Social History for Every Classroom


Social History for Every Classroom

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Immigrants by the Numbers

In this activity, students work with quantitative data (charts, graphs, and tables) from the 1910 census and the 1911 Dillingham Commission Report to understand the lives of immigrants in the Ellis Island era. The activity includes an option designed for middle school and high school students, as well as a suggested strategy for elementary students. After studying the data, students write a narrative in the voice of an immigrant in 1910, incorporating the information gleaned.


  • Students will synthesize data presented in charts, tables, and graphs to write a narrative about the immigrant experience in the Ellis Island era. 

  • Students will develop skills for reading and understanding quantitative data. 

This activity supports the following Common Core Literacy Standards in History/Social Studies:

  • RHSS.6-8.7. Integrate visual information with other information in print and digital texts.

  • RHSS.9-10.7. Integrate quantitative or technical analysis with qualitative analysis in print or digital text.


NOTE: The directions for this activity include modifications for elementary students. "MS/HS" denotes when sources or strategies are suggested for middle school and high school students only.  "Elementary" indicates that the strategy or source is designed for elementary students. Depending on the level of the students, the teacher may want to use some or all of the charts and strategies conveyed, regardless of grade level. 

Step 1: Tell students that today they will be using graphs, charts, and tables to understand the lives of Ellis Island immigrants in the first decade of the 20th century. All of the information that they will be using is taken from the 1910 census and a special Congressional report compiled in 1911. (As needed, explain what the census is and what types of information it records.) At that time in U.S. history, the largest proportion of the population was either foreign-born or the children of foreign-born residents (about 1/3 total; by comparison, in 2010, about 23% were immigrants or children of immigrants). 

Begin by passing out "Immigrants by Nationality and Gender." Note with students the color-coding of the charts (German=orange, Irish=green, etc.) Read the description out loud and then discuss the following:

  • What information in conveyed in these charts?  (Which groups were arriving between 1899 and 1910, the relative number of men and women arriving in five different immigrant groups)

  • What observations about this wave of immigration can you gain from this chart? What were the biggest groups arriving? Which groups had more men than women? More women than men? What is new or surprising?  

Step 2: Next students will learn more about the immigrants who arrived here.  Pass out "Immigrants' Connection to the United States" and "Money Shown on Admission to the United States" (MS/HS only). Examine charts together and discuss the following:

  • What information do these charts convey? 

  • What is surprising or new information from these charts? What other observations can you make? 

  • What do these charts convey about the challenges and opportunities for Ellis Island immigrants? 

MS/HS only: Pass out "Immigrant Household Relationships by Gender and Ethnicity" and discuss:

  • What information do these charts convey? What is new or surprising? Other observations?

  • How does work and family account for the differences between different ethnic groups and genders? (Polish and Italian men arrived by themselves and thus were more likely to live as boarders; Jews tended to migrate as families and so did not live as boarders; Irish women were much more likely to live as servants in someone else's home; etc.)

Step 3: Next students will look at the types of jobs immigrants worked. Pass out "Chart of First Generation of Male/Female Immigrant Occupations." Discuss the following:

  • What kind of information is being conveyed in these charts? 

  • What is new or surprising information from these charts? Other observations?

  • KEY IDEA: Many immigrant women did not work; this chart only measures the occupations of working women.

  • KEY IDEA: Workers in the 1910 census were anyone ages 10 and older. How would this be different today?  

  • What factors might have accounted for such stark concentration among certain groups in certain industries?  (Chain migration and family/friend connections to help getting a job; immigrants' skills or lack of skills for an industrial economy; niche markets)

Step 4: Finally, students will look at educational attainment. For MS/HS, pass out "Comparison of School Enrollment..."; for elementary, pass out "Percentage of Teens Ages 14-18 Enrolled in School." Discuss:

  • Who was most likely to attend school? Who was least likely?

  • How does immigrant educational attainment compare to native-born white Americans?

  • What factors might account for these differences? (Need to work, different ideas about the necessity of educating women, etc.)

Step 5: Now students will synthesize this data.

  • For MS/HS: Pass out "Immigrants by the Numbers Situation" sheet. Read through the directions together. Randomly pass out immigrant identity cards to each student and assign them to write a narrative (length depending on level of students) in the voice of their character based on the information gleaned from the charts. Teachers can modify this activity by asking lower-level students to answer only some of the items listed under "The Task" and limiting the charts the student works from. When finished, ask students to share their narratives with a partner or with the whole class. 

  • For elementary: Pass out the "Immigrants by the Numbers I Statements" sheet, the immigrant characters sheet, scissors and paste to each student. Students should read each statement and decide for whom it was true. Students then cut out that immigrant's picture and paste it under the statement. Teachers may want to tell lower-level students how many "correct" answers go with each statement. 

Source | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, 2011.
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, “Immigrants by the Numbers,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed September 28, 2023,

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