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Pies, Paintings, and Primary Sources: A Fresh Take on Immigration Studies

Published on Sun, 05/05/2013

Exploring Emerging America’s Windows on History Program

Since 2006, Emerging America’s Windows on History program has mobilized more than 30 research teams of K-12 students with their teachers and in partnership with historical societies, museums, town and college libraries, expert individuals, and other very local resources. Students learn to think historically as they track down primary sources to tell the story of their communities and their place in the world. This is the sixth in our series of close-ups on these sites.


Cross-Grade Immigration Project in Easthampton By Rebecca Rideout

In a multidisciplinary, multi-school teaching approach, Easthampton teachers Ryan Pickard and Jared Orne combined art history, culinary techniques, arts and craft projects, and oral history to explore the immigration stories of this industrial mill town in their unit entitled Immigration in our Community

Ms. Pickard’s fourth graders and Mr. Orne’s tenth grade US History II students started by studying the fundamentals of immigration history: What pushed people to leave their country? What pulled them to America? What did they bring with them? How did they adapt in the new environment? Students created displays, showing what immigrants from different countries valued and brought to America. Then both classes brought their work to a delicious community event: a cultural potluck. Families, including first generation immigrants, brought a wide range of foods native to their homelands. The offerings included French meat pie, shepard's pie, flan, roasted rabbit, and even Ecuadorian stuffed guinea pig.

The fourth grade class visited the Smith College Museum of Art, where Smith students and museum staff had designed a personalized tour of their collection that focused on immigration. Students were given time to write about and interpret a specific painting of an immigrant woman.

The students drafted letters to loved ones in which they imagined the experience of a cross-oceanic voyage. The results brought depth and emotion to their understanding of the struggles faced by early immigrants, as found in this edited excerpt:

Dear Aunt Ellis, I miss you terribly. I wish you had come with us. I feel lonely without you, and cold without your warm hugs. I didn’t bring enough money, so they sent me to steerage. It smells like old potatoes down here. Plus, the food is awful! Mom and dad told me that it will be worth it when we get to America. I hope so. Sincerely, Amber, your loving niece

Ms. Pickard’s fourth graders also expanded their research at Northampton’s Forbes library, where a local historian and reference librarian helped students inspect primary sources. The class studied maps, searched for their family name in town documents, and perused a 1900 census report to discover the types of jobs immigrants and residents might have had. Important questions arose that led to more research, such as “Why did they stop using the railroads?” “What used to be in the Eastworks mill building?” and “Who named all the streets in Easthampton?”

To further understand the hardships that early immigrants faced, both the fourth and tenth grade classes were asked to pack belongings that they would bring with them for a journey to a new country. Fourth graders created and packed “culture boxes” that they decorated with emblems of their own countries of heritage. This activity encouraged students to interview their parents about their family’s heritage; moreover, students learned about the diverse backgrounds of their classmates’ families, whether they had recently immigrated or had been Easthampton residents for centuries.

High school students packed a suitcase as if embarking on a voyage - and then traveled to the elementary school, where they shared their chosen objects with their fourth grade buddies. “The assignment was to think about what you would bring if you moved to a new country and could only bring one suitcase, to understand what it must have been like to leave their home and start a new life,” explains teacher Jared Orne. When the two classes got together, the two age groups learned a lot from each other. “The purpose was to compare what is important to a fourth and tenth grader.”

Mr. Orne’s tenth graders also conducted oral histories with several teenage ELL (English Language Learners) program members. The questions, written by students, helped them understand why families from all over the planet relocate to Easthampton, and how it feels to be a new resident of the United States.

Overall, two age groups learned about the variety of reasons that immigrants have moved to Easthampton through a variety of non-traditional learning experiences. Teachers advise that although it was challenging to fit a longer unit like this into the school year, students got more out of it than a basic textbook-oriented course and encourage other teachers to work with their school to create similarly engaging programs.

"I learned that people get to America many ways and for many different reasons, one being to have a better life than they had where they came from."

"I thought it was cool to work with the fourth graders. This project helped me learn what it was really like to make the decision to immigrate."

Collaborations between the Easthampton High School, Maple Elementary School, Smith College Museum of Art, Forbes Library, and the ELL Program at Easthampton High School made this project possible.

Rich Cairn

Civics and Social Studies Curriculum and Instruction Specialist, Collaborative for Educational Services
Rich Cairn founded Emerging America in 2006, which features the Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources program at the Collaborative for Educational Services, and the National Endowment for the Humanities Landmarks of American History program, "Forge of Innovation: The Springfield Armory and the Genesis of American Industry." The Accessing Inquiry clearinghouse, supported by the Library of Congress TPS program promotes full inclusion of students with disabilities and English Learners in civics and social studies education.