Immigration Stories Assignment

Lesson Name: Immigration Stories Assignment

Primary Museum Pedagogy: Materiality and Narrativity

Course Title and Description: John Jay College history 208 (World History Lecture Course)

Lesson Overview:  In this lesson, students compose and revise short “object biographies” to submit to the growing digital archive “Your Story, Our Story,” which is a project of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.


  • Developing and asking historical questions
  • Secondary source research
  • Writing

Pedagogical Considerations:

  • Students will conduct primary and secondary source research by interviewing someone about their immigrant experience and discovering the broader context of immigration from that person’s country of origin to the United States.
  • A portion of this writing will become a part of a public-facing digital archive, so students have an incentive to take the assignment seriously.
  • The strict parameters (wordcount, style,) for each upload, as outlined by the Tenement Museum, gives the professor a ready-made way to enforce the importance of reading and following directions, and of editing out extraneous words.
  • By asking students to apply Massey’s theories of world migration rather than merely regurgitating them, it helps assess student comprehension. (These theories are organizing principles of the course and essential for students to understand early on.)
  • The profesor can assess student writing and analysis early in the semester, and adapt later assignments to better fit the class level

Content Objectives:

  • Students will learn a few specific contemporary immigration histories (the one they study and those their peers study) which will help to anchor the abstract theories we’re studying in class.
  • Students will apply broad sociological theories of world migration to personal experiences of friends and/or family.


Assignment 1: This assignment has three separate components.

  1. First, conduct research and interview someone in your family (broadly defined) about his/her immigration story.
  2. Second, write a narrative of your interviewee’s immigration story, centered around an object. This will be contributed to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum’s new project.
  3. Third, write an analysis, based on secondary source research, of how your interviewee’s immigration story does or does not fit into
  4. the historical context of migration from that person’s home country to New York, and the theoretical models of world migration we’ve seen in our readings (5-7 pages)

Your bibliography should include at least two reputable outside sources. Paper should also cite at least three trends in the history of world migration.

Assignment Deadlines:

Draft Due in Class:

  • Object Vignette
  • Analysis (Optional)

Final draft due:

  • Extension requests must be made by 3/4. No Late papers accepted.


The Research and Interview

  • Research component 1: Find secondary sources (books, articles) about your interviewee’s country of origin and that nation’s immigration into New York (or wherever they went.) Use your research to help you formulate specific interview questions.
  • The Interview: Interview a family member or close friends about their immigration story. As a part of the interview, ask them to think of an object that is important to their immigration story. Take a photo of that object.
  • Research Component 2: Now that you know the details of this person’s story, do some more research to assess if and how their story is typical or atypical compared to other people who immigrated at the same time and from the same place.

***During the interview be sure to identify an object to represent his/her immigration story and take a picture of that object.

The Writing

  1. Object Vignette: (Max 1500 characters/200 words)
  • Tell your interviewee’s immigration story through the object they identified. There are many samples on the Your Story/Our Story Page that you can model your “vignette” on. But here are some prompts:
    • What narrative do you want to focus on in your vignette?
      • Do you want to tell the full chronological story of their immigration?
      • Or clearly paint the picture of a single moment in their story/journey?
    • Is the object the central character of your vignette? Or does it play a supporting role?
      • Will you start by describing the artifact?
      • Is it more appropriate to reveal the significance of the artifact part-way through or at the end of your vignette?

2. Analysis: (5-7 pages)

  • Analyze how this person’s narrative fits into a specific history of migration from one country to another (or perhaps multiple countries!) Be sure to look up the dates they left/arrived on your Immigration Timeline to see what was going on with U.S. policy!
  • Analyze how this story follows or diverges from patterns of migration described in our readings. Choose from the following readings:
    • Human Development Report
    • Douglas Massey
    • Film

3. Research and Interview FAQ:

  • How do I choose an interviewee?
    1. Define “Family” broadly as anyone in your social world.
    2. Who’s story are you interested in?
    3. Who’s a great story teller?
    4. Who’s willing to work with you?
  • Does my interview need to be in English?
    1. No!
  • How should I record my interview?
    1. Use a phone, computer, or other personal device
    2. Borrow Equipment from John Jay: **Requires 2 Week Advance Notice
  • How long should my interview be?
    1. As long as it takes (not helpful, but true.)
    2. Probably between a half-hour and an hour and a half
    3. Be conscious of interviewee fatigue
  • Where should I conduct the interview?
    1. Somewhere comfortable and quiet
  • Do we need some sort of release form
    1. No, for class projects, we do not. But do be sure to tell your interviewee why you are doing this interview.
    2. Yes, to contribute to the Tenement Museum project, we do.

Helpful References: