Defining America: Poems, Essays, and Short Stories

Students explore the diversity of the American experience through a variety of voices, texts, and genres.

Unit Summary

This seventh-grade unit, Defining America, focuses on a diversity of immigrant experiences as they come to develop their own answers to the question: What does it mean to be American?

America is often described as a “nation of immigrants.” In many ways, immigrants are uniquely equipped to answer this question, quite simply because they know what it means to come from a place that is not America, to have been for some portion of their lives a person who is not American; immigrants bring both an outsider’s and an insider’s perspective.

Through a series of articles, poems, short stories, audio interviews, and essays, students will explore what it really means to be a nation of immigrants—by studying what it means to be an immigrant to this nation. It is structured both chronologically and thematically. Beginning with a (very) brief overview of the history of immigration in the United States, students will closely read “The New Colossus,” Emma Lazarus’s enduring poem now inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty, and dive deeply into an essay written by an immigrant from the early 20th century. Using these as a foundational text, students will read about the diverse experiences of immigrants who have arrived in this country over the past fifty years, including those from Europe, Asia, South Asia, Central America, and Africa. Additionally, students will read about the experiences of second-generation immigrants and the unique challenges they face as native-born Americans with immigrant parents. The unit concludes with the most pressing contemporary issue related to immigration —that of undocumented people. In these final lessons, students will read texts featuring the voices of undocumented people, describing their desire to be accepted—legally and culturally—as Americans.

The purpose of this unit is to allow students to learn about the immigrant experience of America, primarily through the voices of immigrants. Although several texts discuss the current debate over immigration, this unit is not intended to be an in-depth exploration of that debate; the focus question of this unit is not Who should be allowed to be American? or even Who counts as an American? but rather What does it mean to be American?

In the writing tasks in this first unit, students will begin to develop skills in two different types of writing: literary analysis and   informational writing. Students will return to these styles of writing repeated throughout the year, and so teachers should use these tasks both as a way to introduce these forms of writing and also as a way to track progress as the year progresses. In the first task, students will write a literary analysis, comparing the central ideas of Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus”—a poem that students have studied closely in a previous lesson—and a “cold read” speech written by a senator who challenged the notion of an “open door” immigration policy. Although both of these texts were written many decades ago, they reflect many of the issues present in our nation’s current debate over immigration. These engaging texts provide students with the opportunity to think about the way authors develop central ideas in different genres (poetry and persuasive speech). As the first writing task of the year, this task is an opportunity for teachers to provide careful feedback on students’ ability to develop a strong thesis, select the best evidence, and write compelling analysis. The second task is an informational writing task in which students will begin to develop their research skills by pulling information from multiple nonfiction texts in order to write a coherent, informative article on the current refugee crisis. This concluding writing task will bring the topic of this unit into the present moment, allowing students to inform themselves of one of the most pressing issues of our time. In this task, students will focus on providing different types of information in their writing, including statistics, examples, and quotations, and focus on providing an unbiased account of the issue. 

Texts and Materials

Core Materials

Supporting Materials


This assessment accompanies Unit 1 and should be given on the suggested assessment day or after completing the unit.

Unit Prep

Essential Questions


  • What does it mean to be American?
  • Does America live up to its ideals?
  • How does a person’s environment shape their identity?

Reading Enduring Understandings


  • Many immigrants have idealized expectations of what life in America will be like, but their lived experiences rarely match their expectations.
  • Immigrants—and their children—can feel caught between two cultural identities; this conflict can be exacerbated by others’ perceptions.
  • Identifying as American is not always linked to a person’s legal status in this country. There are millions of undocumented people in the United States who wish to become legal citizens/residents but face significant obstacles to this.

Content Knowledge and Connections


  • Tenement
  • Sweatshop
  • Green Card
  • Permanent Resident
  • Naturalized citizen
  • Migrant
  • Immigrant/Immigrate
  • Emigrant/Emigrate
  • Qualitative/Quantitative
  • Undocumented
  • Amnesty
  • Coyote
  • Illegal alien
  • Deportation
  • ICE

Notes for Teachers


  • Immigration is one of the most controversial issues facing our country today. Students will undoubtedly have opinions about this topic—whether those opinions have been shaped by personal experiences, conversations with family members and peers, and exposure to media coverage of the issue. For some students, this may be a very personal and potentially emotional topic.
  • As always, it is essential to make your classroom a safe space for all of your students to express their ideas, listen to others, and share their experiences (if they feel comfortable doing so). This topic has the potential to make some students feel alienated or vulnerable to assumptions from peers. Be mindful of the students sitting in front of you (and also of the fact that you cannot assume which of your students may have a personal connection to this issue).
  • Each lesson plan lists the homework for that evening; the vast majority of the time the assignment is for students to read and take notes on the pages of focus for the following day’s class. Additionally, there is a thinking task or question provided for each evening’s reading. Students should come to class prepared with a literal understanding of the reading in preparation for closely rereading shorter sections of text during that class period. For homework accountability, it is recommended that teachers check students’ reading notes each day to ensure that they read and understood the gist of the chapter. Additionally, teachers may wish to assign a short written response to the homework thinking task to bring to class the following day. Another option is to give a quick homework check quiz at the beginning of each class (3–6 questions assessing literal understanding).
  • Question 9 on the unit assessment references the audio interview, "A Home-Cooked Dinner That's More Than A Meal" (see unit materials). Be sure to include this audio interview and transcript with the assessment.

Lesson Map


  • “What Does It Mean to Be American?”


Analyze recurring themes/words/concepts in definitions of what it means to be American and develop own answers to this question.


  • “Trends in Migration to the U.S.”





Determine the meaning of unfamiliar words and phrases, through the use of context clues, and check the meaning of inferred definitions against dictionary definitions.


  • “The New Colossus”


Determine the impact of specific words, phrases, and literary devices in the poem “The New Colossus.”


  • “America and I” — paragraphs 1-49



Identify examples of literary devices used in “America and I” and explain the figurative meaning and impact of these devices.


  • “America and I” — paragraph 50-end


Explain how setting shapes characters in the essay “America and I.”


Literary Analysis Writing

  • “The New Colossus”

  • “Shut the Door”




Determine the central idea of a speech and a poem, and use these to develop a thesis statement in response to an argumentative essay prompt.


Literary Analysis Writing

  • “The New Colossus”

  • “Shut the Door”



Gather sufficient and relevant evidence to support a thesis and draft two body paragraphs, writing a clear and compelling analysis.


Literary Analysis Writing

  • “The New Colossus”

  • “Shut the Door”



Draft an introduction paragraph and complete a final version of an essay.


  • “Mrs. Sen's” pg. 111 – 123 — to the page break


Identify characters’ perspectives, identify how they differ from one another, and explain how the author develops those perspectives in the short story “Mrs. Sen’s.”


  • “Mrs. Sen's” — pg. 123-end


Explain how setting, events, and interactions shape characters in the story “Mrs. Sen’s.”


  • Sheena Jacob and Juliet Jegasothy

  • Philip and Andrew

  • “Icing on the Cake”

  • Blanca Alvarez and Connie Alvarez

  • Philomena Luciani and Alison Purcell


Compare and contrast stories presented in different forms of media and explain how these stories illustrate an aspect of the immigrant experience in America.


  • “An Iraqi Immigrant’s Unexpected Role”


Explain the meaning and impact of specific words and phrases used in the essay “An Iraqi Immigrant’s Unexpected Role.”


  • “Hello, My Name Is ______”


Explain how experiences and beliefs shape the writer’s sense of his identity in the essay “Hello, My Name Is _______.”


  • “Peaches”


Explain how the poet’s use of symbolism develops the reader’s understanding of speaker’s experience as a child of immigrants in America.


  • “Who’s Irish?”


Explain how the author develops the speaker’s point of view in the short story “Who’s Irish” and contrast it with other characters in the text.


  • “Where You From?”


Explain how the structural choices in the poem ‘Where You From?” help to develop meaning.


2 days

  • “DACA, explained”

  • American Dreamers

  • “What is DACA and Who Are the DREAMers?”



Gather information on DACA and DREAMers from diverse print and digital sources, synthesize that information, and work collaboratively to create a poster that educates others on this topic.


  • “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant”


Explain the impact of being undocumented on the author of the article “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant.”


  • “Why I Will Not Leave”


Identify the author’s claims in the opinion article “Why I Will Not Leave,” and assess whether the evidence provided to support them is relevant and sufficient.


  • Call Me American


Explain how beliefs and environment interact to shape the behavior of individuals.


Socratic Seminar

  • All unit texts

  • Socratic Seminar Guide



Engage in a Socratic Seminar with classmates, using previous feedback to set goals and reflect on performance in the seminar.


Informative Writing

  • “Here Are The Facts”

  • “Key Facts”




Gather information from multiple sources and select relevant facts, quotations, and statistics to explain an article topic.


Informative Writing

  • “Here Are The Facts”

  • “Key Facts”





Gather information from multiple sources and select relevant facts, quotations, and statistics to explain an article topic, using this research to begin to draft own article.


Informative Writing

  • “Here Are The Facts”

  • “Key Facts”





Develop own article with additional details from research and draft an introductory and concluding statement.


Informative Writing

  • “Here Are The Facts”

  • “Key Facts”




Provide a classmate with meaningful feedback and incorporate teacher and peer feedback to improve own article.


2 days


  • “A Home-Cooked Dinner That's More Than A Meal” — audio and transcript

Common Core Standards

Language Standards
  • L.7.4.a — Use context (e.g., the overall meaning of a sentence or paragraph; a word's position or function in a sentence) as a clue to the meaning of a word or phrase.

  • L.7.4.c — Consult general and specialized reference materials (e.g., dictionaries, glossaries, thesauruses), both print and digital, to find the pronunciation of a word or determine or clarify its precise meaning or its part of speech.

  • L.7.4.d — Verify the preliminary determination of the meaning of a word or phrase (e.g., by checking the inferred meaning in context or in a dictionary).

  • L.7.5 — Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings.

Reading Standards for Informational Text
  • RI.7.1 — Cite several pieces of textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.

  • RI.7.2 — Determine two or more central ideas in a text and analyze their development over the course of the text; provide an objective summary of the text.

  • RI.7.3 — Analyze the interactions between individuals, events, and ideas in a text (e.g., how ideas influence individuals or events, or how individuals influence ideas or events).

  • RI.7.4 — Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative, connotative, and technical meanings; analyze the impact of a specific word choice on meaning and tone.

  • RI.7.7 — Compare and contrast a text to an audio, video, or multimedia version of the text, analyzing each medium's portrayal of the subject (e.g., how the delivery of a speech affects the impact of the words).

  • RI.7.8 — Trace and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is sound and the evidence is relevant and sufficient to support the claims.

Reading Standards for Literature
  • RL.7.1 — Cite several pieces of textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.

  • RL.7.2 — Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text; provide an objective summary of the text.

  • RL.7.3 — Analyze how particular elements of a story or drama interact (e.g., how setting shapes the characters or plot).

  • RL.7.4 — Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of rhymes and other repetitions of sounds (e.g., alliteration) on a specific verse or stanza of a poem or section of a story or drama.

  • RL.7.5 — Analyze how a drama's or poem's form or structure (e.g., soliloquy, sonnet) contributes to its meaning.

  • RL.7.6 — Analyze how an author develops and contrasts the points of view of different characters or narrators in a text.

Speaking and Listening Standards
  • SL.7.1 — Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade 7 topics, texts, and issues, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly.

  • SL.7.1.a — Come to discussions prepared, having read or researched material under study; explicitly draw on that preparation by referring to evidence on the topic, text, or issue to probe and reflect on ideas under discussion.

  • SL.7.1.b — Follow rules for collegial discussions, track progress toward specific goals and deadlines, and define individual roles as needed.

  • SL.7.1.d — Acknowledge new information expressed by others and, when warranted, modify their own views.

Writing Standards
  • W.7.1 — Write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence.

  • W.7.1.a — Introduce claim(s), acknowledge alternate or opposing claims, and organize the reasons and evidence logically.

  • W.7.1.b — Support claim(s) with logical reasoning and relevant evidence, using accurate, credible sources and demonstrating an understanding of the topic or text.

  • W.7.2 — Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas, concepts, and information through the selection, organization, and analysis of relevant content

  • W.7.2.a — Introduce a topic clearly, previewing what is to follow; organize ideas, concepts, and information, using strategies such as definition, classification, comparison/contrast, and cause/effect; include formatting (e.g., headings), graphics (e.g., charts, tables), and multimedia when useful to aiding comprehension.

  • W.7.2.b — Develop the topic with relevant facts, definitions, concrete details, quotations, or other information and examples.

  • W.7.2.f — Provide a concluding statement or section that follows from and supports the information or explanation presented

  • W.7.3 — Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, relevant descriptive details, and well-structured event sequences.

  • W.7.3.a — Engage and orient the reader by establishing a context and point of view and introducing a narrator and/or characters; organize an event sequence that unfolds naturally and logically.

  • W.7.3.b — Use narrative techniques, such as dialogue, pacing, and description, to develop experiences, events, and/or characters.

  • W.7.3.d — Use precise words and phrases, relevant descriptive details, and sensory language to capture the action and convey experiences and events.

  • W.7.5 — With some guidance and support from peers and adults, develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach, focusing on how well purpose and audience have been addressed.

  • W.7.7 — Conduct short research projects to answer a question, drawing on several sources and generating additional related, focused questions for further research and investigation.

  • W.7.8 — Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, using search terms effectively; assess the credibility and accuracy of each source; and quote or paraphrase the data and conclusions of others while avoiding plagiarism and following a standard format for citation.