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

Assessment

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

Unit Prep

Essential Questions

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  • 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.

Vocabulary

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Text-based

assimilate disdain efficiency exile implore perplexing polarize profound quota undaunted

Academic

connotation enjambment figurative language literary device metaphor personification point of view/perspective simile structure symbol theme tone

To see all the vocabulary for this course, view our 7th Grade Vocabulary Glossary.

Notes for Teachers

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  • 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

6

Writing

    L.7.5

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

7

Writing

    W.7.3

    W.7.3.d

Interpret your experience of what it means to be American through a prose poem.  

22

2 days

Assessment

Common Core Standards

Core Standards

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L.7.1

L.7.1.a

L.7.1.b

L.7.4

L.7.4.a

L.7.4.c

L.7.4.d

L.7.5

L.7.5.a

L.7.6

RI.7.1

RI.7.2

RI.7.3

RI.7.4

RI.7.7

RL.7.2

RL.7.3

RL.7.4

RL.7.4

RL.7.5

RL.7.6

SL.7.1

SL.7.1.a

SL.7.1.b

SL.7.4

W.7.1

W.7.1.a

W.7.1.b

W.7.1.c

W.7.1.d

W.7.1.e

W.7.3

W.7.3.a

W.7.3.b

W.7.3.c

W.7.3.d

W.7.3.d

W.7.3.e

W.7.7

W.7.8

Supporting Standards

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L.7.2

L.7.2.b

L.7.3

L.7.3.a

L.7.4.b

L.7.5.b

L.7.5.c

RI.7.10

RL.7.1

RL.7.10

SL.7.2

SL.7.3

SL.7.6

W.7.10

W.7.2

W.7.2.a

W.7.2.b

W.7.4

W.7.5

W.7.6

W.7.9

W.7.9.a

W.7.9.b