Surfing the Web: Teaching About Immigration

C. Frederick Risinger

ìHere is not merely a nation, but a teeming nation of nations.î

óWalt Whitman


One of my favorite activities is sitting down to do the initial Internet ìsurfingî for these columns. I recall much less fondly the process of starting to do research for a college history paper or a journal article using the traditional library card catalog or the bulky ERIC Thesaurus of ERIC Descriptors. While I usually found the information I needed, it wasnít much fun. Today, however, whether Iím looking up a method for pruning grapevines, directions to a Holiday Inn in South Bend, or information on teaching about immigration in U.S. history, I look forward to sitting down, calling up my favorite search engine, and beginning my quest. I believe that this is one of the most positive aspects of using the World Wide Web in social studies. Both teachers and students actually can enjoy the process of finding and collecting information. This, in turn, is an essential step in constructivism, the idea that students can create knowledge.1

However, the search for information on immigration yielded a surprise. I initially thought that a search on this topic, like the previous column on African Americans in U.S. history, would yield thousands of ìhitsî and hundreds of great sites. In fact, while many websites were identified, only a few dozen seem useful for K-12 teachers and students. Immigrationís status as a controversial issueóboth historically and contemporaneouslyómakes it an excellent topic to teach students about website bias. Clearly, there are websites that are both pro- and anti-immigration. Examine the two statements below:

ìA record number of immigrants, more than one million, will become U.S. citizens this year.î

ìThe percentage of immigrants [in the U.S.] is lower than in the past.î

Both statements are factually accurate. In the first, taken from an excellent Washington Post article on the U.S. Citizenship Test, the information lends itself to the suggestion that the flow of immigrants is overwhelming the nation. The second quote is used to convey the opposite perception. The Post statement, taken out of context, was quoted on several other websitesóusually to set the stage for a ìclose the doors to immigrantsî argument. At least two websites feature ìMyths About Immigration,î in which arguments against an open door for immigration are refuted.

One category of websites related to immigration focuses on helping foreign nationals emigrate to the U.S. and assisting foreign nationals in this country to extend their stay or change their status to become a permanent resident. Similar websites exist for Canada. These sites frequently provide their information in languages other than English (Spanish and Russian being the most commonly used). Teachers who develop ìauthentic activitiesî could assign students to prepare a visa request or a request for political asylum based on information found on these sites.

In my web surfing on this topic, I was pleased to find that school websites were among the most useful ones identified. Teachers and school information specialists (formerly librarians) are cooperating on building school websites that feature information and links specifically selected to fit the schoolís curriculum and assigned homework and projects. School websites (described more fully below) that provide excellent information on immigration include the Boulder Valley Schools in Colorado, the Academy for the Advancement of Science and Technology in Hackensack, NJ, and Chico High School, California.

Here are several websites that should provide teachers and students with information and lesson plan ideas on immigration from both historical and contemporary perspectives.

Immigration in American Memory

Iím not sure why the great Library of Congress ìAmerican Memoryî pages have such long and complex URLs. But if you want the most complete website on immigration from a historical perspective, this is it. Itís divided into four chronological periodsóSettlement, The Growing Nation, The Great Surge, and Immigration Today. Within each segment, there are pictures of immigrants and immigrant families. Excerpts from primary sources are included, and the entire document is just a mouse click away. The influence of immigrants on entertainment, particularly vaudeville, is portrayed through photographs and actual sound recordings.

Project Vote SmartóIssues: Immigration

Vote Smart may be one of the best sites for unbiased, useful citizenship education available on the Internet. After finding this site a year or so ago, I sent in a contribution and became a member. Teachers who want their students to follow political campaigns or understand current political issues will find a wealth of information and ideas. This specific page focuses on the heated contemporary debate over immigration. It provides an annotated list of more than 20 other sites that run the gamut from anti-immigration to pro-immigration sites. For assistance on a variety of citizenship topics, including lesson plans and an excellent Introduction to U.S. Government, go to the Vote Smart Education page.

Immigration Past and Present: A Simulation Activity

This is a well-designed secondary level simulation developed by Lewis Sitzer at Bear River High School in Nevadaís Joint Union High School District. Students portray roles of immigrants, lobbyists, or members of a commission trying to select from among four policy options. The simulation, which lasts from 7 to 10 hours, includes discussion questions, an essay assignment, and annotated listings of websites and books.

Canadian Immigration Theme Page

For our colleagues to the north, this page is a ìone-stopî supermarket about immigration to Canada, past and present. It includes a great document on ìThe Children of Immigrants: How Do They Fare?î that examines whether children of immigrant parents have an easier or more difficult time achieving success in Canada than do children of Canadian-born parents. Information on how to obtain Canadian citizenship and links to lesson plans are also included. One lesson plan, ìFamily History,î helps students in grades 5 and up to work with their family to identify ancestors, appreciate their backgrounds, and understand immigration.

The U.S. Citizenship Test: Learning, and Earning, Their Stripes

This site provides a wonderful opportunity for teachers. It includes the ì100 Questionsî that comprise the test on U.S. history and government that is used to ìdetermine whether the aspiring American knows enough about the governing principles and history of the United States.î Applicants are usually asked only about a dozen of the questions, but the full list of 100 (and the answers) is available on this page. Imagine asking your students if they can ìpass the test to be an American?î Imagine asking your colleagues in science and mathematics if they can name ìone amendment that addresses voting rights?î or ìWhat is the most important right granted to U.S. citizens?î

Literature Links

Eight fifth grade teachers in Boulder, Colorado developed this annotated bibliography of books and websites on immigration for their students. It includes a link to the Seattle Public Library, which has a comprehensive annotated list of immigration books. You can also see the primary immigration page created for this school, which includes student projects, resources, and student life histories. More and more, schools are taking on the responsibility for designing web pages and sets of links that meet the specific needs of their students, their teachers, and their curriculum.

The American Immigration Home Page

This page began as part of a school project for a 10th grade U.S. history class at the Academy for the Advancement of Science and Technology in Hackensack, New Jersey. It examines 14 topics in immigration, such as ìReasons for Immigration,î ìAssimilation? If So, To What Degree,î and ìLaws Restricting Immigrationî in each of four chronological time periods. Itís a superb example of the learning theory of constructivism being implemented in the schools.

Immigration: The Perpetual Controversy

The Atlantic Monthly is my favorite magazineóthe one that I read every month. Its website is superb on this topic and on many others. It examines a controversial issue through ìflashbacksîóarticles printed in the magazine through its more than a century of publication. After a general overview of immigration, summaries and complete articles are available all the way back to 1896, when Francis Walker warned that the influx of southern Europeans would overwhelm and degrade American culture. Even if you arenít teaching immigration, you should log onto this site to see what other topics are covered in this unusual and exciting manner.


1. For an excellent treatment of the subject, see the Social Education theme issue on constructivism (Vol. 62., no. 1, January 1998 ).

C. Frederick Risinger is director of professional development and coordinator of social studies education at Indiana University, Bloomington. He spends far too much time surfing on the Web.