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Helping Students from Immigrant Families Connect to U.S. History

by Monica Fuglei

The U.S. student population is comprised of children from increasingly diverse backgrounds. According to the Foundation for Child Development, one in every four American K-12 students comes from an immigrant family. This significant population requires educators to find ways of connecting with students of immigrant families despite social or language barriers.

How to Help Students from Immigrant Families Connect to U.S. History


American history for students from many different cultural backgrounds: challenges and opportunities

This is particularly difficult for American history teachers, because while many students have family histories deeply rooted alongside the nation’s past, students from immigrant families may not have the social and historical connections to allow them to fully engage with their American history class.

Educator Tim Bailey, winner of the 2009 Preserve America National History Teacher of the Year Award, teaches in a school with a majority first- and second-generation immigrant student population. In this short video on his teaching philosophy, Bailey notes that he is able to engage his students and make them excited about learning U.S. history regardless of their cultural background.

Bailey points out that real learning “doesn’t take place without an emotional connection,” and thus he works to present history in a way that students can and will connect with it.  The video highlights his students playing a dice game that randomly assigns them to sides in the American Civil War.

Separating once-close friends, both physically and philosophically, in the classroom allows students to capture a piece of the deeply-felt story of the U.S. Civil War while learning facts and information along the way. Students love games and the sense that they are playing instead of being taught, while teachers realize that, in fact, students are learning because they are playing.

Connecting personal stories to the history of  U.S. immigration

Students also learn through telling their own stories. In 2012, teacher Thi Bui of Oakland, California won an ING Unsung Heroes grant for her innovative program “A Nation of Immigrants.” This collaborative program creates a world map using student audio and video stories, drawings, and writings about their homeland to allow participating students to research the history of immigration to America.

The act of personalizing the historical account of American immigration allows students an inroad to the America’s history while also placing it alongside a world timeline — acknowledging and recognizing America’s enduring presence in students’ own histories.

Sometimes listening to students tell their own stories allows for instructors to identify patterns, trends, or outside connections between a student’s past and American historical events. A student’s personal narrative can be used as a new way of seeing American history among the student’s classmates as well. 

Empathic listening creates opportunities including the emotional resonance of a student’s history. Listening to each others’ stories also creates opportunities to identify and build connections to United States history – two students may have vastly different nations of birth, primary languages, and historical backgrounds but narrative allows them to connect emotionally in ways that reading data on a page never would.

Understanding the meaning of the Declaration of Independence and Pledge of Allegiance

In Tim Bailey’s classroom, another important aspect of teaching all students is ensuring that they clearly understand what they are saying and why. Because so many students from immigrant families come from homes where English is a second language, it is essential to Bailey that they understand the very roots of the Declaration of Independence – providing students an amazing opportunity for distinct lessons as they discuss the importance of each individual word of the Pledge of Allegiance. Discussing the definitions of words like “indivisible” is an excellent teaching moment for American historical events.

Recent studies show that, over time, first-generation immigrant students perform very well in United States schools. While they may at first have difficulty connecting with American history, attempts to help them establish emotional connections to historical content will help not only them, but American-born students as well. 


Monica Fuglei is a graduate of the University of Nebraska in Omaha and a current adjunct faculty member of Arapahoe Community College in Colorado, where she teaches composition and creative writing.

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