A Picture is worth a Word Bubble!

The purpose of this lesson is make students aware of the enormous amount of stress and turmoil immigrants went through when travelling to the United States. The focus of the lesson is the immigrant experience at Ellis Island. Students will read two books on Ellis Island to give them the background knowledge needed to complete the assessment activity. In the end, students will examine four primary source pictures taken of immigrants at Ellis Island. Once they have examined the original picture, they will get a duplicate that has a word bubble pointing to one of the immigrants in the picture. The students will fill in that word bubble with the thoughts and feelings that may have been going through the minds of the immigrants at the time the pictures were taken.

Lesson Objective

Students will be able to write a first person account of the thoughts and feeling of immigrants passing through Ellis Island after analyzing primary source photographs of immigrants and completing a photo capture sheet.



  1. The students will have just finished their study of the colonization of America, and have had many discussions about the colonists being the first immigrants to what is now the United States. Also, three days prior to the lesson, begin reading the book: If Your Name Was Changed at Ellis Island. The book is nearly eighty pages long, so split the read aloud into three days allowing for discussion of key ideas such as the length of the journey, medical examinations, possible separation from family, and being sent back.
  2. For this lesson, start by referring back to the reading of the Ellen Levine book. Be sure to include a discussion of the strong emotions that immigrants must have felt upon their arrival into New York Harbor and to Ellis Island.
  3. Pass out multiple copies of the primary source photographs of the Ellis Island immigrants to table groups. Pass out individual copies of the capture sheet for each student to record information about the photograph. Read the directions on the capture sheet making sure to point out that the directions say, “infer.” Review the definition of infer with the class before having them analyze the photos.
  4. After giving ample time for the groups to discuss their photos, regroup the class into groups so that one person who analyzed each photo is in each group. Have each person share his/her interpretation of the photo. Allow time for students to share their interpretation of each of the pictures.
  5. Next, explain to the students that they are each going to be able to choose one of the pictures to complete the assessment. Show the students the additional photo with the word bubble. Model filling in the word bubble in the first person making sure that the students understand that the word bubble is not meant to be funny, but really capture the emotions one may have felt at the time.


The students will be given a choice of photos. In each of the photos, there is one immigrant with a word bubble over their head. The students will have to fill in the words bubble with what they think may have been going through the mind of the immigrant in the photo. Their response needs to be in the first person, and needs to reflect their understanding of the highs and lows of immigrants passing through Ellis Island based on our discussions of the Ellen Levine book.


“Ellis Island Photo Album.” The Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island Foundation, Inc. http://www.ellisisland.org/photoalbums/ellis_island_then.asp

Levine, Ellen. If Your Name was Changed at Ellis Island. Scholastic Inc, New York, New York: 1993.