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Lesson Plan Immigration History Firsthand

Immigration History Firsthand has been designed to provide elementary children with experiences which enable them to begin understanding primary sources. Students move from personal artifacts to the vast Library of Congress online collections and learn how archival collections are organized, how to interpret artifacts and documents, how to use primary sources to tell a real story and how to do online research

Using primary sources to do research can enliven a history project, but requires even more specific skills:

  • deciphering antiquated language
  • doing close textual analysis
  • developing visual literacy acuity
  • knowing what is worthwhile and what isn't (evaluating sources)
  • being critically aware of authorship understanding how information is organized.

The curriculum could easily be adapted to other topics. The Library's Collections are rich in materials related to Civil Rights, the Civil War, Women's Rights, the Constitution, Westward Movement, Native Americans, Industrialization and other topics commonly studied in elementary classrooms. What is important is that the activities be meaningful to the students. We discourage use of immigration materials if immigration is not a topic under study. We suggest exploring the collections and adapting the curriculum to whatever topic your students are studying.


Students will be able to:

  • Construct their own understanding of primary source materials.
  • Enrich their understanding of U.S. history.
  • Develop a research vocabulary.
  • Develop research skills using off-line and online collections.
  • Become critically aware of the complexities of archival collections.
  • Create a poster which organizes primary source materials to tell a story.

Time Required

Three weeks

Lesson Preparation


  • Student mementos - baby pictures, artwork, stories, toys, awards.
  • Textual and graphical materials from local archives - school archives or those from a local historical society .
  • Colored folders for student organization of archival materials.
  • Poster construction materials (poster board, glue, scissors, etc.)


The act of determining historical or monetary value in a document or artifact.
Archives refers to three related concepts: the primary source collections held in an archives building, the institution that collects primary sources, or the building itself.
Arrangement and Description:
The process of placing documents or artifacts in a logical order and writing descriptive guides to aid in the location of specific items.
An object which provides evidence about a specific period or event.
Attributes are the specific qualities of a document or artifact.
A group of documents and/or artifacts which share something in common such as origin or subject.
Documents contain information about event(s). They can be textual or graphic. Manuscripts are documents which are created as a result of individual activity. Records are documents which are created as a result of institutional activity.
Primary Source:
A document or artifact which provides evidence about a historical event. Primary sources reflect firsthand knowledge about a particular event.
Secondary Source:
Information which is derived from other sources. These sources can be either primay or secondary.


Lesson Procedure

Guiding Questions

To be used with students throughout the unit.

  1. Why was this item saved?
  2. How can you find this item?
  3. Can you find an item relating to this topic?
  4. What can you learn from this item?
  5. Does a particular group of items tell an accurate story about Immigration?
  6. Does the story complement or conflict with your previous knowledge?
  7. How can you find information on a particular topic in a large collection?
  8. How do you decide what information is worthwhile and what isn't?

Unit I - Personal: What is a Collection?

Lesson 1 - Artifact Attributes

Have the children bring in personal mementos from a previous school year. Each child brings in a memento from a previous school year and writes a caption about it. These mementos and captions are displayed in a museum (hallway, classroom, etc.). Mementos include photographs, stories, awards, and sculptures.

Use these artifacts and documents in a lesson on artifact attributes.

  1. Ask the children to identify attributes that all the items share such as color, shape, size and format (written document, photograph, etc.). You can also refer to articles of clothing or shoes the children are wearing.
  2. As children identify artifact attributes that are shared by the items, write them on a blackboard or large piece of paper.
  3. Relate the categories students identified to the way information is organized in a library. Ask about the attributes that books have. Which of these attributes is used when placing materials on the library shelf?

Unit II - Local: How are Collections Organized?

Lesson 2 - Archives and Appraisal

By working with materials which are no longer personal, but are still locally relevant, students will begin to understand what archives are and the role of the archivist. Possible sources for archives might be local historical societies, archives, and museums.

Part 1:

  1. Ask if any students have ever heard of appraisal. If they have not, explain that appraisal often means determining how much money something is worth.
  2. Ask students why people might want to know how much something is worth. Refer back to the children's personal mementos. Do they have monetary value? Do they have other kinds of value?
  3. Explain that, as primary sources, the mementos tell us about something that has happened in the past. This is called historical value. In archives, primary sources are appraised for historical value. Archivists cannot save everything because there is just too much stuff in the world. They only save the things that they think will have some kind of historical value.
  4. Ask students to come up with a list of things an archivist might think about when deciding what to save and what to throw away. This can be done as a group activity.

Part 2:

  1. Photocopy 15-20 documents of different types (correspondence, diary entry, photograph etc.) from a manuscript collection in your local archives.
  2. Divide the class into groups of three students and give each group a set of documents.
  3. Explain that [name of collection] has just passed away and his/her family donated an important collection of documents to the local archives. Unfortunately, there is not enough room in the archives’ storage area to keep the entire collection.
  4. Students are told that each group will have to get rid of approximately half of the documents in their collection. They will have to appraise the documents for historical value and decide which items are worth keeping.
  5. Ask each group to review the documents one at a time and make a pile of the items they think should be kept and the ones they think should be thrown away. Remind the children that historians will only be able to use the items they decide to keep when they write about this person in the future.
  6. One student in each group acts as the "recorder" and writes down important reasons why they decided to keep items and reasons why they decided not to keep other items.
  7. Collect the items which were kept by each group and save them for the next lesson. Colored folders can be used to help students (and the teacher) keep documents organized.

Part 3:

  1. Bring the students together as a class and have each group read a few of the reasons for their decisions.
  2. Ask students if the documents kept by each group would tell a different story about the person's life. Would some of the groups be able to tell a more accurate story? Why? Could you tell who created the records in your collection? When were they created?
  3. Ask students how they would compare working with primary sources and reading books or magazines. What was surprising about the documents? What seemed familiar?

Lesson 3 - Arrangement and Description

  1. Hand out the saved items from the last unit to each group of children. Ask them to look at the documents and write down some of the attributes the items share.
  2. After about ten minutes reconvene class and compile a master list of the attributes students identified. This list should include the fact that somebody created each item, they were created at a specific time, and each item is "about" something or has a subject.
  3. Explain that primary sources can be organized in many different ways. In archives this is called "arrangement and description." Why do they need to be organized at all?
  4. Explain to students that they can organize their collections by using some of the attributes that have been identified as a guide. Ask each group to put their collection in the order that will be most useful for a historian who will be using the collection in the future. Each group will have to discuss this before organizing the documents.
  5. When they are done organizing, have the students report to the class on how they arranged their collection and why. Foster discussion about the various strategies. Explain that there is no right way. Archivists arrange collections in many different ways depending on what the documents are about and how they might be used in the future.
  6. Ask students if they think someone could find things easily in their collection. Do you think an index or table of contents for the collection would help people find things? Since you can only put the items in order one way at a time archivists use something like a table of contents called a "finding aid" to help people do research with primary sources.

In the next few lessons we will be working with digitized archival collections.

Unit III - National: Searching an Online Collection

Note: These lessons were designed for use after students had already been immersed in the topic of immigration for some time.

Lesson 4 - Introduction to Searching and the Library of Congress Digitized Collections:

The Library's digital collections are introduced via the collection entitled, Inventing Entertainment. The teacher demonstrates a search using the keyword immigration. Three titles should come up in the search. The class views or listens to the items and discusses why or why not they would be useful in learning more about immigration. One item is about Ellis Island. Another item shows an arrest in San Francisco's Chinatown. The sound recording is of a song offering a hostile warning to immigrants. The teacher should lead the discussion and record the children's statements.

Lesson 5 - Searching Texts:

American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940

  1. Place the children in groups of three or four to a computer.
  2. Give some background on the WPA Life History Collection. The children should know something about why the collection was made, how it was made and when it was made. They should be prepared to encounter difficult vocabulary, dialect and a range of beliefs, some of which are racist. There should be ample discussion of this before the children work with the collection. It is assumed that the teacher will have thoroughly familiarized himself or herself with the documents before the children use them.
  3. Depending on students' prior experience and grade level it might be worthwhile to demonstrate how to read one of the WPA documents before the children begin their group work.
  4. Guide children in searching the WPA Life History Collection using the keyword immigration.
  5. The groups should select titles and skim them to determine which will advance their understanding of immigration and which will not.
  6. They should keep notes on their process. For example, some of the titles will have nothing to do with the immigrant experience. The title will come up because an interviewee simply referred to immigrants.
  7. Each group should select a number of documents to save. These should be documents they view as having advanced their understanding of immigration.
  8. At the end of the session the whole class should discuss why they saved certain documents and not others. The teacher should record their discussion.

Lesson 6 - Searching Photographs Independently:

Detroit Publishing Company

  1. Place the children in groups of three or four per computer (ideally the same groups as the previous session).
  2. Review the collection. Explain what it was, why it was made and when it was made. Again, it might be worthwhile to demonstrate how to examine a photograph from the collection before the children work on their own.
  3. The children should do two searches in the collection. For the first, they will use the keyword immigration. For the second search they will try a synonym.
  4. Each group should save several photographs which advance their understanding of immigration.
  5. They can keep a record of their search process in order to discuss what worked and what didn't.
  6. At the end of the session the class should come together and discuss their experiences. Their comments can be recorded and saved.

Lesson 7 - Presenting and Research

Each group should review the documents and photos collected and organize them into a poster. These posters can be done off or on line depending on the resources available. The posters should tell a story about immigration. The children will use their prior knowledge of immigration along with their new knowledge gained through the previous lessons to create these posters.

Lesson 8 - Celebration

The final session should be one where the children can present their posters. Each group should present their poster to the class and explain why they did the poster as they did. Administrators and parents can be invited to this session. The posters should then be exhibited.

Lesson Evaluation

Students can be assessed based upon:

  • Their level of engagement in group discussions;
  • Their collaborative effort, and their ability to justify appraisal decisions;
  • Their identification of meaningful document attributes and logical organization of their collections;
  • The poster and their presentation of the poster


Cory Brandt and Monica Edinger