Social History for Every Classroom


Social History for Every Classroom

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The Poetry of Chinese Immigration

In this activity students read poems written by Chinese immigrants to understand the hopes of and challenges faced by Chinese immigrants during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Then students write an original poem about the Chinese immigrant experience in the U.S. This activity uses materials in both English and Spanish and includes a word bank to help ESL/ELL students create their poems.


  • Students will analyze poems written by immigrants to understand aspects of the Chinese experience in America.

  • Students will compose their own original poems about Chinese immigration.


Note: The instructions on the worksheet have been kept to a minimum so that the teacher can adjust for his or her students' levels.  Suggested modifications would be to assign each student one of the poems to analyze on her own, and allow the student to analyze the poem with a partner.  Another variation would be to divide the students into small groups and have each group work on one of poems in Step 3.

Step 1:  (Optional) Ask students to share out their prior knowledge of Chinese immigration to the United States. Keep track of their responses on the board in a concept map to refer to in later discussion.  

Step 2: Ask students to follow along as you read the four historical understandings about Chinese immigration. Go back to the concept map on the board and decide which historical understanding each concept matches. 

Step 3: Pass out the poems as a set.  Ask students to find Poem 1.  Ask a student to read the poem out loud once in English.  If any students are fluent in Chinese, ask them to read the original Chinese out loud.  Then, go over the questions for Poem 1 on the worksheet.  The teacher can choose to let students answer the questions orally or write their answers on a separate piece of paper before discussing as a group.  

Step 4:  Divide students in small groups (see Note, above).  Ask each group to read through the remaining poems together, answering the questions listed in Step 3 on the worksheet.  Students should prepare to share their responses with the whole group.

Step 5: After students have had time to read one or more of the poems, go over their responses.  If each group or pair is working on one poem, ask them to read the poem out loud and tell which historical understanding(s) it best matches.  For each poem, review which words or phrases helped students make the determination about the historical understandings.  

Step 6: Ask students to create original poems about the Chinese immigration experience in the style of the poems they just read.  The words on the worksheet may help them get started, but they can also use some of their own words.  Students can write the poems in more than one language if they are able.  

Step 7: Ask for a few volunteers to read their poems out loud.  Ask the class to decide which historical understanding(s) the poem reflects.  

Historical Context

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Chinese immigrants to the United States faced discrimination, harassment, violence and legal exclusion. After 1882, the nation's first laws excluding Chinese immigrants on the basis of nationality meant that all Chinese entering the United States were subject to interrogation and the possibility of being denied entrance. The Angel Island immigration center was opened in San Francisco in 1911 to help process all immigrants coming from Asia, including the Chinese. The Chinese persisted in the face of such hardship and established enclaves such as Chinatown in San Francisco. Among Chinatown's many community organizations were literacy societies; four of the poems used in this activity were published by these literary societies in 1911. One of the poems ("Imprisoned in the wooden building...") is taken from the walls of Angel Island, scratched there by a Chinese immigrant awaiting a determination on his or her fate. While Angel Island is frequently called the "Ellis Island of the West," it functioned more as a place of gatekeeping and detention and not as a place of welcome.

Source | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, 2008.
Creator | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning
Rights | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Item Type | Teaching Activity
Cite This document | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, “The Poetry of Chinese Immigration,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed April 18, 2024,

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