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Lesson Plan The Immigrant Experience: Down the Rabbit Hole

Relocating to a new country can be a disorienting experience. Immigrants often find themselves in a strange new world where the rules have changed, the surroundings are unfamiliar, and the inhabitants speak in strange tongues. In some ways, the immigrant experience is like the dizzying journey taken by the lead character in Lewis Carroll's 19th-century novel Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

In this lesson, students will use class discussions of students' experiences, the first-hand accounts of immigrants, and other primary source documents and images from the collections of the Library of Congress to uncover the common themes of the immigrant experience.


Students will be able to:

  • understand common themes of the immigrant experience, such as pushes and pulls, encountering differences, and assimilation;
  • identify the common themes of the immigrant experience in a primary source oral history or narrative;
  • draw conclusions about the themes of the immigrant experience by analyzing primary source photographs; and
  • reinforce and extend understanding of the immigrant experience by creating a primary source photographic exhibit.

Time Required

Two weeks

Lesson Preparation



Lesson Procedure

Activity 1: Making the Literary Connection to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

As a lead-in activity, read portions of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland to the students for a few minutes every day. You may be able to find the book online or in a local library.

Although there are many themes for discussion, for the purposes of this unit, highlight scenes that relate to the discomfort experienced by Alice because of the unpredictability of her experiences in Wonderland.

The four following scenes can be highlighted for introductory discussions about the immigrant experience:

Chapter IV: The Rabbit Sends In a Little Bill

"It was much pleasanter at home," thought poor Alice, "when one wasn't always growing larger and smaller, and being ordered about by mice and rabbits. I almost wish I hadn't gone down that rabbit-hole - and yet - it's rather curious, you know, this sort of life! I do wonder what can have happened to me! When I used to read fairy tales, I fancied that kind of thing never happened, and now here I am in the middle of one!"

Chapter V: Advice from a Caterpillar

The Caterpillar and Alice looked at each other for some time in silence: at last the Caterpillar took the hookah out of its mouth, and addressed her in a languid, sleepy voice.
"Who are You?" said the Caterpillar.
This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, "I - I hardly know, Sir, just at present - at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then."

Chapter VI: Pig and Pepper

"Cheshire Puss," she began, rather timidly, as she did not at all know whether it would like the name: however, it only grinned a little wider. "Come, it's pleased so far," thought Alice, and she went on. "Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?"
"That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," said the Cat.
"I don't much care where - " said Alice.
"Then it doesn't matter which way you go," said the Cat.
" - so long as I get somewhere," Alice added as an explanation.
"Oh, you're sure to do that," said the Cat, "if you only walk long enough."
Alice felt that this could not be denied, so she tried another question. "What sort of people live about here?"
"In that direction," the Cat said, waving its right paw round, "lives a Hatter: and in that direction," waving the other paw, "lives a March Hare. Visit either you like: the're both mad."
"But I don't want to go among mad people," Alice remarked.
"Oh, you can't help that," said the Cat: "we're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad."
"How do you know I'm mad?" said Alice.
"You must be," said the Cat, "or you wouldn't have come here."

Chapter VIII: The Queen's Croquet-Ground

"I don't think they play at all fairly," Alice began, in rather a complaining tone, "and they all quarrel so dreadfully one can't hear oneself speak - and they don't seem to have any rules in particular: at least, if there are, nobody attends to them - and you've no idea how confusing it is all the things being alive: for instance, there's the arch I've got to go through next walking about at the other end of the ground - and I should have croqueted the Queen's hedgehog just now, only it ran away when it saw mine coming!"

Actvity 2: Discovering the Common Themes of the Immigrant Experience - Connecting the Personal Experience

Students brainstorm the common threads of the immigrant experience. Through a teacher/student discussion of their own relocation experiences (city to city, state to state, or country to country), identify reasons for relocating, difficulties encountered, and the successes or failures of adjustments to new surroundings.

Use the following questions to guide your discussion:

  1. Have you ever moved to a new place? If yes, do you remember feeling scared? Unsure? Excited? Angry? Relieved? Sad? Out of place?
  2. If you have moved, how did you feel in your new location after three months? Six months? One year? Did you feel as if you would ever fit in? Did you make friends quickly or slowly? What did you miss?
  3. Have you ever lived in a place where the people did not speak your language? How did that feel?
  4. If you belong to a military family, where have you lived? Have you moved often? Can you describe your experiences? If you have lived in a foreign country, were you scared about moving there? Was the food strange to you?
  5. Have you ever known someone from another country who has moved (immigrated) to the United States?
  6. Can you think of several possible reasons why a person immigrates to the United States?
  7. Did any of your ancestors emigrate from another country? Which country or countries?
  8. Do you think that many immigrants to the United States face discrimination? Economic problems? Racial prejudice? Religious differences? Language difficulties? Educational challenges?
  9. Do you think that all immigrants should learn English? Should immigrants keep their ties to their ethnic and racial heritage? Do you think that immigrant teenagers have difficulty being part of both the American culture and their own cultures?
  10. What percentage of the U.S. population do you think is foreign-born? How could you find the answer?

Through student/teacher inquiry the following common themes of immigration should be identified and defined: motivation to emigrate, assimilation, economic issues (including living and working conditions), education, choice of destination, language difficulties, and issues of prejudice.

Activity 3: Analyzing Primary Source Texts to Identify Common Themes of the Immigrant Experience

Students use teacher-selected primary sources to identify the common themes of the immigrant experience.

  1. Divide students into groups.
  2. Assign each group to read a primary source oral history or narrative from the Library of Congress online collections as homework. The oral histories listed below work well for a cross-section of immigrant experiences, or you may explore the collections on your own.
  3. One student in each group will be selected as the group's discussion leader for the following day.
  4. The group will choose a historian to record the group's conclusions. The groups should record their thoughts on the Primary Source Analysis Tool. Select questions from the Analyzing Oral Histories teacher's guide to focus the group work, and select additional questions to focus and prompt further discussion.

Oral Histories

The following oral histories are from American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940:

  • Gardenia Banta - Describes the experiences of an African-American woman who moved to New York City in 1888 during the post-Civil War northern migration. She tells of her previous life in Savannah, Georgia, and of the difficulties of moving north after her father died.
  • Philip Dash - This Russian Jewish immigrant describes his work in the shoe industry, his union involvement, and living in poverty in Brooklyn, New York.
  • Mr. and Mrs. Elias Pederson - Mr. Pederson was born in Wisconsin in 1849, the year after his parents emigrated from Norway. He and his wife recall plowing the fields with oxen, loading heavy railroad ties onto a sleigh, and carrying butter and eggs to nearby Pokerville to exchange for groceries.
  • Florence Cravens [I was born in Austin, Texas] - In 1886, Mrs. Cravens moved west with her family from Austin, Texas, on an immigrant train of covered wagons. She recalls hearing wolves, coming upon the newly dug grave of a child, a shooting, selling mesquite roots for firewood, the death of her mother, and a smallpox epidemic.
  • Albert Zeigler - A German immigrant, Mr. Zeigler describes running a dry goods store with his brother in New Mexico, selling stove pipe hats to Apache Indians, and the impact of gold mining on the town in the 1880s.
  • Giacomo Coletti - This narrative describes an Italian granite worker's life in Montpelier, Vermont, including the importance of family celebrations, living in poverty, working in "the sheds," and working with other immigrant groups.

The following oral history is from Pioneering the Upper Midwest: Books from Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, ca. 1820-1910:

  • Chrysostom Verwyst [Reminiscences of a pioneer missionary] - A pioneer missionary immigrant from Holland, Mr. Verwyst describes his train ride to Hollandtown, Wisconsin, and how his family carved a farm out of the woods and meadows. His memoirs contain accounts of festive celebrations, clothing, agricultural practices, and local community life.

Activity 4: Introduction to Photographic Analysis

Students combine observations with background knowledge to make deductions about photographs related to the theme of immigration. (Note: This activity can use any theme that fits into the curriculum.)

  1. Choose a photograph from the Library of Congress online collections and project it on a screen. Italian bread peddlers, from the Detroit Publishing Company collection, works well for this activity.
  2. Lead the students through a group photographic analysis activity, using the questions from the teacher's guide Analyzing Prints and Photographs to focus and prompt discussion.
  3. Students work in pairs to search for and select a photograph from the Detroit Publishing Company collection to analyze. Search for photographs illustrating the theme of immigration by entering one of the following keywords:
  • Children
  • School
  • Railroad/railway
  • Families
  • Emigrants
  • Immigrants
  • Jewish
  • Carriages
  • Market
  • Tenement
  • Street scene
  • Peddler
  • Italians
  • Germans
  • Irish

Activity 5: Curating a Photo Exhibit of "The Immigrant Experience"

Students become curators of a photo exhibit entitled "The Immigrant Experience."

  1. Hand out copies of The Immigrant Experience - A Photographic Exhibit instruction sheet and review with students.
  2. Students choose an immigration-related theme to research.
  3. In pairs, students search the Library of Congress online collections and select and print five photographs depicting their immigration theme.
  4. Each of the photographs should be accompanied by text that explains the photo's relationship to the chosen theme.
  5. Students research their chosen theme and explain it in a written essay.
  6. As a guide, the students complete an Analyzing Prints and Photographs worksheet used in Activity Four for each of the five selected photographs.

Activity 6: Grand Opening of "The Immigrant Experience"

Students combine their posters to create a poster display on a classroom wall. At the exhibit opening, students view all the displayed photos to reinforce their understanding of the various themes of immigration. If possible, display selected posters at a school "technology night" or other event, where students can explain the project to visiting parents and community members.

After the exhibit opening, guide a wrap-up discussion of the immigrant experience.

Lesson Evaluation

Scoring Rubric for Photographic Exhibits

Names of Group Members:

5- Exhibit is very appropriate for the theme of immigration and intelligence and communicates superior knowledge of topic. Exhibit is very clearly presented with high quality and shows much creativity.

4- Exhibit is appropriate for the theme of immigration and intelligence and communicates strong knowledge of topic. Exhibit is clearly presented, shows quality and creativity, but may not be up to superior standards.

3- Exhibit displays the theme of immigration and intelligence, but is not completely appropriate. Communicates some knowledge of the topic, but may not be completely clear or show high quality and/or creativity.

2- Exhibit is not appropriate for the theme of immigration and/or intelligence and may be incomplete. Communicates little knowledge of topic. Unclear and/or poor quality or shows little creativity. Below average standards.

1- Exhibit is not completed or inappropriate for the theme of immigration. Shows no knowledge of topic and/or no creativity. Quality is very poor and reflects little or no effort.

0- Exhibit not submitted.


Mary Johnson and Linda Thompson