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Walking the Silk Roads

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Project-Based Learning: Walking the Silk Roads
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  • Added: February, 24th 2011
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  • Tags: global education, high tech high, project based learning
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Content Preview
New Americans Project
Leily Abbassi & Jennie Ganesan
8th Grade Humanities
High Tech Middle

Doing History
When we sat down to plan out the next unit in our 8th grade U.S.
history curriculum, we knew that we wanted to approach the issue
of immigration in a way that went beyond the traditional textbook-
driven discussion of names, dates, and places. We wanted students
to see immigration as an issue that continues to shape the fabric of
American life and to recognize the individual stories behind the overall
trends. After a visiting the nearby New Americans Museum, we were
inspired to engage our students in investigating the stories of recent
immigrants. We designed a project that would allow them to “do”
history by researching background information, conducting interviews,
and then creating artifacts that represented the stories of “New

Building Background
We chose to introduce the “New Americans” project to our classes
by sharing our own family stories. Jennie, for example, shared her
parents' experience as immigrants from India who came to the United
States in the early 1970s. She shared their reasons for leaving,
descriptions of the family they left behind, and the struggles and
celebrations they endured as immigrants. While she shared, a slide
show with images of her parents’ stories played in the background.
The students learned so much during those moments, not only about
their teacher’s family, but also about Indian immigrants, their culture,
and their story. The students were inspired by our stories and couldn't
wait to get started on their own research.

Before we could jump into the interviews, however, we needed to help
students develop additional background knowledge about the concept
of immigration. In order to ask good interview questions, place new
learning into context, and avoid gaffes that might insult the interview
participants, students needed to know the basics about why people
choose to migrate, the challenges and opportunities presented by a
new land, and the history of discrimination and assimilation in the
United States.

We spent several weeks discussing the immigration boom of the

early 20th century, researching the various ethnic groups that came
to the U.S., and comparing the push and pull factors of the past and
present. The students engaged in two simulations that allowed them
to experience Ellis Island and Angel Island from the newcomer’s
perspective. Video interviews of immigrants who had arrived in the
early 1900’s helped students begin to understand what it was like to
leave everything behind and start brand new. We also visited the New
Americans Museum
as a class. Here students saw different exhibits
about immigration from the 20th century and present day.

Living History
Students gained a lot of information and insight through the
simulations, field trip, and daily lessons, but nothing compares
to sitting face-to-face and hearing someone's life story. After
compiling a list of first generation Americans connected with our
school community, we paired each of our students with an interview
participant. To ensure that students learned about perspective and
came to understand what it feels like to stand in someone else's
shoes, we purposefully assigned students to interview individuals with
nationalities and ethnic backgrounds different from their own.

To prepare for their interviews, the students first researched
their interview participant’s country of origin and worked to craft
appropriate and personalized interview questions. We watched
examples of good and bad interviews online and together created a list
of important interviewing techniques. Students held a practice round
of simulated interviews with teachers and students on campus. Our
project required that our students interview their participant three
times first via email, then over the phone, and finally in-person.
We wanted the student and participant to have enough background
information so that they would feel comfortable meeting in person and
be able to sustain a high-quality, in-depth conversation.

While many students were nervous to meet and interview adults
they did not know, the stories they were able to elicit were quite
remarkable. During debriefing discussions in-class it was amazing
to hear the level of detail, emotional depth, and degree of personal
connection as students recounted the experiences of their interview
participants. We were also delighted to realize how much our students
had learned about American history, world history, race relations, war,
poverty, and cultural norms through their conversations. The learning
they gained through these interviews was something that no textbook
could come close to providing.

Crafting Artifacts
Once the interviews were complete, students began craft artifacts
to represent the story of their New American. The artifacts needed
to symbolize the story of what was left behind, being a stranger in a
strange land, and starting anew. We gave students options for the
artifacts they could create and as a class we came up with the specific
requirements and rubrics for each choice. Possibilities included
a calendar, children’s storybook, documentary, soundtrack and
biography, painting and artist statement, or a scrapbook. We wanted
students to showcase their participant's story in the medium that
would best represent their experience. Once the work was complete,
students would present their artifact to the New American whose story
it represented.

It was exciting to see our students invest so much of their time,
creativity, and passion in this project. They knew that their final
product wasn't going to be displayed on a classroom wall, but
instead might hang on someone's dining room wall. Grades or an
extrinsic reward weren't the motivation for student efforts. They
wanted to do well because they knew their artifact would be given to
someone as a thank you for the time they took to share their personal
story. Students completed three cycles of drafts and critique before
completing the final gift. A majority of the work was completed at
home, but students regularly brought in their work for progress checks
and to receive constructive feedback from their classmates.

Sharing Understanding
The final artifacts that the students created were amazing. They had
put tremendous effort into their work and the results demonstrated
their care, creativity, and attention to detail. We loved the variety
of student projects – Although we had 112 students working on the
same project, they created 112 very different representations of the
stories of New Americans. Conversations and written reflections
revealed just how much students had learned about American history
and contemporary society from this project. In addition, they had a
much deeper understanding of the process by which history is told, the
stories that are recounted and the individual people who make up the
trends and numbers recorded in history books.

Perhaps most importantly, this project opened students’ eyes to new
perspectives and new realities. Students formed connections with

their interview participants and were so proud to be able to share their
stories. Many students cited this project as a highlight of their eighth
grade year. One student, Wade, explained the impact it had on him
as follows: "This project allowed me to see citizenship and patriotism
in a way that I had not thought about before. It was a rather touching
experience as I placed the gift in the hands of someone who had
worked extremely hard to get to his current place in America. You
could see the way his life sort of reflected in his eyes as he looked
through all the old photographs of him and his children. It was a
moment of great joy and gratitude when he shook my hand and
thanked me for creating such a reflective piece of work."

Walking the Silk Roads



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