Coming to America

Diane Shearer, Chamblee High School, Chamblee, Georgia


For years I have incorporated into my American literature and composition classes a writing assignment based on a personal interview.  This time, drawing on KCAC topics, I asked my students to interview a person who had immigrated to America and, based on that interview, to write an article about the person. 

Since Chamblee High has many students who are immigrants or children of immigrants, the major objective of this assignment was to produce interesting writings as well as promote understanding and foster appreciation for the cultural diversity within our school community.  Specific objectives were:

Instructional sequence

1. Read and discuss prose and poetry written by people who immigrated to America.  (Ongoing all year within the study of literature.)

2. Discuss, share stories and ideas of what it feels like to be different, to be an outsider.

3. Brainstorm in small groups a list of questions one might ask an American immigrant.  Share with large group.  Discuss again and create a basic list from which everyone can work.  Address issues raised by questions that might be construed as impolite or offensive.

4. Read excerpt from William Zinsser’s On Writing Well about interviewing and discuss problems and pitfalls associated with interviewing.

5. Choose person to interview, write a rationale explaining why.

6. Submit a list of additional questions.

7. Complete a mini-interview for practice.  With a classmate, take turns interviewing each other.  Use several general questions, generate others during the conversation; take notes. Write an interesting paragraph that presents your classmate to your peers.  It must incorporate at least one direct quote and have an attention-getting opening.

8. Conduct and record the interview with an immigrant and provide a record of the interview in the form of notes and/or tape.  Secure written permission of subject to use information in an article that will be shared in educational settings.

9. Teacher models how to take the raw material of an interview and make decisions about what to include, how to shape an interesting opening and form the material as a whole into an interesting article. 

10. Students draft article and share it in small peer-editing groups.

11. Revise and produce final draft.

12. Submit rationale, questions, notes, draft, and final article along with a reflection/assessment on the experience of interviewing and presenting the person, noting problems encountered and the nature of the learning derived from the assignment as a whole. An itemized list of this final submission, including the weight of each component in the overall grade, is included below:

Final product: An article based on an interview

Materials to be turned in (in the following order):

1. A statement of purpose/rationale (5 points) -- A good paragraph identifying the subject of the interview and explaining why you chose this person.

2. Final article/essay in ink or word-processed with double-spacing. (50 points)

3. A prepared list of thoughtful, insightful questions. (5 points)

4. A record of the interview (notes, audio tape if used). (5 points)

5. A draft of the article that you have edited and revised. (5 points)

6. A reflection/assessment of your experience with interviewing and presenting the person, problems encountered, what you learned, etc. (10 points)

7. A permission form for an interview.

Student artifact

“The Earthquake That Led to America

February 12, 1

Statement of Purpose

My subject, Alma**, is an immigrant from Istanbul, Turkey.  She moved here at the age of sixteen, about nine months ago.  Although her parents were already planning to move to America in hopes of a better education for Alma and her younger sister, it was the horrific earthquake which struck Turkey and forced Alma and her family to gather their belongings and bid farewell to their friends, alive and dead, and board a plane to America and their future. 

I chose Alma as the subject of my paper because of her vivid memories of Turkey and because of my interest in the impact of the earthquake that hit Turkey.  Practically, I chose her because she is in my sixth-period class.

The earthquake struck Turkey April 7, 0, and although Istanbul was not the center, it was hit hard.  Alma says, “It [the apartments] was just shaking back and forth, but that is good because if you are not moving, you are dying.”  Unfortunately, the lower stories of Alma’s apartment were not moving from side to side, but instead the earth was devouring them, and at the end of the earthquake they were buried, along with many of Alma’s friends and relatives.  This earthquake forced Alma and her family to leave their demolished home and their country.  “You are crying because you are leaving everything, but you are still hopeful.”

With thoughts of movie stars and dreams of her own locker, Alma shuffled onto a large brown and white plane destined to land in Atlanta at 2:34 p.m.  She was leaving her family, her cat, and everything else that couldn’t fit into suitcases.  That included Alma’s roller skates and her photo album.  She was leaving her home to go to a land only familiar to her through Steve Erkel and Zack Morris.  But, as everyone knows, television is very different from reality.

Alma was first confronted with this reality when she moved into her apartment, which was shockingly smaller than her old home.  This surprise was only the first of many.  “Oh, my God, it was like horrible,” speeds from Alma’s lips when her first day of school in America is mentioned.  Although American schools have shorter hours and fewer periods, Alma still had to adjust to the things we consider simple, like changing classes, pep rallies, and eating in a cafeteria.  “I remember I was sitting outside by my locker eating, and Ms. Fink comes and says, ‘What are you doing?’  I didn’t know about the cafeteria, and was like, ‘What is that?’ . . . and when I saw it, oh, my God.  And I still didn’t have anywhere to sit because I didn’t know any friends, so I ate alone outside for the first days.”

Despite these many necessary adjustments, Alma is still appreciative of her education at Chamblee, which she says is like that of “the best private schools in Turkey.”  She also likes the American school system because “it is much, much easier to get into college in America than in Turkey.”

Although she has adjusted rather well to school, there are still several aspects of American life that Alma is not acclimated to yet, like the food, which she thinks is “not as good as our special foods. … When you buy a tomato there [Turkey],” she closes her eyes, “you smell it and you want to eat it.”  She abruptly reopens her eyes and concludes, “Here a tomato is just a tomato.”  In addition to the quality of food, Alma also has had to adapt to the music, especially rap, and says that here “you need to have a car to do everything.”

Despite the many adaptations and societal differences in America , the family still warmly embrace America and its culture.  While most immigrants fear that their heritage will fade and become a mere sprinkle of pepper in America’s huge cauldron of cultures and do everything to shield themselves from being Americanized at all costs, American culture runs wild at Alma’s house.  When one enters Alma’s apartment, the sounds of Star94 rush to one’s ears, and if one ventures farther, one sees an American flag magnet on the refrigerator door, and in the refrigerator it’s all American—from the cheese to the O.J. to the Kraft barbecue sauce.  In fact, Alma says, “My mom would be happy if I married an American because I am an American.  I like America, so it is not a problem.”

“Everything is much quicker here, and I like it.”  Of course, this is not the only things she finds complimentary about America.  She also finds “American people are really friendly … and people you just act like they have been your friend for ten years.”  To sum up her feelings about America, she sincerely states, “You can’t choose one word, it’s so beautiful.  I don’t know, it’s amazing, everyday is a new thing, maybe … cool.  It’s a cool country.”

Although she likes America , Alma still misses Turkey deeply.  The words, “It makes me sad, when I think of my friends,” softly escape her lips when she thinks of her old home.  But she quickly recovers and refocuses her eyes and continues, “but I still have friends here, too.”

The scenery of her homeland is also pervasive in her thoughts; she closes her eyes and pictures “the beautiful bridge. … The smell of the sea is so nice.”

In spite of Alma's acceptance of American culture, the family still do activities so that images such as the “beautiful bridge” never fade.  For example, Alma says that every now and then “we are cooking Turkish foods.”  Moreover, Alma’s family celebrates Bayram, a “special holiday” that occurs three or four times a year.  “Here we are dressing up very nice, and we are cooking our special foods.”  She also comments that they have become a part of a Turkish community in Chamblee.  “That way we never lose our traditions or music.”  Even with these cultural reminders, Alma is still an American girl, as even her grandparents acknowledge when she interjects English words into a Turkish dialogue.  They laugh and say, “Somebody has become Americanized already.”

Underneath Alma’s story of devastation, adjustments, sadness, and hope, there is still a normal sixteen-year-old girl who hates cafeteria food, is in love with the Back Street Boys and Will Smith, and just likes hanging out with her friends.

Student Reflection

This project was very enlightening for me in several ways.  First, I had a very skewed view of other countries besides America because one only hears about the devastation in other places, so I viewed relatively unknown countries to me, including Turkey, as rather primitive and impoverished. 

Furthermore, I had this perception of all immigrants as cliquish and exclusive, but after this interview I have learned that these communities of people with the same heritage are necessary in order to preserve their traditions because the American culture is very influential and can easily make one forget one’s legacy.

But this experience did not come without its setbacks.  One major one was scheduling an interview appointment.  Remembering exact quotes was also rather difficult.  Alma also gave me her incorrect address and phone number, so it was rather hard to actually attend the appointment we had made together. 

But with everything considered, I found this experience well worth the time investment and actually rather fun.  I even came out of the experience with a new and interesting friend.

-- Jerome

Teacher reflection

These interviews were one of the most successful writing activities we did all year.  Many students chose to present these papers in their final assessment portfolios.  Some students interviewed other Chamblee students and found themselves making new friends in the process. 

Others interviewed neighbors they had never gotten to know well simply because that person was from a different culture.  All reported the experience was positive and made them realize how much many people had sacrificed in order for their children to have a better life in America.

Although I thought the brief mini-interview with a classmate and their writing a paragraph based on the interview was enough practice before their longer interview with an immigrant, I was wrong. Student reflections on the assignment indicated many found the task hard and/or discomfiting and were less than satisfied with their efforts.

The next time I do the project, I will invite an immigrant to visit our class, have the students prepare questions and participate in a press-conference-style interview. Students will take notes and turn in the notes and a brief article about the person.  We would use these as a basis for discussion before I sent them to do an interview alone.

I use this technique in my journalism class to help reporters become comfortable interviewing adults, and it seems to work well. This would add to the time the project would take, but I believe it would be worth it.

I would also establish a list of people I know who would be willing to be interviewed by students.  Some students were slow to find a person to interview, which resulted in hastily written articles.

On the day the papers were due, I asked students to get in their small groups and simply read and enjoy four or five papers before I graded them. The small groups then chose one or two papers to be read aloud to the whole class. I would definitely repeat this activity.

My students are all assigned to a regular small group that does many activities together during the year, so they are very comfortable with each other.  I also stressed that they were to praise what was good about each paper and discuss what they learned about the subject of the interview, not assess problems and errors in the writing.

Students were not always satisfied with their interviewing skills and their final articles. However, they felt that stretching themselves beyond their comfort zone had taught them much about the person, another culture, and the skills one must have in order to conduct a successful interview.       

Curricular Crossing

-- The use of an interview to spur student writing and community engagement is a fundamental approach of many of the KCAC teachers featured in this volume.  The approach outlined here—interviewing a stranger—is particularly valuable for older students who gain not only knowledge and writing skills but also the skill of approaching unknown adults and interacting with them.

-- This approach can spark student activism and the recovery of community history (see Peggy Corbett’s lesson); it can lead to a deeper understanding and appreciation of a sense of place (see Judy Bebelaar’s lesson), or it can lead to a critical inquiry of a particular institution and its role within the larger identity of the community (see Bonnie Webb’s lesson).

-- Other assignments—particularly those geared for elementary and middle-school students—are better directed at family members.  Recovery of personal or family histories can lead to a deeper understanding of a broader historical moment.  For example, students can interview their parents about what it was like to live during the Cold War, the Vietnam War, or during the Sexual Revolution, or Watergate. 

-- The interview need not be situated in a broader historical context.  The community investigated might very well be the family.  Sharon Bishop’s lesson in the volume centers on a student interviewing a parent or other adult about his or her courtship.  The information collected and the writing encouraged by such a personal topic is perhaps the most valuable recovery a student can do.




Home | Curricular Program | Thematic Content
Classroom Resources | Community Projects | Who We Are


© 0-1KCAC
No materials on this website should be copied or distributed
(except for classroom use) without written permissions from KCAC.
Questions? Comments? Contact KSU webmaster Jim Cope.


a project funded in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities