Immigration: Where Are We From?

Our country is roiling over whether we welcome the refugees and immigrants who arrive at our door. The following activity may help open up discussion of this sensitive issue in your classroom. It invites students’ empathy and understanding by helping them to connect their own family's story to the experience of current immigrants and refugees.  


Homework:  What’s your background?

Instruct students to find out more about their own family background, or research their community’s arrival in the U.S. Assign students to interview family members and/or research in other ways the answers to the following questions about where their family came from and their reasons for moving:

  1. Where did your family/community come from?
  2. What were your family’s/community’s reasons for leaving their home? 
  3. Were they immigrants (did they choose to come to the U.S.) or refugees (that is, were they forced to leave their country to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster)? Were they forced to leave as slaves? Were they forced to move for other reasons?

Students should also find out what they can about what it was like for their family/community once they came to the U.S.  Ask questions such as

  1. What was it like for you/your  family or your ancestors when you/they first came to this new country?

  2. Did you/they speak English when you/they first arrived? If not, which language did you/they speak?

  3. Did you/they face prejudice and racism when you/they got here?

  4. Were you/they free when they got here?

  5. Were you/they free to move where you/they wanted?

  6. Did you/they move to a community with others from the "old country"?

  7. Were they slaves who were forcibly separated from others in their community?

  8. Were there dis/advantages to coming to the U.S.?

  9. What were some of the challenges you/they faced in the U.S.?

  10. Were you/they poor?

  11. What work did the adults do upon arrival? Was it similar to what they had done in their home country? 


Classroom activity:
Where are we from?


Ask students to stand up if they have ever...

  • been the new kid on the block (or in class)?
  • been surrounded by people who do not speak their language?
  • felt lost?
  • moved away from a place they considered home?
  • been excluded from a group?
  • been discriminated against?

After every question, ask students to look around to see whose experiences they might connect with. 

Ask a volunteer who is standing up to share in a few words what it felt like to be in that situation.  Connect these feelings to how a refugee or migrant may feel in a new country, which is something that will be explored in more detail in today’s lesson. 

Wrap up the activity by asking if students have ever tried to reach out  to someone who was new, down, lost, excluded, etc.

Sharing stories

Ask students:

  • What it was like to interview your family members or research your family background?
  • Did you learn something new? Was there anything that surprised you?
  • Would anyone like to share a story you heard or a fact you learned about your family?


Around the world 

Present students with a map of the world and talk them through the different continents and countries, especially those that might be relevant to their backgrounds. 

Have two sets of sticky notes. One set should be one color, the other set should be a different color.

Ask each student to take one note from the first pack (which might be green, for instance). On this note, ask them to write their name and the name of the country (or one of the countries) their ancestors or family came from.  (Eg, Alia, Iraq.)   

Next, ask each student to place this sticky note on the appropriate spot on the map. Be ready to help students find countries if necessary.

Once everyone has put their first note on the map, ask them to step back and look for patterns.  Are the notes clumped together or spread across the map? Where are the notes most concentrated? What are the most far-flung notes? Ask some volunteers to talk about the location of their note and which ancestors lived there. If there’s time, ask them to share something they know about what life was like for their ancestors/family in that country.

Next, ask students to take a sticky note from the second stack (which might be yellow). On this note, ask them to write their name and the name of the country or city where they were born. 

Once everyone has added their yellow note, ask them to step back and once again look at patterns. How are the locations of these second notes different from the location of the first notes (which are a different color)?  Do they cluster together more? Where are they concentrated?  If there is time, ask students to share something they know about how they came to be born in this location. 


Debrief and discussion

  • What was the activity like for you?
  • What did you notice about the origins of people in our class?
  • Do you have questions to ask other students about the activity?
  • Is there anything else you would like to share about the activity?

In wrapping up the activity, connect some of the thoughts generated by the activity to the notion of the United States as a land of immigrants. Though students may all live in the same community or city now, most have families who came from other parts of the world at some point in time. Some people's ancestors came as immigrants or refugees, some came as slaves. It is believed that Native Americans arrived in what is now the U.S. from Asia, long ago. 

Encourage students to also think beyond their classroom, about others in the school community (other students, teachers, deans, janitors, lunchroom staff, security guards, etc.).  Consider how they might position themselves on the imaginary map. 


  • Do students know people in their immediate surroundings who were not born in or around your current community?
  • Do they know people in their immediate surroundings who were not born the U.S.? 
  • Think about the various reasons why people may choose to move or may be forced to move. 


Ask students to travel back in time, back to when their family or ancestors had just arrived at their new home. What would you like to say to them?  What do you hope for them?