European Immigration from 1850-1920
Facilitator: Stan Brimberg
What was America like for arriving
immigrants at the turn of the century? This activity is
part of a year-long study of American history for middle
school-age students. Participants take the part of
students who are learning about 19th and 20th century
European immigration. The teacher makes available an html
list of documents, images and other sites, which narrows
the initial search for resources. Small groups examine
materials found at the sites to learn about the texture
of the lives of immigrants from any of four groups. The
information and some of the images are used to create a
first-hand account of a fictional family from one of the
cultures chronicling their experiences as immigrants.
At the end of this activity participants
will be able to:
- identify reasons for using primary sources and
role playing exercises with middle school
- access and evaluate documents and photographs
from the American Memory collections and
elsewhere related to European immigration;
- describe the world of the immigrant, in terms a
middle school student might use;
- discuss how historical events affect ordinary
people, and how ordinary people may affect
- identify the pros and cons of various ways
students might express what they learn and
- Excerpts from middle school students
- The following American Memory online collections:
Life Histories: Manuscripts from the
Federal Writers' Project, 1936 - 1940
Motion Pictures, 1897-1920
Northern Great Plains, 1880-1920:
Photographs from the Fred Hultstrand and
F.A. Pazandak Photograph Collections
- Taking the Long View: Panoramic
- Touring Turn-of-the-Century America:
Photographs from the Detroit
and Deeds in American History:
Selected Documents Celebrating the
Manuscript Division's First 100 Years.
Resources, a list of miscellaneous sites and
files assembled by the instructor.
1. Introduction (30 minutes)
We discuss the basic questions teachers
ask when planning an activity as part of a larger
curriculum. The discussion will be focused on why it
makes sense to use primary sources and an extended role
play. We'll address the following questions about a
project in which students research and create fictional
immigrant family histories:
- What is the informational scope of the project?
- What concepts will students learn?
- How does this activity fit into the larger
- How did we get here?
- How long should it last?
- Why is it important to have students do a
- How much should teachers structure the study?
- How much of the direction should be provided by
- How can we assess student learning?
2. Investigate a culture using two
American Memory collections (60 minutes)
In pairs, choose one of the
following immigrant groups to investigate:
- Select the American
Life Histories collection and one other
collection listed below, and search for material
about your immigrant group and their experience
of late 19th and early 20th century America.
Search tips: Vary your search words,
trying out the name of your immigrant group,
cities you know to be associated with them,
common names, or places, activities and types of
work they might have performed.
- Examine several documents, including those from a
text collection and a visual collection. Begin to
evaluate them for usefulness using these
To what extent do the
images and documents from these
collections reinforce or extend students'
existing knowledge of immigrant life?
How might students use
what they learn to make their own
fictional immigrant families more
Print our two photographs
and two text documents that deal with
your chosen immigrant group and their experience
in late 19th and early 20th century America.
Examine the photographs. What do you see? What do
they tell you about immigrant life? What
questions do they raise? Read the life histories.
What information confirms what you already knew?
What information is new? What questions are
Consult the other resources on
Resources webpage. Find one that complements
/ contrasts with the American Memory collections,
in terms of information provided for students.
Print it out.
3. Demonstrating Understanding (20
Choose one of the following tasks:
Make an artifact (a drawing, a
historical newspaper article, a 3D paper model)
that conveys what you now know about immigrant
life, and integrates something you saw in the
photos. You might, for example, create a
dollhouse-size room from a tenement, or a
newspaper story about conditions for urban
immigrants). By recreating an artifact, the
student focuses on details that would ordinarily
overlooked. S/he comes to appreciate something
about both the technology and the texture of turn
of the century life.
Write a journal entry, suggested
by a document you read, from the viewpoint of a
member of your fictional immigrant family. Be
sure to include details you gleaned from the
documents. You might describe, for example, going
out to buy a pickle on the Lower East Side of New
York City, or, playing street games with your
friends using actual songs children sang. By
using historical information found in the life
histories, students come to appreciate social
history, which complements their understanding of
historical events or forces learned in other
4. Follow-up Discussion / Viewing of
Student Work (30 minutes)
We share the results of our
investigations and look at samples of student products on
the same themes.
What feels right about this
project model of curriculum? What doesn't? What
issues have arisen in the course of the
What was it like to use the
collections? What are their advantages over other
media and other sites? Disadvantages? How do we
decide whether a collection is worth using to
achieve curricular goals?
What kinds of learning are
evident in the samples of student work? What's
your response to the idea of a consolidating
activity? What are its advantages and