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Defining America: Poems, Essays, and Short Stories

Students explore the diversity of the American experience through a variety of voices, texts, and genres.

Unit Summary

This 7th grade unit, “Defining America,” focuses on a diversity of immigrant experiences as they come to develop their own answers to the question: What does it mean to be American? In many ways, immigrants are uniquely equipped to answer this question quite simply because they know what it means to come from a place that is not America, to have been for some portion of their lives a person who is not American. Immigrants bring both an outsider’s and an insider’s perspective.

Through a series of articles, poems, short stories, audio interviews, and essays, students will explore what it really means to be a nation of immigrants. It is structured both chronologically and thematically. Students will closely read “The New Colossus,” Emma Lazarus’s enduring poem now inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty, and dive deeply into an essay written by an immigrant from the early 20th century. Using these as a foundational text, students will read about the diverse experiences of immigrants who have arrived in this country over the past fifty years, including those from Europe, Asia, Central America, and Africa. Additionally, students will read about the experiences of first-generation Americans, and the unique challenges they face as native-born Americans with immigrant parents. The unit concludes with the most pressing contemporary issue related to immigration—that of undocumented people. In these final lessons, students will read texts featuring the voices of undocumented people, describing their desire to be accepted—legally and culturally—as Americans.

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Texts and Materials

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Core Materials


This assessment accompanies Unit 1 and should be given on the suggested assessment day or after completing the unit.

Unit Prep

Essential Questions


  • What does it mean to be American?
  • How does a person’s environment shape their identity?

Enduring Understandings

  • Many immigrants have idealized expectations of what life in America will be like, but their lived experiences rarely match their expectations.
  • Immigrants—and their children—can feel caught between two cultural identities; this conflict can be exacerbated by others’ perceptions.
  • Identifying as American is not always linked to a person’s legal status in this country. There are millions of undocumented people in the United States who wish to become legal citizens/residents, but face significant obstacles to this.




assimilate birthright citizenships culture disdain efficiency emigrate exile identity immigrate implore odyssey patriotism perplexing profound refugee undocumented immigrant undaunted work ethic


alliteration connotation personification tone

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Notes for Teachers


  • Immigration is one of the most controversial issues facing our country today. Students will undoubtedly have opinions about this topic—whether those opinions have been shaped by personal experiences, conversations with family members and peers, and/or exposure to media coverage of the issue. For some students, this may be a very personal and potentially emotional topic.
  • As always, it is essential to make your classroom a safe space for all of your students to express their ideas, listen to others, and share their experiences (if they feel comfortable doing so). This topic has the potential to make some students feel alienated or vulnerable to assumptions from peers. Be mindful of the students sitting in front of you (and also of the fact that you cannot assume which of your students may have a personal connection to this issue).
  • It is very important to note that this unit barely scratches the surface of the history of immigration in this country. Nor does it address the complexities of being an Indigenous person or a descendent of enslaved Africans, both groups who were not immigrants to this country. Although we do not address the experiences of these groups (as the focus of the unit is specifically on immigrants), students should be aware that not all Americans descend from immigrants, and that this narrative erases the experience of many people who call this country home.

Lesson Map


  • “What Does It Mean to Be American?”


Identify recurring themes/words/concepts and definitions of what it means to be American.


  • “Trends in Migration to the U.S.”



Briefly summarize historical trends in migration, and explain the meaning of words and phrases related to immigration to the United States.


  • “The New Colossus”



Determine the impact of specific words, phrases, and literary devices on meaning in the poem, “New Colossus.”


  • “America and I” — Paragraphs 1-49


Identify examples of literary devices used in “America and I,” and explain the figurative meaning and impact of these devices.


  • “America and I”


Explain how setting shapes characters in the essay, “America and I.”





Plan and outline a prose poem that explores what it means to be an American.




Interpret your experience of America through a prose poem.  


  • Sheena Jacob and Juliet Jegasothy

  • Philomena Luciani and Alison Purcell

  • Blanca Alvarez and Connie Alvarez

  • Philip and Andy


Compare and contrast stories presented in different forms of media, and explain how these stories illustrate aspects of the immigrant experience in America.


  • “An Iraqi Immigrant’s Unexpected Role”



Explain the meaning and impact of specific words and phrases used in the essay, “An Iraqi Immigrant’s Unexpected Role,” and what the essay reveals about the immigrant experience.


  • “Hello, My Name Is ______”


Explain how experiences and beliefs shape the writer’s sense of his identity in the essay, “Hello, My Name Is _______.”


  • “Peaches”


Explain how the poet’s use of specific words and phrases develops the reader’s understanding of the speaker’s experience as a child of immigrants in America.


  • “Who’s Irish?”


Explain how the author develops the speaker’s point of view in the short story, “Who’s Irish,” and contrasts it with other characters in the text.


  • “Where You From?”



Explain how the structural choices in the poem, “Where You From?” help to develop meaning.


  • American Dreamers

  • “What is DACA and Who Are the DREAMers?”

  • “DACA, explained”



Gather and synthesize information on DACA and DREAMers from diverse sources in preparation for creating an informational poster.


  • “DACA, explained”

  • American Dreamers

  • “What is DACA and Who Are the DREAMers?”


Work collaboratively to create a poster that educates others on the topic of DACA and the DREAM Act.


  • Call Me American


Explain how beliefs and environment interact to shape the behavior of individuals.


Socratic Seminar

  • All unit texts



Take a clear position on a question and share evidence to support that point of view in a Socratic dialogue.






Translate the expectations of the writing task and analyze a mentor text. 

Differentiate between phrases and clauses.






Outline a real experience with food and translate this memory into a narrative.

Identify independent and subordinate clauses and analyze the effect of simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex sentences.







Craft an engaging and informative introduction.

Identify independent and subordinate clauses and discuss the effect of simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex sentences.







Compose a complete narrative and revise for transitions, mechanics, and organization.

Differentiate between simple, compound, and complex sentences.


2 days


Common Core Standards

Language Standards
  • L.7.1.a — Explain the function of phrases and clauses in general and their function in specific sentences.

  • L.7.1.b — Choose among simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex sentences to signal differing relationships among ideas.

  • L.7.5 — Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings.

  • L.7.6 — Acquire and use accurately grade-appropriate general academic and domain-specific words and phrases; gather vocabulary knowledge when considering a word or phrase important to comprehension or expression.

Reading Standards for Informational Text
  • RI.7.1 — Cite several pieces of textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.

  • RI.7.2 — Determine two or more central ideas in a text and analyze their development over the course of the text; provide an objective summary of the text.

  • RI.7.3 — Analyze the interactions between individuals, events, and ideas in a text (e.g., how ideas influence individuals or events, or how individuals influence ideas or events).

  • RI.7.4 — Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative, connotative, and technical meanings; analyze the impact of a specific word choice on meaning and tone.

  • RI.7.7 — Compare and contrast a text to an audio, video, or multimedia version of the text, analyzing each medium's portrayal of the subject (e.g., how the delivery of a speech affects the impact of the words).

Reading Standards for Literature
  • RL.7.2 — Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text; provide an objective summary of the text.

  • RL.7.3 — Analyze how particular elements of a story or drama interact (e.g., how setting shapes the characters or plot).

  • RL.7.4 — Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of rhymes and other repetitions of sounds (e.g., alliteration) on a specific verse or stanza of a poem or section of a story or drama.

  • RL.7.5 — Analyze how a drama's or poem's form or structure (e.g., soliloquy, sonnet) contributes to its meaning.

  • RL.7.6 — Analyze how an author develops and contrasts the points of view of different characters or narrators in a text.

Speaking and Listening Standards
  • SL.7.1 — Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade 7 topics, texts, and issues, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly.

  • SL.7.1.a — Come to discussions prepared, having read or researched material under study; explicitly draw on that preparation by referring to evidence on the topic, text, or issue to probe and reflect on ideas under discussion.

  • SL.7.1.d — Acknowledge new information expressed by others and, when warranted, modify their own views.

Writing Standards
  • W.7.1.a — Introduce claim(s), acknowledge alternate or opposing claims, and organize the reasons and evidence logically.

  • W.7.1.b — Support claim(s) with logical reasoning and relevant evidence, using accurate, credible sources and demonstrating an understanding of the topic or text.

  • W.7.1.c — Use words, phrases, and clauses to create cohesion and clarify the relationships among claim(s), reasons, and evidence.

  • W.7.1.d — Establish and maintain a formal style.

  • W.7.1.e — Provide a concluding statement or section that follows from and supports the argument presented.

  • W.7.3 — Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, relevant descriptive details, and well-structured event sequences.

  • W.7.3.a — Engage and orient the reader by establishing a context and point of view and introducing a narrator and/or characters; organize an event sequence that unfolds naturally and logically.

  • W.7.3.b — Use narrative techniques, such as dialogue, pacing, and description, to develop experiences, events, and/or characters.

  • W.7.3.c — Use a variety of transition words, phrases, and clauses to convey sequence and signal shifts from one time frame or setting to another.

  • W.7.3.d — Use precise words and phrases, relevant descriptive details, and sensory language to capture the action and convey experiences and events.

  • W.7.3.d — Use precise words and phrases, relevant descriptive details, and sensory language to capture the action and convey experiences and events.

  • W.7.3.e — Provide a conclusion that follows from and reflects on the narrated experiences or events.

  • W.7.8 — Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, using search terms effectively; assess the credibility and accuracy of each source; and quote or paraphrase the data and conclusions of others while avoiding plagiarism and following a standard format for citation.

  • W.7.9.a — Apply grade 7 Reading standards to literature (e.g., "Compare and contrast a fictional portrayal of a time, place, or character and a historical account of the same period as a means of understanding how authors of fiction use or alter history").

Spiral Standards