Lesson Plan

A Letter from an Immigrant

A photo circa 1911 of an immigrant family undergoing a medical examination at Ellis Island.

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Grade Level:
High School: Ninth Grade through Twelfth Grade
Literacy and Language Arts,Social Studies
Lesson Duration:
90 Minutes
Thinking Skills:
Understanding: Understand the main idea of material heard, viewed, or read. Interpret or summarize the ideas in own words. Applying: Apply an abstract idea in a concrete situation to solve a problem or relate it to a prior experience.

Essential Question

What was it like being an immigrant arriving to the United States in the late 19th century?


Explain the conditions that influenced immigrants to seek a new life in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Create a detailed first person account of the experiences that a hypothetical immigrant may have had when they entered the United States through Ellis Island.


Overview: "A Letter from an Immigrant" is a teacher-directed research and writing exercise that allows students to utilize the on-site exhibits at the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration.  Students also have access to resources provided by the Ellis Island Education Department, as well as the film Island of Hope, Island of Tears.

In undertaking the role of a new immigrant, students will not only gain a deeper understanding of the many components involved in the journey for immigrants arriving to America, but will also determine how to utilize researched materials. They will create original perspectives on the immigrant experience of the late nineteenth – early twentieth centuries. Students will do this, in part, by corresponding with friends and relatives back in Europe about the noteworthy moments of their experience.


This activity is designed for use as an on-site activity at the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration. However with the provision of proper resources to the students, the activity could be assigned as either an in-class or take-home project. Students can approach the research and assignment individually or collaborate with classmates. 

Lesson Hook/Preview

Students often start by watching the film "Island of Hope, Island of Tears;" a great introduction to the immigration process centered around coming to New York City. Students should also find out if their family has an immigration story by starting a conversation with their parents or relatives. 


1) Assume the role/personality of one of the following fictitious but fact-based characters: Stephen Sojka, a strong, hard-working 23 year-old metal/wire worker from the northeastern section of the empire of Austria-Hungary (now present-day Slovakia) in 1909.
Katarina Tranekovsky, a 75 year-old woman of the Jewish faith from Russia who was brought to America by her son & his family in 1897.
Maria Sammartino, a spirited 13 year-old girl who was brought to America by her family from Italy and landed at Ellis Island with a head cold in 1905.
2) For the purposes of this assignment, we will assume that all three eventually got through the processing at Ellis Island to start their lives as Americans. Your task (as the character you’ve chosen) is to write a letter home to your relatives in Europe describing the details of your individual immigrant experience, including your observations or impressions from among the following topics that are described in our museum exhibits and offerings:
a) The reasons you or your family had for emigrating from your native country to America.
b) The conditions that you encountered at the port cities and on an ocean liner as a passenger in steerage class.
c) The experience you encountered as a steerage class passenger upon landing at the docks in New York City or Hoboken.
d) Stages of the medical inspection you endured from the staff of the U.S. Public Health Service at Ellis Island.
e) The experience of being legally interrogated at the inspectors’ desk in the Great Hall (including the types of questions you would be asked during this interrogation.
f) The possible destinations (general destinations as well as ethnic group-specific) for those immigrants departing Ellis Island.
g) The types of occupations that those departing from Ellis Island would initially pursue as new residents in the United States.
3) Gather and, later, review your accumulated facts, data, experiences, & emotions that you feel might have made up the immigrant experience for your chosen character on the provided viewing sheets and from your notes.
4) Now, compose a two- three page (typed, double-spaced) personal letter home to a relative that: conveys your immigrant experience in the first person, use of at least FIVE (5) specific facts/events/experiences that you feel your character would have encountered on their journey to and through Ellis Island, use this information creatively & clearly explain each as to how it contributed to the events & emotions of your experience.
5) What will be your sources of information in developing and writing this letter? Some of the sources available to you for this project are the following:
a) Research that you will compile from the exhibit areas at the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration, using the guide questions provided in the packet entitled “The Researcher’s Worksheet”.
b) The film,"Island of Hope, Island of Tears" (27 min.) – click here for the film that is shown at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum today. A viewing sheet is provided for this film.


Emigrate- to leave one's own country in order to settle permanently in another.
Steerage- the part of a ship that provides accommodations to passengers with the cheapest tickets.
Interrogate-ask questions of someone; especially as a suspect or prisoner in a formal and aggressive manner.
Tenement- a residential building divided and rented out as separate units. Especially one that is run-down and overcrowded.
Nativism- the policy of protecting the interests of native-born or established inhabitants against those of immigrants. An emphasis on traditional or local customs; in opposition to outside influences.

Assessment Materials


  1. Provides a two- three page personal letter
  2. Writing in the FIRST-PERSON – make it a personal letter in the personality of one of the provided fact-based characters.
  3. Identify at least THREE facts/events/experiences that you feel your character would have encountered on their journey.
  4. Using information through storytelling, the student explains how an experience changed an immigrant's outlook on society.

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Last updated: December 15, 2018