Americaís generosity, I was able to acquire a better life and advance both socially and economically. I was very fortunate to have the opportunity of immigration when I was younger; many people lose their lives attempting to reach this glorious country, and I was able to reach it and prosper in it. My heritage and memory of Iran will never be lost, but neither will my gratitude toward the United States of America.î

Excerpt from student interview with father


Final Discussion Questions

> How does the testimony of recent immigrants differ from what we have studied in the textbook?

> Might potential interviewees be loath to give a very negative account to a student who will be graded?

> Can students see the connection between certain patterns of immigration and United States foreign policy?

> Does economic opportunity seem to be a greater factor than flight from repressive governments?

> Does religious freedom seem to be a primary motive?

> Do recent immigrants appear to be outspoken critics of social ills in the United States?

> What are specific hardships endured by the children of recent immigrants? Does this vary depending on the age of the child or the country of origin?

> Do many find too much personal freedom in this country?