Curriculum Connections Huddled Mass or Second Class? Elementary Level Lesson

“What is it Like to be an Outsider?”: Building Empathy for the Experiences of Immigrants


This lesson helps students to build empathy and understanding for the experiences of immigrants in the U.S. Through stories, reflective writing and research on the influence that immigrants have had on U.S. culture, students heighten their awareness about the negative effects of anti-immigrant bias and the integral role that immigrants have always played in U.S. life.


  • Students will increase empathy for immigrants and others who are treated as “outsiders” in their community
  • Students will learn about the history of immigration to the U.S.
  • Students will explore the negative impact of anti-immigrant stereotypes and bias
  • Students will research the contributions of immigrants to the U.S.



Time: 2 – 3 hours or 3 class periods + time for research

Grade Level: Grades 3 – 5

Strategies and Skills: brainstorming, connecting past to present, cooperative group work, critical thinking, forming opinions, historical understanding, large and small group discussion, reading skills, research skills, social action, using the Internet, writing skills

Key Words and Phrases: bias, Cambodia, “chink,” descendent, discrimination, Ellis Island, empathy, famine, “gook,” immigrant, immigration, Native American, outsider, prejudice, refugee, stereotype


Handouts/Supporting Documents:  download all handouts (.pdf format)

  • You Have to Live in Somebody Else’s Country to Understand (one per student or one large copy to post)
  • Native Americans (one per small group)
  • A Nation of Immigrants (one per small group)
  • One Nation, Many Languages (one per small group)
  • Gifts from Many Lands (one per small group)
  • Contributions of Native Americans and Immigrants (one per small group)

Other Materials: chart paper, markers, world map, small Post-it® pad or pushpins

Advance Preparation:

  • Reproduce handouts as directed above.
  • (OPTIONAL) Instead of photocopying, chart the poem, You Have to Live in Somebody Else’s Country to Understand
  • Gather a copy of the Spanish and English versions of Who Belongs Here?/Quien Es de Aqui? by Margy Burns Knight


Part I: Building Empathy for “Outsiders” (45 – 60 minutes + time to write story/poem)

  1. Prior to the lesson, gather a copy of both the Spanish and English versions of the following book:
  2. Who Belongs Here?/Quien Es de Aqui? by Margy Burns Knight
    Tilbury House Publishers, 2003, 30 pages, grades 2 – 5
    Summary: Nary, a young boy fleeing war-torn Cambodia for the safety of the U.S., is viewed by some of his new classmates as a “chink” who should go back where he belongs. But what if everyone whose family came from another place was forced to return to his or her homeland? Who would be left? This story teaches compassion for recent immigrants while sharing the history of immigration in the U.S. and some of the important contributions made by past immigrants.

  3. Tell students that you are going to read a story aloud, and that for homework you would like them to write a summary of the story in their own words and a letter to the main character, Nary, describing how they felt as they heard about Nary’s experiences. Begin reading Quien Es de Aqui? (the Spanish version only) aloud to the class. Read several pages and pause to ask students if they have any questions about the story so far and if they feel prepared to complete the homework assignment.

  4. NOTE: Read just enough to make students feel a little uncomfortable; the goal is for students to experience what it might feel like to be a newcomer to a country where they don’t understand the language. If Quien Es de Aqui? is not available or if many of your students speak Spanish, this exercise can be done with any book written in a language that is unfamiliar to the majority of your students.

  5. Presumably many students will express frustration at having to listen and respond to a book that they can’t understand. After students have had a chance to voice their apprehensions, tell them that they don’t actually have to complete the assignment and discuss some of the following questions:

    • How did it feel to sit through a story that you could not understand?

    • What was your reaction when you thought you’d be expected to complete an assignment that you are not capable of doing?

    • What group of people experience situations and feelings like this every day? (If students do not use the term immigrants, introduce and define it.)

    • How do you think it would feel to move to a place where you do not understand the language or the customs?

    • Have you ever observed immigrants being teased or treated differently because of where they come from? Describe what you have observed.

  6. Tell students that you’d like to read a poem together written by a ninth grade student, an immigrant from Cambodia who expresses what it feels like to be an outsider. Post or distribute copies of the poem, You Have to Live in Somebody Else’s Country to Understand by Noy Chou. Ask for volunteers to read each stanza aloud. Discuss the following questions:

    • What is it like for Chou to be an outsider from another country, and to look and sound different from the other kids in her new school?

    • What groups or individuals have you noticed are treated like outsiders in our community? How does it affect a person when they are made to feel like an outsider?

    • How do Chou’s new classmates in the U.S. react to her differences? How do they treat her?

    • Is it fair for Chou’s teachers and peers to expect her to keep up with everyone else? What do they think about Chou when she can’t keep up?

    • Why do you think that some of Chou’s classmates bother or make fun of her when she hasn’t done anything to them? Why do some people choose to hurt rather than help immigrants like Chou?

    • Have you learned anything from this poem that will cause you to behave differently in the future?

    • What can we all to do to make immigrants like Chou feel welcome and supported in our school or community?

  7. NOTE: The Cambodian name is spoken and written in the order of last name then first name, so Noy Chou should be referred to as Chou when discussing the poem with students.

  8. Tell students that we have all had the experience of feeling like an outsider—or as Chou says, “an opposite” or “a loser”—for one reason or another. Ask students to reflect on a time when they have felt this way, and to write a short story or a poem describing the experience and their feelings. Have students title their poems/stories, “You have to _______ to Understand” (e.g., “You Have to be Adopted to Understand” or “You Have to Have a Disability to Understand”).

  9. When students have completed their writing, ask for several volunteers to share their pieces with the class. Conclude by reinforcing the importance of demonstrating empathy for others and making “outsiders” feel like “insiders” through kindness and friendship.

  10. OPTIONAL: If there is not sufficient time in class for this writing task, assign it for homework and do just the sharing/processing part in class.

  11. For homework, ask students to find out whether or not their family is originally from the United States and, if not, approximately when they arrived in the U.S. and from what part(s) of the world. For the purposes of this assignment, ask students to trace their family’s history back as many generations as possible.

Part II: Exploring Who “Belongs” in the U.S. (30 – 40 minutes)

  1. Read aloud the English version of Who Belongs Here? by Margy Burns Knight and discuss the following questions:

    • Why did Nary and his family leave Cambodia and immigrate to the U.S.?

    • Nary’s grandmother once told him that the U.S. would be “better than heaven.” Did this turn out to be true for Nary? Explain your answer.

    • Why did some of Nary’s classmates call him names and tell him to “get back on the boat and go home where you belong”? Why do they believe that Nary does not belong in the U.S.?

    • How did Nary and his teacher help the other students to better understand Nary’s experiences and feelings?

    • In what ways did Nary’s story help you to better understand the experiences of immigrants that you know?

  2. Post a copy of a world map. Tell student that the book they just read asks the question, “Who belongs here?” Ask, “what if everyone whose family came from another place was forced to return to his or her homeland? Who would be left?” Remind students that for homework you asked them to find out where in the world their families originally came from, if not the U.S. Invite students up to the world map to indicate where their families lived before coming to the U.S. using a small sheet of Post-it® paper or a push pin.

  3. NOTE: Students should indicate the place(s) that represent the earliest ancestors about whom they are aware. Encourage students who do not know precise locations to approximate. For example, African American students who do not know exactly which country their forebears came from can select any spot on the continent of Africa; a Jewish student who only knows that his/her relatives lived somewhere in Eastern Europe before the war can select any spot in that region.

  4. Ask students to stand if they did not come up to the world map, that is if their family has always lived in the U.S. (Presumably few if any students will stand.) Ask students if all those families who come from someplace else “don’t belong” in the U.S. Ask why some people say that immigrants—like Nary in the story—don’t belong here and should go back where they come from.

  5. Emphasize that while every country has to set limits on the number of immigrants who can arrive at any given time, it is never true to say that any particular group—such as Cambodians or Mexicans—don’t belong. Ask students if they know what it is called when someone holds a belief about a whole group of people that assumes that everyone in the group is the same (e.g., Mexicans are criminals so they should not be allowed in the U.S. or Haitians are lazy so we don’t want them in this country).

  6. If students do not identify the term stereotype, introduce and define it (a belief about a whole group of people that does not allow for each person’s individual differences). Ask students why it is important to avoid stereotypes about immigrants and all groups of people (e.g., they are untrue, hurt people’s feelings, limit opportunities, lead to prejudice and discrimination, etc.).

Part III: Researching the Influence of Immigrants on U.S. Culture (time will vary)

  1. Emphasize that immigrants have always been and still are a central and important part of U.S. life, and that they have shaped the way we live in many ways. Tell students that they will conduct some brief research to further explore the ways in which Native and immigrant groups have influenced U.S. life and culture.

  2. Divide the class into five groups and assign each group one of the following topics:

    • Native Americans
    • A Nation of Immigrants
    • One Nation, Many Languages
    • Gifts from Many Lands
    • Contributions of Native Americans and Immigrants

    Have each group select a recorder and a reporter. Provide each group with a copy of the appropriate handout and review the directions with them. Allow groups time to research their topics using the classroom/school library and the Internet.

  3. When groups have completed their research, reconvene the class and ask the group reporters to share highlights from their group’s findings. Conclude by underscoring that the U.S. is a “nation of immigrants,” that this is an important part of our history and that prejudice and discrimination against immigrant groups is unacceptable.


  1. In Who Belongs Here? the author writes:
    “Every year millions of people from all over the world try to come to the U.S. Not all of them are allowed to live here. Since the mid-1800s the government has made laws to keep certain people out of this country. Many people choose to come illegally…Who should be allowed to come to the U.S.? Should anyone be made to leave? If there aren’t enough jobs, homes, and food for everyone, how do we decide who gets to live here?”
    Have students research some of the past and current U.S. laws regulating immigration. Discuss with students the question of how the government decides who gets to live in the U.S. Have students write their own immigration law that addresses this question and incorporates their ideas about the fairest way to regulate immigration.

  2. Assign students to conduct research on activists who have worked to safeguard the rights of immigrants and migrant workers, such as Dolores Huerta and César Chávez. Have students write brief biographies and create dioramas depicting scenes that represent key episodes in the struggle for rights.

Challenging Anti-Immigrant Bias
  • In This Edition
Lesson Plans
  • Elementary Level Lesson (3-5)
  • Middle Level Lesson (6-9)
  • Secondary Level Lesson (10-12)
  • Entire Unit (.pdf format)
Additional Resources
  • Myths and Facts about Immigrants and Immigration (.pdf format)
  • Discussion Guide for “A Nation of Immigrants”
  • Bibliography of Resources on Immigration (.pdf format)
  • ADL Immigration Reports and Resources
Additional ADL Programs & Resources
  • A WORLD OF DIFFERENCE® Institute Recommended Multicultural and Anti-Bias Books for Children Grades K-6
  • A CLASSROOM OF DIFFERENCE Programs and Resources
  • Holocaust Awareness and Remembrance® Institute
  • Combating Anti-Semitism
  • Making Diversity Count Online Professional Development Program
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