Future City Lab: Immigration

Immigration and Urban Growth


Grade Level: 4-8
Keywords: immigration, demographics
Source: flickr.com/ajagendorf25

Time estimate: 1 hour 30 minutes (divisible over several sessions)

Connection with Port City, 1609-1898: The New Diversity, 1830-1865

Connection with Future City Lab: Living Together: How can we foster a more inclusive city?


Students will:

  • deepen understanding about why large numbers of Irish people immigrated to the United States in the 19th century 
  • interpret, graph, and compare historical and current immigration data
  • draw conclusions about immigration today


  • Chart paper or whiteboard
  • Activity sheets and handouts
  • Rulers
  • Colored pencils


  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.5.1: Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade 5 topics and texts, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.5.1.D: Review the key ideas expressed and draw conclusions in light of information and knowledge gained from the discussions.
  • CCSS.MATH.CONTENT.5.MD.B.2: Make a line plot to display a data set of measurements in fractions of a unit (1/2, 1/4, 1/8).

Guiding Questions:

  1. How does immigration support the health of New York City?
  2. Why did immigrants historically leave their homelands and how did their arrival change New York City in the past?


  1. Step 1: Introduction (15 minutes)
  2. Note: consult your school’s handbook and policies before initiating discussion; it is important to frame this lesson in such a way that any undocumented students do not feel any pressure to “out” themselves or their families. For more information on leading this type of conversation and other resources, refer to the Teach DREAM study guide.

    Connect the issue of immigration to students’ lives. Are they immigrants? Do they know immigrants? Discussion could include why people left their homelands, what dreams or visions they had, what jobs might be available, whether there was room for their families to follow, etc.

    Have students work in groups to brainstorm/list reasons immigrants left their homelands to come to New York City/the United States.

    Share and chart reasons people left their homelands.

    Transition: Today we’re going to look at one historic example of immigration to New York City and connect it to what we know of immigration today.

  3. Step 2: Historic Context (15 minutes)
  4. Share history of the Great Famine and its effects on Ireland; discuss job opportunities for Irish newcomers; discuss prejudice towards Irish immigrants and the ways in which this vulnerable population was able to leverage its size for political influence. See attached talking points in teacher materials, taken from the Port City: 1609-1898 gallery in the Museum’s permanent New York at Its Core exhibition.

  5. Step 3: Data Analysis (30 minutes)
  6. Note: Since math concepts and ability vary widely by grade, review the activity and worksheet attached to this lesson. If your students are not able to do the graphing activity, the provided teacher materials have charts that you can use to discuss the data principles at hand, using the prompts below.

    Explain that data specific to Irish immigration in the 19th century will be used to help students understand why immigrant groups have historically come to New York City.

    Students will return to group work and graph Irish immigration data, analyzing the historical significance of the Great Famine in relation to the data.

    Groups create a list of “I notice…, I wonder…” observations about the data. Share. Lead students through group discussion:

    When did the greatest number of Irish immigrants come to the United States?

    Between which decades did the rate of Irish immigration increase or decrease the most?

    How does this correspond with the history we just learned?

    Math concepts can also be explored through questions like:

    Does the graph of the total number of Irish immigrants correspond to the graph of Irish people as a percentage of total immigration? What does this tell us about total overall rate of immigration during the same period?

    Why is it important to understand all the terms of a graph before coming to a conclusion about what it’s telling us?

  7. Step 4: Class Discussion (25 minutes)
  8. Class discussion about immigration today:  Do people continue to leave their homelands and come to the United States for the same reasons as the Irish did? (Return to chart to review the reasons listed earlier.) How do you think immigration is different today?

    Share current immigration data.  From which countries or continents are people immigrating to the United States?  Where will the immigrants live?  Work?  How will they travel to and from work?  Will they come to New York City, or other parts of the United States?

    Use graphs from the Migration Policy Institute to guide your discussion. You may wish to pull out datasets that your students will particularly find interesting; for a general overview, see these graphs:

    1. “Number of Immigrants and Their Share of the Total U.S. Population, 1850-2015”

    2. “Largest U.S. Immigrant Groups over Time, 1960-Present”

    3. “U.S. Immigrant Population by Metropolitan Area”

    4. “Immigrant Share of the U.S. Population and Civilian Labor Force, 1980 – Present”

    5. “Age-Sex Pyramids of U.S. Immigrant and Native-Born Populations, 1970-Present”

    Then share current New York City population growth data, taken from the Museum’s Future City Lab (see teacher materials). What role do immigrants play in keeping New York City’s population (and, crucially, its economy) from stagnating or declining?

  9. Step 5: Conclusion (5 minutes)
  10. How is immigration essential to the growth of New York City and the United States?  What are some of the challenges we face as a city and nation to accommodate the needs of a diverse, ever-increasing population?

Additional Resources

Fieldtrips: This content is inspired by the Port City, 1609-1898 and Future City Lab galleries in the Museum’s flagship exhibition, New York at Its Core. If possible, consider bringing your students on a fieldtrip! Visit http://mcny.org/education/field-trips to find out more.


This series of lesson plans for New York at Its Core was developed in conjunction with a focus group of New York City public school teachers: Joy Canning, Max Chomet, Vassili Frantzis, Jessica Lam, Patty Ng, and Patricia Schultz.

This project was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

The views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in these lessons do not necessarily represent those of the Institute of Museum and Library Services.