Mapping Migration: Implementing a Multi-Year Unit in Lower School

When a professional development opportunity at the University of Pittsburgh presented itself to Lower School teachers Jen Lakin, Holly Mawn, and Jess Nolan, they knew they couldn’t pass it up. Eager to work together on their social studies curriculums in grades 3 and 4, the trio joined the week-long Interdisciplinary Global Educators Workshop, a virtual program designed for K-16 educators to collaborate on redesigning curriculum units to globalize student learning.
Run by the University’s Global Studies Center, Grade 3 Teachers Ms. Lakin and Ms. Mawn and Grade 4 Teacher Ms. Nolan chose to revamp their immigration units to look more broadly at migration patterns. After workshopping the idea with fellow participants, they decided that by taking the “im” off of immigration, they could look more closely at the migration of people within the United States, their contributions, and the long-term effects. 

“We really wanted to come together to globalize our units and make it a seamless transition from third to fourth grade,” shared Ms. Mawn. “Our goal was to make sure that we were telling stories from multiple perspectives. By highlighting migration, we are focusing on the rich cultural contributions from many different cultures and how those contributions helped create the America we know today.”

In practice, third grade students will explore migration through the lens of why people move. They will consider what life was once like for immigrants, what causes people to leave their homes to start new lives in different places, and investigate how migration is a theme across their subjects. From social studies to literature and art class, students are deepening their understanding through diverse storytelling and interactive lessons that focus on migration and movement across curriculums. 

Cross-cultural connections will come alive in the art studio when students are introduced to two contemporary artists, Favianna Rodriguez and Lordy Rodriguez, who will explore themes of migration and mapping later this spring. In language arts class, new literature selections will bring migration stories to life. Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park, a book about a half white/half Chinese girl who lives in the Dakota Territories in the 1800s, was chosen to provide a contrast to the Little House series that students also read. The story provides an opportunity for Ms. Lakin and Ms. Mawn to discuss how people can have different experiences, even if they live in the same place, at the same time. In addition to Prairie Lotus, students will read Follow Me Down to Nicodemus Town by A. LaFaye, a book based on the history of the African American pioneer settlement. Third graders will learn about the Great Migration and the frontier towns where formerly enslaved people settled from Dede and her family, Exodusters who settled in Nicodemus, Kansas. 

In the fourth grade, students will build upon their knowledge and dig deeper into the pushes and pulls of migration. They will explore different essential questions: Why do people settle where they do? What kinds of obstacles do migrants face? What cultural contributions can be attributed to migration? To ensure that Ellis girls relate to the material, Ms. Nolan is introducing new lesson plans that delve into two aspects of culture that were affected by migration: food and music. 

Students are learning about the cultural connections derived from food through two novels, Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan and Love Sugar Magic: A Dash of Trouble by Anna Meriano, and a new project. Aptly titled the Flavor Profile Project, students researched ingredients from specific countries and shared recipes and information about their origins. From avocados and enchiladas in Mexico to olives and spanakopita in Greece, grade 4 students highlighted a variety of cultures and cuisines that they enjoy at their dinner tables. 

As for music, students will look to storytelling and jazz to discuss the Great Migration and the African American experience. They will read Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis, learn about jazz in music class with Ellis’ very own jazz expert and music teacher Jayla Griggs, and watch the documentary America’s Musical Journey to uncover how music influences and contributes to American culture.

“The beauty of teaching literature and social studies is to be able to connect students to so many stories,” said Ms. Nolan. “These stories deepen their understanding of ideas that can be very complex. They highlight economic, environmental, and cultural reasons for migration and help students understand that migration looks very different depending upon your situation.”

This in-depth, multi-year look at migration in grades 3 and 4 encourages students to foster authentic relationships and recognize the weighty contributions migrants have made in the United States. By making migration a recurring theme throughout grades 3 and 4, students are able to connect to the idea on a personal level as they think about their communities, their neighbors, and their own cultures.
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