Lesson Plans: The Changing Face of America

The United States has always been a nation of immigrants, but in recent years the racial and ethnic composition of the country has begun to change as immigrants have arrived from different areas than in the past. From colonial days, immigrants have shaped our national culture and left their mark on the landscape. But as new groups gain prominence, what changes can we expect? How will the national culture be affected? Students need to understand the implications of changing patterns in immigration at multiple scales—national, state, and local—so that they will be able to participate in informed decision making in the future.


  • To understand historical and contemporary patterns of immigration to the United States
  • To observe immigrant markers in the cultural landscape
  • To identify trends in population change in the local state and community

Grade Level: Grades 9-10 [These activities can also be adapted for use with younger or older students.]

Student Activities

Activity 1: Patterns of Diversity in the American Landscape

Materials Needed

  • Table 1. “Immigration to the United States by Region: 1821–2000” (PDF: 33KB)
  • Table 2. “The Foreign Born Population in the United States: 2003” (PDF: 12KB)
  • Graph paper
  • Colored pencils
  • America’s Racial and Ethnic Minorities,” Population Bulletin 54.3 pp. 3-5;11-14
  • Access to the Internet or color printouts (U.S. Census Bureau)


  1. Explain to the class that, with the exception of American Indians, everyone living in the United States is either an immigrant or a descendant of immigrants. Allow students to share personal stories about their families’ immigrant origins.
  2. Distribute copies of Table 1 “Immigration to the United States by Region: 1821-2000,” pieces of graph paper, and colored pencils. Assign one decade from the table to each student (or pair of students, depending on class size). Have students construct a bar graph for their assigned decade. Post the graphs in chronological order on the chalkboard and have students discuss the changing patterns in immigration over the past two centuries.
  • Where did most early immigrants originate?
  • Why did these people decide to leave their homes and come to a new land? Make a list of push and pull factors on the chalkboard. (Students may need to do some research in order to address this question.)
  • When was there a shift in the origins of immigrants?
  • What factors might explain this shift? (Again, this may require some research.)
  • Where do most current immigrants originate?
  • What are the push and pull factors influencing today’s immigrants? Make a second list of push and pull factors on the chalkboard.
  • Discuss the similarities and differences between early immigrants and those arriving today.
  1. Ask students to think about ways in which immigrant populations leave distinctive marks on the built landscape, such as place names, ethnic neighborhoods, churches, food customs, language, celebrations, etc. If time permits, have students do an “image” search using an Internet search engine to locate examples of “immigrant footprints” on the landscape.
  2. Have students read the Population Bulletin America’s Racial and Ethnic Minorities,” pp. 3-5; 11-14. Also have students examine Table 2, “The Foreign-Born Population in the United States: 2003.”
  • Where did most of the foreign-born population originate?
  • Where do most of the foreign-born population live in the United States?
  1. Write the terms “race” and “ethnicity” on the chalkboard. Explain that these are terms used by demographers and the U.S. Census Bureau to identify different groups of people. Help student develop an understanding of these terms. Race is not a scientific term. There is no consensus about how many races there are or about what exactly distinguishes a race from an ethnic group. Many social scientists agree that, while race may have a biological or a genetic component, race is defined primarily by society, not by genetics. Ethnicity usually is defined by cultural practices, language, cuisine, and traditions—not by biological or physical differences.
  2. Direct students to the U.S. Census Bureau’s online atlas, Mapping Census 2000, available at Have them navigate to Section 3, “Diversity,” page 3, “Minority Prevalence, 2000.” Guide students through all of the map elements (title, legend, state-level inset) so that they understand what type of data this map presents.
  • What are the racial and ethnic groups represented on this map?
  • What is the difference between the main map and the inset map (upper right)?
  • Describe the distribution of racial and ethnic minorities throughout the United States.
  • Why does the map omit the white population?
  • What factors might explain the patterns in racial and ethnic population distribution?
  • Locate the state in which you live on the map. What patterns of race and ethnicity can be observed?
  • Compare the state in which you live to the national pattern.
  • Conclusion: When students have completed the activity, lead a class discussion of patterns of race and ethnicity in the United States and in the state in which you live.
  • Evaluation: Following the class discussion, have students, working independently, summarize what they have learned about immigration, race, and ethnicity in the United States in a carefully developed essay. Remind students to include a clear thesis statement and to draw supporting evidence from the maps and data sets used in the lesson.

Activity 2: Patterns of Diversity in the Local Landscape

[Note: This lesson assumes that students already have a basic understanding of the process of migration and the forces that cause people to leave their homes for a new country. Before beginning the lesson, introduce or review such terms as: migration, immigration, emigration, push factors, pull factors, diversity.]

Materials Needed

  • Computers with Internet access
  • Table 3. “Place of Birth for the Foreign Born Population” (PDF: 53KB)
  • Table 4. “Projected Minnesota Populations, by Race and Hispanic Origin: 1995-2025” (PDF: 12KB)

Explain to the class that they will be examining patterns of diversity in their own state.

[Note: This activity is based on the state of Minnesota. Teachers should use the links provided to adapt this activity to their local state or any other state of interest in the United States.]

  1. Direct students to “Historical Census Statistics” at the U.S. Census Bureau.
  2. Scroll down to data set #38 for Historical Census Statistics for Minnesota, 1850-1990. Open the PDF version of the data and examine the race and ethnic composition of Minnesota’s population over time.
  • How has the composition of Minnesota’s population changed since 1850?
  • Which race or ethnic minority had the largest percentage in the total population in 1850? …in 1900? …in 1950? …in 1990?
  1. Distribute copies of Table 3, “Place of Birth for the Foreign Born Population” provided above.
  • What was the total foreign-born population living in Minnesota in 2000?
  • What percentage of the foreign-born population lived in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area?
  • Why are the foreign-born concentrated in this urban area?

Scan the data provided in the table.

  • Which countries were the sources of the largest groups of foreign-born living in Minnesota in 2000?
  • What push factors may have contributed to these groups deciding to leave their home countries?
  • What pull factors may have attracted these groups to Minnesota?
  • How have these immigrant groups influenced the cultural landscape of Minnesota?
  • Using the Yellow Pages of the Minneapolis-St. Paul telephone directory, identify examples of diversity in the metropolitan area—churches, food stores, restaurants, community organizations, etc. Plot the examples identified on a city map. Is there evidence of clustering of groups of foreign-born populations? What factors might explain this pattern?
  1. Distribute copies of Table 4, “Projected Minnesota Populations, by Race and Hispanic Origin: 1995-2025” provided above.
  • What changes are expected in the composition of Minnesota’s population over the next two decades?
  • Based on past trends, where is much of the minority growth likely to occur?
  • What social and economic impacts will the changing population composition likely have?

If time permits, use the following extension activity as a collaborative culminating exercise. The end product, a state atlas of diversity, is an effective tool for evaluating students’ understanding of key concepts as well as their mastery of basic skills of mapping and graphing.

Take a closer look at the composition of your state by comparing demographic data at the city, county, state, and national level. “State & County Quick Facts” on the Census Bureau website provides a variety of data for comparison. After looking at the data related to race and diversity, construct a set of choropleth maps of your state.

[Note: This extension uses the state of Minnesota as an example. Teachers should adapt the extension for the local state. Data for all states is available on the U.S. Census Bureau website.]


  1. To study the composition of Minnesota’s population in greater depth, go to the U.S. Census Bureau’s website at
  2. In the right side-bar, select Minnesota from the “State & County Quick Facts” drop-down menu.
  3. On the “Minnesota Quick Facts” page, you will find a variety of data that compares the state to the United States. By using the drop-down menus at the top of the page, you can also look more closely at the county or city in which you live. You will also find a link to additional data sets for Minnesota.
  • Locate data related to race and diversity.
  • How does Minnesota compare to the United States?
  • Locate data for the county in which you live.
  • How does your county compare to the rest of the state?
  • Locate data for the city in or near which you live?
  • How does this city compare to the rest of the state?
  1. Use a map of Minnesota with county boundaries to construct choropleth maps using data from the Minnesota Quick Facts site.
  2. Working as a class, create a Minnesota Atlas of Diversity. Use a search engine to locate images that reflect diversity in Minnesota and include these pictures in your atlas.

Lesson Resources

Mapping Census 2000 (U.S. Census Bureau)

“International Migration: Facing the Challenge,”Population Bulletin 57.1 pp.6-9 (PDF: 380KB) [Note: The page numbers provided refer to the pages of the publication, not the pdf file.]

Central Concepts: Diversity, migration, immigration


Case Locations: United States, Minnesota, Minneapolis-St. Paul [State and metropolitan examples can be modified to reflect the local area]


Content Standards

National Geography Standards
Standard 9 (Human Systems): The characteristics, distribution, and migration of human populations on Earth’s surface.
• Understand why people live where they do, and why they move from place to place.
• Understand spatial variation in the social, cultural, and lifestyle characteristics of human populations.


Minnesota Geography Standards
Spatial Organization: Populations—Benchmark 4
• Students will use the concepts of push and pull factors to explain the general patterns of human movement in the modern era, including international migration, migration within the United States and major migrations in other parts of the world.

Special thanks to Donald D. Peterson, Debbie Lange, and Linda Jacobsen for reviewing this lesson plan.