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Discovering Angel Island: The Story Behind the Poems

Students explore the immigrant experience at Angel Island through the analysis of poetry written by immigrants during detention at the San Francisco Bay island.

chinese wall poem

Many U.S. history classrooms devote significant time to understanding the immigrant experience. In teaching the immigrant experience, however, many classrooms focus exclusively on European immigration through Ellis Island. This lesson, The Story Behind the Poems, provides students with an excellent opportunity to learn about Asian immigration through Angel Island, and the ways in which the Asian immigrant experience differed from the European immigrant experience. The topics covered in this lesson would be an excellent addition to a unit on immigration, and would couple nicely with lessons on Chinese Exclusion and nativism in the West.

The lesson first provides students with excellent historical background through an on-line video about Angel Island. The lesson then positions students to better understand the Asian immigrant experience through an analysis of poetry left by Asian immigrants on the cell walls of Angel Island. The poetry analysis allows students to connect with the words of the immigrants and hone the skill of analyzing the perspective of an author in a literary piece from the past.

The lesson is highly structured and provides plenty of guidance for teachers who are not experienced in using poems as primary historical documents. The lesson includes sample questions to pose with students while analyzing the poems and also provides students with a graphic organizer to help them organize their thoughts as they prepare to write a reflection on a poem.


The lesson includes a video that can be streamed for free on-line (or purchased). Teachers should arrange to either project the video or provide ample computer resources for students to view the video.

Teachinghistory.org Lesson Plan Rubric
Field Criteria Comments
Historical Content Is historically accurate?

The background and resources are historically accurate and contain links to supplementary materials.

Includes historical background?

A high-quality video introduces students to the immigrant experience at Angel Island and is also a great resource for teachers who are teaching about Angel Island for the first time. Comparative immigration timelines are also excellent resources.

Requires students to read and write?

Students interpret poems and write a reflection on the meaning of the poem and the perspective of the author.

Analytic Thinking Requires students to analyze or construct interpretations using evidence


Requires close reading and attention to source information?

The poetry analysis requires close attention to meaning and intent.

Scaffolding Is appropriate for stated audience?

This lesson is appropriate for the students in late elementary to early middle school.

Includes materials and strategies for scaffolding and supporting student thinking?

Materials include teacher guidelines for helping students analyze the poems and a graphic organizer to help students organize and focus their thoughts about the poems.

Lesson Structure Includes assessment criteria and strategies that focus on historical understanding?

Students are assessed based on in-class discussion and a written reflection about the poems. However, the lesson does not provide specific criteria for assessing performance on the reflection.

Defines clear learning goals and progresses logically?

The lesson aims to 1) teach about the Angel Island experience, and 2) provide opportunities to analyze and interpret poetry. The lesson progresses logically to these goals.

Includes clear directions and is realistic in normal classroom settings?

The lesson-plan is clear and can be easily adapted to a wide variety of classroom settings.