Place-Based Learning

Using Place-Based Learning to Explore Immigration History

High school teachers can give students a chance to gain insights into their community by exploring the nuances of immigration patterns.

June 6, 2023
John S. Dykes / The iSpot, desifoto / iStock (background)

As a city-dwelling history enthusiast and longtime social studies teacher, I most enjoy learning history through exploration of ethnic enclaves. Sampling traditional cuisine and seeing bustling commercial and residential areas in action sends me down Google Search rabbit holes that explore immigration waves, cultural particularities, geography, and travel blogs.

While in Los Angeles’s Chinatown, I looked up the story behind the central plaza in front of me, built from a repurposed Hollywood movie set. As I ate Cantonese pork buns, I looked up why and when so many people specifically came to this area from Guangdong province. I used SoundHound (a free phone app) to identify the rapper playing in the background as GAI, from Sichuan province, China’s hip-hop epicenter.

I read about when Old Chinatown burned down, and the Chinese community organizations were headquartered in the remaining Chinese American Museum in the Garnier Building. Walking through the area gave me tangible, experiential links to my learning. Images of Chinatowns in Flushing, Queens, and in Chicago popped into my head as I wondered how current living conditions compared among the locations. Which American Chinese dishes originated in China? What other immigrant groups have had powerful family associations? 

When I taught immigration history a few years ago, a thought occurred to me: Why not give students this same type of learning experience? Here are some ways I did it, and possible adaptations.

Model and Share Exploratory Learning

I brought in a food or drink to share with students, to illustrate target concepts. Some examples: Dominican mangú (plantain purée), derived from West African fufu, to introduce triangular trade; Mexican atole (corn drink), exemplifying continued Indigenous influence; Indian chai, a British staple acquired through colonization; Xi’an cumin lamb buns, flavored with traditional Middle Eastern spices, adopted through the Silk Road. I also shared images and maps of where I got each item to emphasize its ease of access.

I often used music in similar, illustrative ways: The Ghanaian song “Kwame Nkrumah,” in the highlife genre, which morphed into Bronx hiplife, kicked off discussion of independence movements and 1980s mass immigration. Salsa and merengue’s African rhythmic roots and European instruments were linked to Latin American cultural blending.

Creating associations between historical knowledge and these fun cultural tidbits boosted engagement, understanding, and positive attitudes toward previously unfamiliar places and groups. Students looked forward to each culinary treat and linked subsequent learning to them: “When do we get to taste Ghanaian food? Does China still trade a lot with the Middle East? The British colonized India—that’s why they drink tea, remember?” 

Modeling my own exploratory history learning seemed to have further increased student buy-in as well, as previous research suggests.

Students Can Create Independent Projects

Near the end of the year, groups of students researched an ethnic enclave of their collective choice and then prepared and presented a guided tour to the class with images, maps, and historical background. Tours included Colombian Jackson Heights, Jamaican Flatbush, Ukrainian Brighton Beach. Each tour provided a suggested route to walk, significant landmarks, and explanations of links to their chosen group’s immigrant history: push and pull factors, cultural features, and key contributions.

Reflection and discussion focused on common patterns across neighborhoods and immigration waves (outdoor markets, possibly reminiscent of home countries; fleeing economic and political challenges and dictatorships), as well as questions that arose and larger implications for society: How to feel about ethnic enclaves in general? They provide community support but are also symptomatic of segregation. How might residents feel about outsiders exploring their neighborhoods? 

I uploaded slides to a shared folder and encouraged students to take the tours in person, and many clearly hoped to do so. Enthusiasm was palpable as conversations spilled out into the hallway: “I want to go to that Colombian place! I’m going to ask my dad.” “I love Flushing! I didn’t know it’s only been Chinatown since the ’70s!” 

These positive outcomes align with research findings as shown in the National Academy of Sciences’ seminal book How People Learn: that situating learning within authentic contexts clarifies relevance and increases intrinsic motivation and transferability of knowledge to new situations. Student choice, collaboration, and reflection are key components of inquiry-based curricula, including project-based learning, and associated with increased student engagement and academic achievement. 

This curricular model facilitates the development of prescribed presentation, research, and map skills. It also aligns with many states’ history and social studies learning standards, most particularly California standards 8.12.7: contributions of immigrants, 8.12.5: effects of immigration, 11.11.7: racial concentrations in cities, and 11.8.8: diffusion and forms of popular culture.

Possible Variations and Alternatives

Modeling, food sampling, and tour presentations sparked extensive interest and academic benefit, but I also planned for each group to go on a peer-designed tour during the school year, accompanied by an adult chaperone. Unfortunately, the pandemic intervened. 

To address anticipated concerns, chosen neighborhoods would be vetted based on crime rate and walkability. Parent permission would be required, with a virtual tour option for those opting out. In New York City, we would use public transport, as most students do daily anyway. In areas with less robust public transit systems, rented buses could transport student groups. Chosen locations would need to be somewhat clustered together (for example, Los Angeles’s Koreatown, Westlake Guatemalan Market, Chinatown, and Olvera Street). 

Alternatively, to increase logistical simplicity, whole classes could visit the same neighborhood while studying one particular historical phenomenon. Local residents could lead neighborhood tours or be interviewed, to provide further practice with using primary sources. Students presenting exploration experiences to wider audiences at community events would provide additional accountability and motivation. 

Estimated excursion costs (bus rental plus money to sample food) would be less than those for the average field trip and usually covered by the schools’ allocated field trip funds. For teachers who would have to pay for food out of their own pockets, small samples shared in the classroom generally cost less than $30 per class, per unit: below the $300 yearly educator expense tax deduction in total.

I hope that these ideas prove useful to teachers, curriculum designers, and students and that they spark the excitement I have observed in my students and experienced in my personal life.

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  • Place-Based Learning
  • Culturally Responsive Teaching
  • Social Studies/History
  • 9-12 High School

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