At a Glance

  • Jessica Cruz and her 8th-grade students explore immigration and what it means to be an American through photographs and other primary sources.

What Does It Mean to Be an American?

Lesson Introduction Lesson Continued Promoting Discussion Teaching Strategies

Video Transcription

  • Lesson Introduction
  • Lesson Continued
  • Promoting Discussion
  • Teaching Strategies

  • 2:53
  • 2:59
  • 2:18
  • 1:43
  • Jessica Cruz, in classroom: Okay, so this morning we're actually going to be working on thinking about this question, "What does it mean to be an American?" We're going to start off by thinking about it with ourselves. So take a few minutes, in your notebook, and brainstorm what comes to mind when you hear that question: "What does it mean to be an American?"

    Jessica Cruz: We started off with just looking at the question of "What does it mean to be an American?" I wanted them to start brainstorming and just thinking for themselves what their definition is.

    Jessica Cruz, in classroom: What does it mean to be an American? Carter.

    Student, in classroom: Opportunity.

    Jessica Cruz, in classroom: Opportunity. Can you elaborate a little bit on what you mean by that?

    Student, in classroom: Having their own rights to choose, or not to choose, to do stuff.

    Student, in classroom: Freedom of religion.

    Jessica Cruz, in classroom: Freedom of religion, okay. Randy.

    Student, in classroom: Freedom of the press.

    Jessica Cruz, in classroom: Freedom of the press.

    Student, in classroom: Opportunities, like you can have any job you want.

    Jessica Cruz, in classroom: So work is very, very important also, and having the ability to have any kind of work that you desire is not something that everyone always had.

    Jessica Cruz: Then from there we launched out to looking at some primary source documents that I actually got from the Library of Congress. Basically they had four photographs and one transcribed oral history interview. The photographic analysis starts off with just basically, what do you see in the picture, list at least four—and I put the number four because I wanted to make sure that they didn't just give me one or two things. And I didn't want to bog them down also with list 10 things and then they would never get to the rest of the handout. So just the quick overview of just like an objective analysis of what they see and then take that into the interpretive.

    Jessica Cruz, in classroom: What evidence from the document helps you know how it was written? Quote, from the document.

    Student, in classroom: I wrote that it is written because it is showing the life of Philip Dash and, like, other immigrants, because they had a tough time when they came.

    Jessica Cruz, in classroom: Okay. So you're thinking that Philip Dash had a tough time.

    Student, in classroom: Yeah.

    Jessica Cruz, in classroom: Why?

    Student, in classroom: Because of the quote, it says, "The next morning he tells us that the baby is dead, and he says, 'Thank God, we couldn't afford it.'"

    Jessica Cruz, in classroom: Right, that is pretty tough, to be like happy that—

    Student , in classroom: That tells me that he's poor and it would take him a tough time just trying to raise a baby.

    Student , in classroom: Maybe it's the same thing that happened to this friend, 'cause he'd been working at the shoe factory, they worked at the same shoe factory.

    Jessica Cruz, in classroom: So you're thinking maybe they worked at the same shoe factory?

    Student , in classroom: Yeah.

    Jessica Cruz, in classroom: All right.

    Student , in classroom: Okay, so like, if Philip Dash had any conflicts at work.

    Jessica Cruz, in classroom: In the shoe factory.

    Student, in classroom: Yeah.

    Jessica Cruz, in classroom: Okay. Which is a good question, because later on, we're going to find out that he most definitely did.

  • Jessica Cruz: At the end of their dissecting their primary source they were to regroup together and talk about, first share out and just talk about what they saw in their document, what does this photograph say? What does this text say? What does it mean? And then they had to, as a group, complete this handout. Which is basically putting all the documents on one sheet in one matrix. And the question that they are answering here is "Do you think these immigrants viewed themselves as American? And explain."

    Student, in classroom: I don't think they view themselves—I think, like, they started to, but not, like, too much American.

    Student, in classroom: They still have their nationality with them.

    Student, in classroom: They're not like all out there mixture, they're like themself, they're just—

    Student, in classroom: There's no cultural diffusion yet.

    Student, in classroom: Yeah. So they're still outside, their own little packs.

    Student, in classroom: When the children grow up, they're going to go to school, and they are going to get jobs to be able to support their parents, so, like, the parents will maybe benefit, even though they weren't—

    Student, in classroom: There will be benefit from both ends, in the process of them growing up and after they grow up.

    Student, in classroom: I think that the more people stay in America the more they get used to the culture of the American people and the style.

    Jessica Cruz: Then at the end of this analysis and regrouping and talking about it, we got as a whole class to just discuss this idea of "What does it mean to be an American?"

    Jessica Cruz, in classroom: So let's hear some things. Tell me the document that you're going to be referring to, and what, as a group, you guys came to terms with. And I'd like to hear people interacting back and forth.

    Student, in classroom: I think some of them did view themselves as Americans, like, they used to work hard to maintain the American lifestyle, like Jason was telling us about his document. He would take his children—the guy would take one of his children to work, yearly, and that would help him support his children, so he was trying to give them opportunities.

    Student, in classroom: I just put that I do not think that they considered themselves Americans, because they were adapting to the way Americans live. Maybe they didn't have those type of jobs where this guy immigrated from, but now he was working in a shoe store, as a skilled shoe worker.

    Jessica Cruz: For homework they are actually now bringing it to the self. They have another matrix that they are taking home and they are going to discuss with their parents and it's along the same kinds of questions like, "Where did you come from? Why did you come? What did you expect to experience when you got here? What did you actually experience?" And then, "Do you feel like you're American?"

  • Jessica Cruz: The thing that I think went well, that I think will always go well in any class that you allow children to talk and voice their opinions are the discussion parts.

    Student, in classroom: Immigrants, they had to work harder than Americans, to get like five dollars a week and had to pay off themselves, so I don't think that they consider themselves as Americans yet, like, until they develop . . .

    Jessica Cruz, in classroom: So they are their way, you think.

    Student, in classroom: I kinda disagree with Nixon, because they're starting a completely new life, so when someone starts over, they don't start from the top, they start from the bottom and then work themselves up to the top. So if they're working for five dollars a week, and it says here, then in five years, their salary's gonna double.

    Jessica Cruz: They have a lot to say, so it bothers me to have to cut them off and say, "Let's move on to the next document" but, I know you will be, you will have 75 minutes of this one photograph. So it's, yeah, that has always been one of my struggles.

    Jessica Cruz, in classroom: Do you think that these individuals, or these immigrants, would view themselves as Americans? Priscilla?

    Student, in classroom: I don't think that they view themselves as Americans, because at this time, American children would actually be maybe in school and not as much working and doing hard labor in order maybe to get money or take it home because maybe their parents also how they migrated here and they're immigrants, their parents don't have money now so the whole family needs to work, including the children, in order to bring money home and they can actually live, like they say, the American dream 'cause that's what they came for, here, to America.

    Jessica Cruz: The idea that I was hearing pretty much across the room is that "American" is a symbol of status, not necessarily a nationality or ethnicity. So because they were all pretty much saying you start off as an immigrant and then you become an American. So that is something that I am making a note of for my future lessons to play with that idea a little bit and see what we can do with that.

  • Jessica Cruz: I was definitely trying to get them to go further with their questioning and even with their just analysis of the document with themselves.

    Jessica Cruz, in classroom: I'm having an issue with this sheet, she said. She goes, I don't think that any of them are going to view themselves as American, because all immigrants have a struggle. You're saying that these were immigrants who have assimilated and are now successful and doing well for themselves.

    Student, in classroom: I view Americans as, they're not themselves, they just have other cultures mixing up. Like, American's not original culture, it's just a bunch of other cultures mixed up into one.

    Student, in classroom: So like you can still, remember your nationality but you can still be yourself at the same time. So like, like Ms. Cruz, you assimilated with all these other cultures but you're still, like, Puerto Rican and you're American at the same time.

    Jessica Cruz: My philosophy in teaching is always to ask questions that don't have a yes or no answer and pretty much to just have them start thinking. And to become young historians in the sense that they would go and try to find information. So I didn't want, I want them to look at the idea of immigration and primarily the question what does it mean to be an American? Because it is a question I think people still today are battling with. The idea of what is an American? Or, who is an American? Is a very hard question to answer and, that in reality there is no true answer.