Two 50-minute class periods

Becoming American: Immigration Experiences

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Explore both the unique and common challenges immigrants faced in the United States
  • Consider the power of language to exclude and include
  • Examine how individuals adjust to life in the United States


This lesson considers the process of becoming "American" and looks at what makes someone an American. Is it customs? Language? Traditions? Citizenship? The lesson focuses on the experiences of Chinese and Jewish immigrants in America during the late 1800s.


Teaching Strategies


How did you become an American? What did you need to do? What did you need to know or learn? With these questions in mind, invite students to read excerpts from the 1875 English-Chinese Phrase Book and a few of the letters Jewish immigrants sent to the Forward, a Yiddish newspaper published in New York.

  1. The 1875  English-Chinese Phrase Book was designed to help newcomers from China adjust to life in the United States. Have students take turns reading a sentence from the Phrase Book until the entire reading has been completed. In small groups, have students notice the topics of the various conversations. What do you notice about the language used in the book? What insights does the Phrase Book offer into the concerns of Chinese immigrants and their relationships with their neighbors?
  2. Next, have students view video Segment 5 (emphasizing their work in a North Adams, MA, factory) and/or Segment 6 (Denis Kearney's Campaign) from Becoming American: The Chinese Experience, Program 1. In journals or notebooks have students discuss:


    • What individuals, images, or events stand out?
    • How does the video enhance our understanding of the Phrase Book and the experiences of Chinese immigrants living in the United States between 1847 and 1882?
  3. In January 1906, the first of thousands of letters written by Jewish immigrants appeared in the Forward, a Yiddish newspaper. These letters and the responses, appeared in a column known as the Bintel Brief. (In Yiddish, a bintel brief means a bundle of letters.) The column and the newspaper helped Jewish immigrants adjust to American life. Divide students into four groups and assign each group one letter and the response to that letter. After students read both silently, ask each group to identify the challenges discussed in the letter. Then have the group decide whether it agrees with the advice given in the response.

    Assign students to new groups, making sure that each group has a representative from the original group (see website for jigsaw teaching strategy). Have each member of the new group summarize the letter he or she read. Then ask students to compare and contrast the challenges expressed in the letters with those in the Phrase Book. Encourage students to share their small-group discussion with the class and then ask: What do these documents suggest it takes to become an American?

  4. Have students think about what information immigrants today need to know to overcome challenges, become a part of their communities, and begin the process of becoming American by completing one of the following assignments:


    • Create a mini phrase book that would help immigrants communicate with neighbors. (If possible, students could consult with someone who is or has contact with local immigrants.)
    • Write a letter to a newspaper describing the needs of local immigrants and suggesting ways that they might be made to feel more welcome.
    • Write a reflection or a poem that expresses how you regard immigrants and what you think they need to know about life in the United States.


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