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Overview of Immigration Classroom Activities

The immigration activities are designed to help students understand, interpret and appreciate the story of immigration to America, to Iowa and to Waterloo. Students will interpret artifacts such as biographical information, photographs, letters, maps, and news clippings to discover how people from various regions throughout the world came to Iowa long ago and in the recent past.


1 - Immigration Timeline to U.S. 1815-1954
After exploring photos and reading background information describing why immigrants came to America, students work in pairs to complete a chart indicating what caused immigrants to leave their homelands and the effects immigrants had in their new American communities (see key below). Understanding the important vocabulary words, cause and effect, will be essential to completing the table.

Then students identify a “secondary effect” for each original event. For example:

CAUSE: 1846 — The potato famine in Ireland
EFFECT: Many Irish people to immigrate to America.
SECONDARY EFFECT: Neighborhoods composed predominantly of Irish people develop in many American cities.

1815 — The first great wave of immigration begins. B = Five million immigrants come to America between 1815 and 1860.
1846 — The potato famine in Ireland D = Many Irish people to immigrate to America.
1862 — Congress passes the Homestead Act which grants citizens 160 acres of land in the west. A = Many immigrants want to come to America to own their own land.
1897 — Pine-frame buildings on Ellis Island are burned to the ground in a disastrous fire. F = Ellis Island receiving station reopens with brick and ironwork structures. (1900)
1910 — The Mexican Revolution E = Thousands of people from Mexico come to the United States seeking employment.
1914-18 — World War I G = Immigration to the United States stops.
1921 — An immigration law is passed that limits the number of immigrants from each country. C = Immigration drops off.
1954—Mass immigration to America ends. H = Ellis Island closes.

2 - Push and Pull Factors

Have students brainstorm reasons immigrants came to America. Direct students to think about factors that would “push” immigrants to leave their home countries. Then have them think about factors in America that immigrants would find attractive, that would “pull” them toward America. After reading the material on push/pull factors found on the webpage, complete the “push/pull” chart as a group or in pairs (see key below).

In 1846 the Potato Famine leaves many people in Ireland without food.  
All across Europe there were huge crop failures in 1846 and 1847. Many farmers in Europe could not pay for their land.  
  The US Congress passed the Homestead Act in 1862. It granted citizens of the United States 160 acres of land in western areas of the country.
  Between 1880-1900 thousands of factory jobs become available in the United States because of westward expansion and development of new industries.
Many Jewish people leave Russia in 1882 because of hatred toward them. This kind of racism is called anti-Semitism.  

3 - Explore Ellis Island
Using an LCD projector display the photos and videos of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island. As students analyze the visuals, the following large group discussion questions will help to focus their work:

  • How did immigrants travel to America?
  • What types of questions and tests did they experience when passing through Ellis Island?
  • How was Ellis Island organized?
  • What challenges did immigrants face when passing through Ellis Island?
  • How do you think the immigrant children felt?

Use the photos and virtual tour of Ellis Island as the basis for a descriptive writing assignment. Students will assume the identity of one of the people in the photograph. Composing a letter back home, they will describe their experience passing through Ellis Island and the journey from Ellis Island to Waterloo, Iowa.

4 - A Word is Worth a Thousand Pictures
Students will work with a learning partner to review the photo of immigrant children (circa, 1908). Observation questions direct them to interpret the image using their prior knowledge and critical thinking skills.

Using the photograph as a starting point, ask students to assume the identity of one of the people in the photograph and write a letter back home. Key question starters are provided to help students create their character. Print the photo on the upper half of a sheet of paper. Have students write their letter on the lower half describing their experience as an immigrant to America.

5 - Immigrant Stories of Yesterday
Students will read and interpret biographical information about four men who came to Waterloo to find work during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Then they will interpret the challenges faced by early immigrants by creating an illustrated timeline with drawings arranged chronologically to illustrate the type of work each person did.

6 - Voices of the Past
Students will read and listen to audio files describing the stories of six immigrants who came to Waterloo during the early part of the 20th century. Using a graphic organizer, students will summarize each person’s ethnic origin, home country, reasons for coming to the Waterloo, occupation, and cultural aspects they brought with them when making a new life in America.

7 - One Immigrant’s Experience
Using the biography of Maren Olesen coming to the United States, students will interpret artifacts and photographs to discover the story these resources contain. Using the world map, students will trace Maren’s route to the United States from Denmark in 1890. Then they will use the map of the United States to draw Maren’s route from New York to Waterloo.

8 - The Mystery of the Lost Trunk
Students relive the experience of an immigrant child as they solve the “mystery of the lost trunk.” Being found in New York with nothing but high aspirations and a few dollars, students use their math skills to replace the “lost” trunk and its contents. A 1908 price list for common articles is provided as a starting point.

9 - Where Did We Come From?
Students begin by interviewing their family members to discover the parts of the world their ancestors came from. Then they create a map picture representing their cultural heritage. Examples of other students’ work is provided.

10 - Immigrant Interview
Students will develop interview questions, conduct an interview with a person who has recently immigrated to the community, write a summary of the major points of the interview, and share the summary with classmates.

Extension Activities

  1. Have students research the modes of transportation used by immigrants coming to Iowa in the first decades of pioneer settlement. Explore the following resources:
  2. Discuss methods of transportation used by pioneers in traveling to the frontier in the 1800's and read aloud the Journal of William Buxton describing his travels from England in 1853. Buxton traveled by ocean steamer, steamboat, rail, stagecoach and walking.

  3. Develop a Venn diagram comparing the reasons settlers moved to Iowa in the 1800's with the reasons people move to Iowa today.

  4. Ask students to compose two paragraphs comparing and contrasting the reasons pioneers moved to Iowa with the reasons some people move to Iowa today.

  5. Explore the New Iowans Program for additional resources related to immigration today.

Field Trips

The Field Trip Guide provides things to do before your class visits the Grout Museum and activities for your class to do after visiting the Grout Museum District.

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