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Human Migration #2: Ellis Island, Immigrant Questions

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Lesson Overview:

In this lesson, students practice their skills in developing questions for inquiry.  They also “meet” real immigrants using primary source documents to examine clothing, artifacts, and, in cases where they can figure it out, immigration journeys.

Lesson Plan:

Suggested Grades:



Each student will practice formulating questions that would lead to better understanding of the immigrant experience.  (Unit of Inquiry Lesson)  (AASL 1.1.3, “Develop and refine a range of questions to frame the search for new understanding.”)

Suggested Time:

40-50 minutes

Success Criteria:

When given a photo of a real immigrant and a partner to work with, students will write between five and ten questions that would, if answered, provide more information about that immigrant’s experiences in traveling to a new country to make a home.

Lesson Outline:

1. Introduction:

Review Jessie and her experiences in When Jessie Came Across the Sea.  Remind students that Jessie entered the United States via Ellis Island.  Explain that today, we will work on writing questions that will help us learn more about the immigrant experience.  Review the question words in English:  Who, What, Why, Where, When, How, plus question forms such as “Does it?” “Can it?” “Do you?” “Will you?” “Did you?”  If there is time, we will watch an Ellis Island Brain Pop Jr. video or take an Ellis Island tour.

2. Main:

Place students into working pairs.  Every partnership pair is given a clipboard and a pencil, and instructed to find an immigrant photo and write between ten and twenty questions that would provide more information on the immigrant experience.

3. Conclusion:

Ask students to give one or two of their best questions – share as a group.  Emphasize the importance of asking questions in accessing important information for our learning.

  1. Ellis Island immigrant postcards.  There is a book of postcards sold on amazon called Ellis Island: Portraits of Immigrants: A Book of Postcards.   But, if you do not have the actual postcards, take the immigrant photos from the Washington Post article found here (two are attached).  Mount the photos with backing paper and spread them out on walls around the library or classroom.  Note that if you order the actual immigrant postcards, the immigrant’s country of origin is provided on the back.  Students can use this information to try to trace immigrant journeys.
  2. Clipboards
  3. Paper
  4. Pencils
  5. Brain Pop Jr. segment on Ellis Island (if available)
  6. Scholastic Tour of Ellis Island found here.

This is both an information literacy lesson and a Unit of Inquiry lesson.

I try very hard to make sure that I plan one lesson a year for each grade level in which the students are asked to generate relevant questions.  Learning to ask good questions is fundamental to the PYP, but it is also the first step in research.   Asking questions is an information literacy skill.

This is an excellent opportunity to practice asking questions, because students, especially those who attend international schools, are accustomed to meeting new people at school and in their communities.  This lesson asks children to prepare questions after looking at an immigrant’s photo.  Typical questions might include:

  1. What is your home country?
  2. How did you reach this new country?
  3. What made you decide to leave your home?
  4. How long did your journey take?
  5. What were the conditions on your journey?
  6. What have you brought with you?
  7. What did you have to leave behind?
  8. How will you support yourself in the new country?
  9. What are you most concerned about, now that you have reached your new country?
  10. What are you most excited about, now that you have reached your new country?

Help the children ask questions that will bring them new understanding.  Please do not let them ask “Yes,” “No” or very short answer questions.  Example: “How old are you?”  “Are you married?”  “What is your name?”  These are fine if they are part of a question set aimed at understanding the immigrant.

I have found that this is very, very difficult for kids to do in Grade 3.  Grade 4s are better, but try to see if you can get your 3s to do it should the unit fall into the Grade 3 curriculum.  They are fascinated by the immigrant photos, especially those that have swords, guns, tattoos, or military uniforms!

Recommend Books for This Lesson:


Key Terms:

Immigration, Immigrants, Journeys, Travel, Human Migration, Ellis Island

Mother and Child Immigrant Photo

Three Immigrants Photo