HM - November 2018 - Colburn Lecznar

Classroom Applications


Exploring Immigration

by George Colburn, Contemporary Learning Systems
and Alexis Lecznar, Parcelles Middle School, Grosse Pointe Woods, MI

Exploring Immigration: Purpose and Intention
Immigration tells the story of America. It makes up the past and present. It has brought people together and it has divided the country. The team working on the “Exploring Immigration” project strongly believe that secondary students need to be educated on the history, economics, sociology, and civics of America’s immigration policy. Film producer and director, George Colburn, created seven 15 - 20 minute videos exploring immigration in the United States. Together with a team of educators, electronic learning modules were created to accompany those videos. While still in development, these learning modules are intended to provide educators with the resources and tools necessary to engage students in the story of America’s immigration policy past and present. These modules provide educators with lessons that students might utilize as they become active citizens in an increasingly polarized political climate. Through the lessons, students have the opportunity to explore immigration in a comprehensive fashion to understand and respond to immigration debates currently taking place in a more informed manner.
About the Project
The origin of the “Exploring Immigration” project was a storeroom in Washington, D.C. filled with boxes of broadcast quality BETASP tapes containing footage that George’s company, Contemporary Learning Systems, Inc. (CLS), had collected across the country from 1999 to 2009.  Their original goal was a TV series about the history of immigration in the U.S since 1965. Policy language was changed by Congress during that period (urged on President LBJ) from “national origins” to “family reunification.”  But by 2009, it was clear that funding for such a series was not possible during the “great recession.”  The immigration “reform” debate that had raged in Washington since at least the Reagan presidency was largely silenced by the threat of a national economic disaster. As an independent producer, George knew it was time to move on after hundreds of tapes were tossed into storage boxes, numbered, and catalogued.
At the same time, George thought that Americans of all political stripes needed opportunities to expand their understanding of immigration history. George’s goal in the late 1990s, when the project first began, had been not only a public television series, but a companion education program for both schools and colleges/universities as well.  At the University of California and as an independent producer, George had created a number of national TV-based educational projects that had been highly successful (see  With that in mind, George turned his attention to using his video materials in a national education project rather than a TV broadcast project.  The TV element, after all, could await a better day.
Personal Background: One Immigrant Family’s Story
George’s interest in the subject of immigration began as a freshman in high school when his father’s status as an immigrant took on new meaning with his announcement that his son (and his son’s family) would soon come from England to live with his family.  George’s father had come to the U.S. from Ireland in 1927 to find steady work here in advance of his wife and baby joining him. He was a veteran of World War, the Irish Revolution, and the Irish Civil War.  Times were bad in Ireland in the post-civil war era, and friends in Detroit were ready to sponsor him.
As it turned out, George’s father’s wife died before he found steady work in pre-Depression America.  His son was taken in by his wife’s relatives in England and soon the immigrant father lost touch with his young son.  With the world-wide Depression and World War II underway and interrupting the limited communications available at that time, it was not until the early 1950s that father and son were reunited in Detroit.  Brother Denis, his wife and baby all came to live with George’s family of five in their one-bath, two-bedroom home which they had recently purchased. Despite quickly finding steady work, it would be another year of living in close quarter before they moved on with their lives independently. This experience greatly changed George’s world view.
His next lesson in this immigration story came at Michigan State University in the late 60s when a friend in the history department with George shared an idea that he had for a book on the history of immigration.  He wanted a partner to help him create a book of readings. The project appealed to George, and he quickly signed on as a partner.
The book’s ultimate title reveals our point of view, emphatically:  IN THEIR PLACE: WHITE AMERICA DEFINES HER MINORITIES, 1850 – 1950. George had always accepted the idea that we were a “nation of immigrants” and, thus, kind and loving hosts of those who came here seeking freedom and economic opportunity.  But his research with Lew Carlson over the next year showed him how naïve and uninformed he was.  Despite their point of view and their status as lowly instructors, a major educational publisher decided the book was worthwhile.  It was published in 1971 and an updated version should be available in an electronic format next year.
After graduate school, George ended up as a resident of southern California after taking a job at the San Diego campus of the University of California.  There he saw the illegal immigrant problem close-up.  Illegal immigrants were everywhere….and accepted as a fact of life by almost everyone.  In his view, they did the work “Americans no longer wanted to do.”
Creating the ‘Exploring Immigration” Project
By the time George was an established and independent media education project director on the East Coast, he could, from time to time, pick and choose topics that interested him and seek support to develop both television and educational programs.  A multi-year project for Dwight D. Eisenhower’s centenary took him to Washington in the early 1990s and there he  could see and hear the debate on immigration by those advocating the various ideas of “reform” – those who had the power to change the law.
When the Eisenhower project ended in 1998, he turned his attention to a documentary series and educational package about immigration in America.  Not knowing how far along the transformation of our country had moved, he called the project “Tomorrow’s America” and began interviewing some of the leading scholars, policy-makers and politicians in the D.C. area.  As is most always the case for independent producers, they do the “spec” work when time and money permits.  There was no timeline for the project’s completion as he kicked off production in D.C.   Before long, the immigration debate took on a new dimension with the 9/11 attacks on New York City, Washington D.C. and Pennsylvania.
It would be several years later before he could turn his attention back to the immigration subject.  But as the country approached the 2008 election, George was hopeful that a series would soon be in post-production.  In those years of continued research, infrequent on-camera interviews and reflection, “Tomorrow’s America” had become “Today’s America” and the title of the series had become simply “Exploring Immigration & the American Dream.”  With the dramatic economic downturn, however, George decided to turn his attention to the development of an educational series for the millennial generation that would be distributed via the internet.
George’s educational mentor became Jeff Bush, a facilitator at Innovation High School in Kent County, Michigan, who he heard speak at a “tech day” for social studies teachers.  Jeff’s teaching background was in Social Studies, and his specialty was economics. His teaching reputation was built around “Project-Based Learning” and George signed him on as a content consultant to help create what he called “Electronic Learning Modules” (or ELMs) that would include a series of video programs. 
In the end, they produced seven programs, each approximately 20 minutes long (available for anyone to see and use on both our website and the CLS YouTube channel). The videos were then turned over to Jeff so he could create an accompanying curriculum.  Once this phase of development was underway, they sought additional content consultants for the project team in the areas of history, civics and sociology. In addition, they also added a Media Director to enhance the curriculum and ensure the website is kept current. 
Currently, the Editor/Designer, Nellie Skallerup, is working closely with Jeff Bush and other content consultants to translate the learning suggestions into a viable, easy-to-use educational package of materials for use by classroom teachers and their students.  The National Council for Social Studies has accepted Jeff’s proposal for a presentation about the ELM project at the annual conference in Chicago at the end of November 2018.  There, they look forward to showcasing the project as well as receiving feedback as they continue to work on and enhance the project. The project adds clarity via the use of electronic tools and classroom discussions surrounding the question of immigration in the 21st century United States. Irrespective of political orientations, we believe that these questions must be addressed soon by both politicians and voters across the country.
The project expects to offer the 7-part package of ELMs free of charge to teachers who agree to use and comment on the materials during the 2019 – 2020 school year.  The hope is to be able to show the package in the months ahead to any interested teacher via the “Share Your Learning” website.
Electronic Learning Modules Development and Design: What it Means for the Classroom Teacher
Part of teaching students how to be informed consumers of the news and the world around them is teaching them the “why” of what they are consuming. Immigration is front and center in all our lives, whether it be on the news, taking place in the media we consume, or in our own personal lives and communities. In order for our students to grapple and engage with the problems and opportunities that immigration brings to America they must first understand it deeply. Adhering to the original goals of the videos, the modules provide a “solid lesson on our immigration history in order to stop discussing the subject based on a distorted view of history.”
The electronic learning modules (ELMs) have lessons that focus on the history, economics, civics, and sociology of immigration in the United States. They provide educators and students with the content and resources necessary to be well-informed citizens regarding immigration. It goes without saying that educators want their students to be critical thinkers and problem solvers. As educators, we want them to be able to apply the skills they learn in real world settings. We want them to be engaged citizens and to be able to make educated, informed decisions. The videos created serve as a starting point for students to begin engaging in the content. Building upon the videos, the ELMs provide the students with problem-based learning, interactive lessons, and 21st century skill building while all focused on the topic of immigration in American.
Project based learning helps us to motivate the students and “buy-in” into the lessons. If students are excited about what they are learning, they are going to be much more engaged in their own learning. According to John Larmer’s book, Setting the Standard for Project Based Learning: A Proven Approach to Rigorous Classroom Instruction,
Yazzie-Mintz’s 2010 High School Survey of Student Engagement surveyed 275,935 students in the United States from 2006 to 2009. It found that 49 percent of students in grades 9 through 12 reported being bored in at least one class every day; another 17 percent were bored in every class, every day…. The students were also asked about what instructional methods engage them most. Here are their top four responses:
  • Discussion and debate (61 percent)
  • Group projects (60 percent)
  • Projects and lessons involving technology (55 percent)
  • Student presentations (46 percent)[1]
The ELMs provide educators with problem-based learning through a diverse set of lessons. The goal of the ELMs is to engage students in the various layers of immigration history and policy in the United States. In order to understand why immigration in America today is such a dividing issue, students must gain a deep analysis of the economics, history, politics, and sociology of immigration. Students need to explore, engage, and grapple with immigration from many angles and viewpoints in order to engage in conversation about immigration today. Throughout the ELMs students will dive into immigration in the United States while also learning and practicing in 21st century skills such as problem solving, collaborative discussions and debates, and critical thinking.
The modules are designed to provide the educator with flexibility of use. Teachers can use all or some of the lessons. The lessons are designed with a larger project based learning mentality; however, they are also intentionally designed to be able to be modified to fit any teachers curriculum needs. Teachers could work through all of the modules using the project based learning method. However, teachers could also work through the modules lesson-by-lesson. The lessons are designed to take anywhere from 1 - 3 days, depending on the class, schedule, and depth at which the teacher feels comfortable going into the lesson. Teachers could choose to cover all of the disciplines created for the videos or only focus on one. The lessons are designed for a middle school or high school teacher and they can be easily adapted to fit any classroom.
As a team, we focused on project-based learning because of the opportunities for creative thinking, collaboration, and student driven learning. Larmer also states,
Project-based learning is a powerful teaching method that does the following:
  • Motivates students
  • Prepares students for college, careers, and citizenship.
  • Helps students meet standards and do well on tests that ask students to demonstrate in-depth knowledge and thinking skills.
  • Allows teachers to teach in a more satisfying way.
  • Provides schools and districts with new ways to communicate and to connect with parents, communities, and the wider world.[2]
The lessons that accompany the videos are designed to engage, motivate, and challenge students. We want our students to want to learn, be excited about their classes, and push their thinking to their highest ability. We believe these modules and lessons create that environment for the students and teacher and we invite readers to explore our materials with their students and colleagues.
Editors’ Note: The Exploring Immigration Project expects to offer their 7-part package of ELMs free of charge to teachers who agree to use and comment on the materials during the 2019 – 2020 school year.  They hope to be able to share the package to any interested teacher via the “Share Your Learning” campaign website.
History Matters! co-editor Scott L. Roberts is a consultant for this project.
[1] Larmer, John, John R. Mergendoller, and Suzie Boss. Setting the Standard for Project Based Learning: A Proven Approach to Rigorous Classroom Instruction. ASCD, 2015.
[2] Ibid.

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The National Council for History Education provides professional and intellectual leadership to foster an engaged community committed to the teaching, learning, and appreciation of diverse histories.