/educators/lessons/grade-3-4/Immigrating to America

ARTSEDGE Lessons for Elementary School

Immigrating to America

Ellis Island, gateway to the United States. Did your ancestors come through Ellis Island?


Key Staff

classroom teacher

Key Skills

Global Connections: Connecting to History and Culture
Making Art: Producing, Executing and Performing


Students will learn what it was like for new immigrants to come through Ellis Island—a symbolic heart of American immigration—at the turn of the 20th century. Through primary and secondary sources, students will discover where the immigrants were from, the reasons they left their homelands, and why they came to America. By performing dramatizations and taking an interactive tour of Ellis Island, students will relive the immigrant experience.

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Locate on a world map the countries from which their ancestors immigrated, and the countries from which Ellis Island immigrants traveled.
  • Locate immigrant ports of entry on a U.S. map.
  • Research and report on procedures immigrants followed at Ellis Island.
  • Illustrate the experiences immigrants went through leaving their home countries and coming to America through in-class dramatization.
  • Express the experiences of an immigrant through journal writing in the voice of an Ellis Island immigrant (in Extensions section).
  • Use research skills to find out about their family history (in Extensions section).

Teaching Approach

Arts Integration

Teaching Methods

  • Lecture
  • Discussion
  • Research

Assessment Type

Informal Assessment


What You'll Need

Required Technology
  • 1 Computer per Small Group
  • 1 Computer per Learner
Technology Notes

A Smartboard or computer with projector function will be helpful.

Lesson Setup

Teacher Background

Teacher needs basic information on immigration to the United States. Information is availabe online:

Prior Student Knowledge

Students should know:

  • That people living in the United States have come from many different places
  • Something about their own family’s heritage
    (teacher may choose to make a preliminary homework assignment to be certain students will have this information)
  • A broad outline of U.S. history


  • Small Group Instruction
  • Large Group Instruction
  • Individualized Instruction


  • Mount a world and a U.S. map on a bulletin board
  • Print out photos for discussion, or prepare to project them
  • Print out or prepare to project “The New Colossus”

Accessibility Notes

ELL students can readily participate in this lesson and be an important resource, since much of the research relies on images, and since such students may have special knowledge of the immigrant experience.


Resources in Reach

Here are the resources you'll need for each activity, in order of instruction.



1. Distribute the American Immigration Timeline handout located within the Resource Carousel and discuss each date. Emphasize the three major waves of immigration (1700-1776; 1820-1870; 1881-1920). Tell students that the greatest wave of immigrants came between 1881 and 1920, and that the majority (90%) of those immigrants came into New York Harbor and went through the Ellis Island Immigration Center. Explain that, because 50% of the U.S. population can trace its roots to Ellis Island, this landmark has come to symbolize the immigrant experience in America. If the classroom has a projector, you might also show the Ellis Island Timeline.

2. Mention other ports of entry in America, and have students find them on a map of the United States. Include the East Coast ports of Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore; southern ports in New Orleans and Galveston; and the West Coast port of San Francisco. Ask students what these places have in common, and elicit the fact that they are all on the water.

3. Prompt students to discuss where their families/ancestors are from, and to find these nations on a world map. Model this activity for students by identifying on the map the country or countries of origin for your own family and marking them with a thumbtack. Point out that whether their family has been here for many generations or is newly arrived, their ethnic heritage (define "ethnic"; refer to Vocabulary handout located within the Resource Carousel if necessary) has helped to shape today's "all-American" culture.

4. Have students place photographs of themselves around the border of a world map and, with thumbtacks, attach yarn from their images to the countries of their ancestry. This will provide a picture of your class's heritage.

Build Knowledge

1. Display images of Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty, and the mass of immigrants pouring into America in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Images are available at the following sites:

2. Pass out or display Emma Lazarus's poem "The New Colossus" and read it aloud as a class. Explain that these are lines inscribed on a plaque on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, and that this statue, which represents freedom and democracy, filled immigrants with hope as they sailed by it in New York harbor.

3. Share basic information on immigration with students. Point out that immigrants to the U.S. before 1820 were almost all either from Africa or from the current UK, France, and Germany. After 1820, the picture begins to change, with Chinese, Mediterranean, and Eastern European immigrants arriving in the 19th century and Latin American and Caribbean immigrants joining the throng in the 20th century. The immigration center on Ellis Island opened in 1892, and for the next 50 years more than 12 million people came through the island on their way into the United States. Talk about America's varied response to waves of immigration, and to immigrants from various places. Use The Peopling of America to identify the most common immigrant nationalities, and compare that information with the information about the class gathered in Step 1. If you have a class timeline, add these new dates to it, and connect the information with previously studied state history.

4. Assign students different aspects of the Ellis Island process to research in more depth. (Depending on the number of print resources and computers available, students may need to work in small groups.) Topics might include medical examinations, literacy tests, legal interviews, and detainment. Direct students to books from the Sources section and websites where they can find more information about these processes, including these:

  • The History Channel's Ellis Island Gateway
  • Ellis Island Official Site
  • Scholastic's Interactive Tour of Ellis Island
  • A Boy's Journey

5. Have students write a brief research report describing what they learned. Encourage students to use their handouts for facts and vocabulary. Ask them to share their information with the rest of the class in an oral presentation.


1. As a class, stage the play First Stop, Ellis Island! by Michael Peros located within the Resource Carousel. Have students work together to decide who will play which roles and who will be responsible for the roles and jobs in the production. There are thirteen parts in the play, and there can also be students directing, auditioning actors, preparing the sets, creating posters, arranging the lighting, and as many more tasks as needed to be sure all students have a part in the production.

2. Encourage students to use their research in decision-making about the play. Costumes, scenery, body language of the players, etc. should reflect the information students have gathered. Encourage them to be as historically accurate as possible.

3. Let students perform their play for other classes and/or parents.


1. Prompt students to imagine what it would be like to move to a foreign country. Ask them to imagine leaving their hometown, including their friends, family, home, possessions, and familiar landmarks. Ask what they think it would be like to come to a new country where they don't know the language or the geography, and where they don't have a job. How would they feel arriving in a new life full of change and uncertainty? Some students may have had this experience; encourage them to share their perceptions.

2. Invite students to write a journal entry from the point of view of one of the characters in the class play. For help getting started, they can use prompts provided in the Journal Writing Prompt Questions handout located within the Resource Carousel. Alternatively, students can use these questions for family oral interviews (discussed below) and write the journal entry from the point of view of a family member who has shared this experience.


Assess student performance using the following rubrics available within the Resource Carousel:


Extending the Learning

1. Encourage students use the Ellis Island Family Immigration History Center site to search for their ancestors. (Note that U.S. citizens also traveled through Ellis Island, so students whose family has been in the U.S. since before 1820 may also find ancestors in that database.) This will be most successful for people with less common names and more information about their ancestors – try the search first to see how it works. Have students conduct oral interviews of family members to learn more about their heritage, and to speed up their searches in the Ellis Island database. Share tips for conducting an oral interview by distributing the following handouts located within the Resource Carousel:

2. Simulate the experience of taking a citizenship test. Tell students that all immigrants who want to become U.S. citizens must pass a citizenship test showing their knowledge of the language, history, and government of America. Give out the sample Citizenship Test (found on page 76 of Immigration: Then and Now by Karen Baicker [Scholastic Inc., 1997]) or direct students to the sample questions from the new test, and challenge your students to test their knowledge of the United States. They can work in small groups and quiz one another, since the test is given orally.


Throughout the nation, standards of learning are being revised, published and adopted. During this time of transition, ARTSEDGE will continually add connections to the Common Core, Next Generation Science standards and other standards to our existing lessons, in addition to the previous versions of the National Standards across the subject areas.

The Arts Standards used in ARTSEDGE Lessons are the 1994 voluntary national arts standards. The Arts learning standards were revised in 2014; please visit the National Core Arts Standards (http://nationalartsstandards.org) for more. The Kennedy Center is working on developing new lessons to connect to these standards, while maintaining the existing lesson library aligned to the Common Core, other state standards, and the 1994 National Standards for Arts Education.

ArtsEdge Lessons connect to the National Standards for Arts Education, the Common Core Standards, and a range of other subject area standards.

Common Core/State Standards

Select state and grade(s) below, then click "Find" to display Common Core and state standards.

National Standards For Arts Education
National Standards in Other Subjects



Rebecca Haden


  • Baicker, Karen. Immigration: Then and Now. New York: Scholastic, 1997.  
  • Bierman, Carol. Journey to Ellis Island: How My Father Came to America. New York: Hyperion Press, 1998.
  • Bunting, Eve. Dreaming of America: An Ellis Island Story. New York: Troll Communications L.L.C., 1999.
  • Coan, Peter Morton. Ellis Island Interviews: In Their Own Words. New York: Facts on File, 1997
  • Kelley, Timothy. "Destination: America." The New York Times Upfront (September 3, 2001): Vol. 134, Issue 1, 28-30.
  • Levine, Ellen. If Your Name Was Changed at Ellis Island. New York: Scholastic, 1993.
  • Olson, Tod. "Coming to America." Scholastic Update (November 15, 1996): Vol. 129, Issue 6, 13-15.
  • Peros, Michael. First Stop, Ellis Island! in Immigration Then and Now. New York: Scholastic, 1997.
  • Tarbescu, Edith. Annushka's Voyage. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998.
  • Wilmore, Kathy. "America's Immigrant Roots." Junior Scholastic (February 1995): 14-15.
  • Wilmore, Kathy. "America Was the Dream." Junior Scholastic (February 1997): 16-19.
  • Woodruff, Elvira. "Inside Out: An Ellis Island Story." StoryWorks (November/December 1994): 6-11.
  • "A Visit to Ellis Island." Scholastic News (March 1993): 4-5.

Works Cited

  • Baicker, Karen. Immigration: Then and Now. New York: Scholastic, 1997. (Citizenship Test found on p.76.; Answer key is on p. 77.)
  • Peros, Michael. First Stop, Ellis Island! in Immigration Then and Now. New York: Scholastic, 1997.
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