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Digital Learning

Coming to America

When I was in school, America was often referred to as a melting pot - a giant stew in which people from many lands marinated together and all came out as Americans. In more recent years, our beautiful land has more often been seen as a giant glistening crisp salad - a mixture of unique individuals of many cultures who bring a clarity and a richness to who we are as Americans.

As a fourth and fifth grade teacher of Social Studies (among many other subjects, of course, because that's what we do as elementary teachers), I enjoyed studying the waves of immigration with my students (a beautiful salad all on their own), and finding a project-based way to expand upon our learning. Although I began this project long before the Standards became so uniform, I found that it fits so well into six of the themes of Social Studies. That gives it much legitimacy, in my opinion, in the time necessary to complete any level of this project.

From NCSS Themes of Social Studies:
Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of culture and cultural diversity.
Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of the past and its legacy.
Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of people, places, and environments.
Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of individual development and identity.
Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of interactions among individuals, groups, and institutions.
Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of how people create, interact with, and change structures of power, authority, and governance.

Inspired by Neil Diamond's song from 1980, "Coming to America", I got my students involved in historical research, drama, art, and music, and most importantly, walking in the shoes of an immigrant. Project based learning takes a little more time and advance prep, but the lasting learning that comes from it is immeasurable. I'd like to suggest three levels of projects that you can select for your study of immigration if the idea appeals to you.

For any and all of these project levels, I'd like to suggest using an illustrated video of the lyrics as an introduction.

You tube video with a beautiful slide show illustrating the meaning of the lyrics:

Here it is on SchoolTube, in case your district blocks Youtube:

Level 1
Collaborative Book
This is a simple and fun project that can easily be done as a station or center activity. Simply create a book of blank pages or a slide show for students to illustrate. Each page has one line of the lyrics on it.
Although I used a slide show similar to the youtube one I linked up here to introduce the project to
my students, I always used the book of their images with the Neil Diamond song playing in the background to introduce our presentation to our school, family, and friends. It made for a meaningful and enjoyable assembly!

For a link to a free editable Google Slide Show that you can use for your own book or slide show, click here: Coming to America Slide Show

Level 2
Wax Museum or Stage Presentation
Inspired by  the rich stories of  their own families or a voice that inspired them in research, each student selects an immigrant to portray and tells the story of their journey. I made a simple "interview" page for this, and students either interviewed a family member who was an immigrant, or supplied the information on their own, based on reading and research. The student would also assemble a costume to wear  that day which showed how a person who immigrated to America from that particular country and time period might have dressed.

For a wax museum, each student will need a display. (Trifold display boards or poster board will do, but the limits are those of your students' imaginations!) You also need to set up a time to hold the wax museum and arrange for a place. If a space such as the media center, cafeteria,  or large group room is not available, it can be set up in your classroom and out into the hall. Invite visitors.
As the visitors step up to each "wax figure", they can press a button (student created) and hear about the immigration journey of the character represented.

Art, dance, storytelling, and food stations can add so much to the festivities of this activity! These can be added as part of the wax museum or the stage presentation, and especially to Level 3 - coming up!

When done as a stage presentation, you can simply have each character step to the microphone and tell their story, or you can set up scenarios where groups of immigrants meet in America and interact, telling their stories to each other, finding similarities and differences. Video production of this would also be amazing, and could be shared with parents on your website.

Level 3
Ellis Island Simulation
After researching various immigrant groups who entered through Ellis Island (could also include Angel Island as well as the northern and southern borders of the US), students could take roles in the presentation and the entire school community could be invited. If you choose this option, you will want to be very sensitive to the cultural makeup of your school community in deciding where your focus will be. Enlist your parent organization to help in volunteering, as this is an ambitious event. Community members who dress in costumes of their family's country of origin and tell their stories add so much to this learning experience. Parents are also usually more than happy to provide artifacts for display, photographs for display boards, and foods for sampling. (At least I've always found that to be true. The first step is to reach out and ask!)

Ask classes to form "family groups" before the event. Your students will be the costumed presenters, posing as immigrants, and the classes visiting the experience will be given the roles of families of immigrants entering the US. In a large gathering place, such as the cafeteria or gym, students must pass through  a checkpoint where their name will be changed (premade name tags) and they will be separated from their families. As they are guided from presentation to presentation, they will hear stories of immigrants who have done the research and prepared their stories.

Each class attending your simulation might have studied a particular country of origin and have a note card in hand with some facts about the immigrants coming from that country. (Example: Ireland, and the people who faced a dangerous voyage during the potato famine.) It will definitely add to the learning experience for those students.

Students attending might be given the option of also dressing in costume as an immigrant from their own family's country of origin or the one that their class studied. The students in my school enjoyed making heritage clothespin dolls to display as guests entered our building. Families helped with these and they were always spectacular! We created these before youtube and Pinterest, but you don't have to! Yay! Here's a video where an upper elementary age girl shows you how to make the dolls!

Resources to help you get started:

One of the favorite books that we used was this one. Just click on the cover page and read about it!

When I was researching things I'd like to share with you in this post, I could not believe the number of books on the voices of immigrants now available. A great topping to the rich history of our American salad! Here are two links for you:
Stories from Ellis Island
Immigrants' Voices
I've also been collecting some more book collection ideas on one of my Pinterest boards for you.
Learning With Books

I hope these ideas will help you to build empathy within your class,  empower your students to discover their roots as Americans, and to enable them to see how equity looks in the sparkling tossed salad of our amazing country!

For more ideas about presenting these topics in your classroom, please visit the posts of these amazing bloggers!


  1. I love each and every idea you've given us here. And yes, I sang the Neil Diamond song in my head as I read this post. What a phenomenal teacher you are.

  2. Integrating relevant lyrics with these project ideas is such a powerful way to help our students connect and engage with these important concepts. Thank you for sharing so many fabulous ideas!

  3. I love your post. What a wonderful way to get your kiddos to stand in someone elses shoes.