Social History for Every Classroom


Social History for Every Classroom

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Exploring the Irish in America Through Found Poetry

In this lesson students read poems and letters that describe the work and lives of nineteenth-century Irish immigrants to the United States. As students read the documents, they choose words and phrases to create found poems that reflect their understandings of the Irish-American experience.


  • Students will examine poetry, lyrics and letters in order to deepen their understandings of the experiences of the Irish in the United States.

  • Students will compose original found poems using words and phrases they find in the primary documents. 


Step 1: The students should read the texts. Depending on the level of the students, the teacher may choose to give students only a subset of the documents to work with. The teacher may also choose to read aloud (or ask for volunteers to read aloud) the poems, lyrics and letters. As they read the poems, students should underline or list words or phrases that they believe are central to the meaning and content of the text.  The teacher may want to model the procedure with one document. 

Step 2: Working independently, students should each create a found poem that incorporates as many of their chosen words and phrases as possible. The poems should reflects students' understandings about the experiences of the Irish in America. The teacher may want to discuss or project the following guidelines for found poems:

  • Words and phrases can be rearranged; they need not be in the order in which they appear in the original text.

  • Words can suggest your point of view and an idea that might not be stressed in the original text.

  • If necessary, other words that do not appear in the original documents may be added.

  • The authors should give their finished poems a title.

Step 3: The teacher should divide the students into small groups of 4 or 5. Group members should share their poems with each other and discuss:

  • What statements or ideas from the readings did the poems reflect?

  • Were many of the chosen key words and phrases the same? If so, compare and contrast the ways different people used the same language.

Step 4: Each group should choose at least one poem to share with the whole class.  

Historical Context

The potato famine of the 1840s and 1850s spurred the migration of thousands of impoverished Irish to the United States. The new immigrants—rural, Catholic, and starving—settled in the poorest districts of large cities in the East, especially in New York’s Five Points neighborhood. Without formal social services or adequate skills for an industrial society, Irish immigrants struggled to establish homes and provide for their families. Meanwhile, native-born Protestants, especially those from the upper- and middle-classes, were highly suspicious and often hostile towards the immigrants. Nativists felt immigrant culture, religion, and social customs degraded “real” American society. They also feared the growth of Irish political power. These factors combined to keep Irish immigrants in low-paying and dangerous jobs. Yet, despite these deplorable conditions, Irish immigrants built a vibrant working-class community in the Five Points and other cities.

Source | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, 2009.
Creator | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning
Rights | Copyright 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, “Exploring the Irish in America Through Found Poetry,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed February 27, 2024,

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