How Does Immigration Shape the Nation’s Identity?

In this lesson, students consider what it means to be an American, using an opinion piece about the “American Identity Crisis” and several related videos as central texts. They answer a series of text-dependent questions, debate their opinions, write a brief constructed response, and make their own video that reflects their interpretation of “the face of America.”
Grade Level


 Students will:

  • Explore the concept of what it means to be an American.
  • Analyze how the changing demographics of the United States impact the American identity.
  • Reflect on important concepts from the central text.
  • Encourage thinking among peers about how the “face of America” is changing and what that means in their lives and for our nation.
Essential Questions
  • How do current immigration issues and changing demographics affect the American identity?
  • What does it mean to “be American” or “act American”?
  • Do you have to be born in the United States to identify with it?
  • Access to the Internet
  • Four signs that each says one of the following: Strongly Agree, Agree, Disagree, Strongly Disagree
  • Video Equipment
  • Handout: Connecting to the American Identity

This lesson is part of a series called “Changing Demographics, Changing Identity, Changing Attitudes.” The series focuses on how the American identity has and will continue to change as our nation moves toward a plurality, with no single ethnic group represented as a majority; how the nation responds to that evolving identity; how changing demographics relate to issues of equality; and what we can do to promote respect for all U.S. residents.

In this lesson, students consider what it means to be an American, using an opinion piece about the “American Identity Crisis” and several related videos as central texts. They answer a series of text-dependent questions, debate their opinions, write a brief constructed response, and make their own video that reflects their interpretation of “the face of America.”


Central Text



Word Work 

  1. (Note: Before students read the opinion piece, have them write the following words from the article on separate index cards or sticky notes:  identity, culture, shifts, monoculture, assimilation, diversity, multicultural, heritage, dichotomy and society.) Before reading the opinion piece about the American identity crisis, predict what you think the word means. Write your prediction underneath each word.
  2. Read the article to help you see the words in context. Compare definitions with a partner and reach consensus about your answers.  Write these shared definitions under your predictions.
  3. Practice making connections between the words with a partner by holding up a card with a word on it and identifying how it could relate to a card held up by your partner. 
  4. Finally, using the attached handout (or another visual technique of your choice), work with your partner to illustrate how the words relate to each other and to the concept of being an American by drawing lines between the words and writing the connecting idea on that line. Each word must connect to the phrase “Being an American” and at least one other word. For example, one connection could be “diversity” creates a “shift” in our “demographics.


Community Inquiry, Part I

The article raises many issues related to the “American identity” and provides abundant opportunities for discussion and debate. (Note: Hang four signs in the four corners of the room that say: “Strongly Agree,” “Agree,” “Disagree” or “Strongly Disagree.” Ask one volunteer to read each sentence below that is either quoted from or related to the article.) Move to the sign that represents your opinion on the statement. Once you are at your sign, discuss your shared opinions with those in your group. Ask one group member to defend your group’s opinion to the rest of the class, and encourage spirited but respectful debate. There are no right or wrong answers.

  1. Immigrants should learn to speak English when they become citizens.
  2. Immigrants are productive members of society.
  3. United States of America is the greatest representation of cultural diversity on Earth.
  4. The United States is having an identity crisis.


Close and Critical Reading

  1. In small groups, watch the video, What Does It Mean to Be an American? Take a minute to discuss your impressions of the video with other group members. What common themes stand out? With what image or theme do you most connect to the American identity? Do you think the concept of an American identity has changed over the years? If so, how?
  2. In your groups, read the Op-Ed: American identity crisis? What’s an “American” identity? Remember that an op-ed is a print or digital newspaper article that expresses the opinion of someone other than the newspaper’s editorial board. The name comes from an abbreviation for “opposite the editorial page.” After reading the article, discuss answers to the following text-dependent questions:
  • The article starts out by referring to the immigration debate in the United States. What is the current status of the immigration debate, and why does the author say it has created a dichotomy?
  • What does the author mean by the “face of America has changed regularly”? Is this literally a face, or is the word meant to represent something else? If the latter, what is it meant to represent?
  • According to the article, which nations have a “single cultural identity”? What’s the difference between a single cultural identity and a monoculture?
  • What does the term “punching bag” mean in the fifth paragraph? Why does the author use figurative terms like this rather than literally stating what he means?
  • The article implies that the United States is looking for a singular identity. Do you agree? What singular identity do you think the author is referring to?
  • Do you think the author believes that “American” can be defined as a single identity? What evidence from the text supports your answer?
  • According to the author, what problem has the United States created for itself?
  • What is an “Anglo image,” and why is it a dishonest image for the United States?  
  • How does the author feel about the term “assimilation”? Do you think that immigrants should “erase their cultures” when they become American citizens or residents?
  • According to the article, what’s the difference between “social orientation” and “assimilation” related to immigrants?
  • What would be your answer to the author’s rhetorical question: Should these people (immigrants) deny their heritage, their families, and their own genes, to become some sort of demographic decal? Give reasons for your answer.
  • How do you believe increases in immigration and second-generation Americans will impact the American identity?
  • Who is the “big green chick with the torch in New York”? What do you imagine “she” would say about what it means to be an American?
  • What similarities and differences can you identify between the way information is presented in the video and in the text?


Community Inquiry, Part II

Now that you have closely read and answered questions about the text, repeat the “Community Inquiry” exercise to see if your answers have changed. Talk with a partner about which answers, if any, changed for you and why.


Write to the Source

Using information from the article, the videos, and your responses to the “Close and Critical Reading” and “Community Inquiry” sections, write a brief constructed response that answers the following question:

How has immigration changed the American identity?


Do Something

Get people in your school thinking about what it means to be an American by creating your own two- to four-minute video with two to three other students. Your video can show images like the one you reviewed at the beginning of the lesson, or it can ask a series of questions to students, staff, and community members related to the topic. An example of this type of video can be seen here. Here is a list of steps to help you get ready:

  • Identify the goals of your video. Include all group members’ opinions and ideas.
  • Create a script, storyboard, or plan to help you reach your goals.
  • Gather resources and set times when you can conduct your interviews.
  • Make sure you have all of the necessary equipment.
  • Be respectful and appreciative of people’s time.
  • After filming, watch your footage. If possible, edit the footage and add music and other effects.
  • Add your own final thoughts or conclusions at the end of the video.
  • See if you can show the video over the school’s broadcast system or on televisions throughout the school.

This activity addresses the following standards using the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts.

CCSS RI.9-12.1, RI.9-12.2, RI.9-12.4, RI.9-12.6, RI.9-12.8, W.9-12.1, W.9-12.4, W.9-12.9, SL.9-12.1, SL.9-12.2, SL.9-12.4, SL.9-12.5, L.9-12.4, RH.9-12.1, RH.9-12.4, RH.9-12.8

Teaching Tolerance collage of images

Welcome to Learning for Justice—Formerly Teaching Tolerance!

Our work has evolved in the last 30 years, from reducing prejudice to tackling systemic injustice. So we’ve chosen a new name that better reflects that evolution: Learning for Justice.

Learn More