Education: Heritage Discovery Center

Johnstown Area Heritage Association
Teachers' Guide: After your Visit

Making a Life

Becoming American

"Assimilating" the museum visit

Discuss (think back to what you saw at the museum):

  • Besides "stuff," what else did the immigrants bring with them? [attitudes, goals, skills, hopes, dreams, faith, work ethic, prejudices, etc.]
  • What "old country" skills would be important in their new homes? What "old country" experiences might help them adjust to their new home? [used to hard physical work, long hours, living simply]
  • What attitudes did they bring with them? [religious faith, strong sense of community, work ethic, saving for future, prejudices against other ethnic groups]
  • What character traits would help new immigrants to succeed? [courage, flexibility, hard-working, creativity, determination, perseverance, accept hardship today for better future life, etc.]
  • What hopes and dreams did immigrants have for their future in America and their children's?
  • What happened to those dreams over the years?

Stuck Between Two Worlds

Children in immigrant families often felt stuck between two ways of life. They didn't remember much about the Old Country (if anything -- they may have been born after their parents arrived), but they didn't fit into their new surroundings, either. They spoke a different language than their classmates, dressed differently, ate different foods, celebrated different holidays, had different customs. They had to learn English in school, so they usually spoke better English than their parents. They would often translate for their parents, becoming a broker between the old world and the new. Sometimes they became the "authority" in the house, instead of their parents. This was definitely not a situation most parents would want! Even so, being stuck between two worlds was not a comfortable place most of the time.

In this activity, students will imagine what it was like to live life caught between two cultures. It is designed as an improvisational role-playing activity, but can also be used as a story-starter. They must resolve dilemmas a typical immigrant child might face while settling in America. The PDF "Stuck Between Two Worlds" provides 12 dilemmas in the form of cards describing the dilemma, the cast ("who"), and the place or places where the action happens.

Role-playing skit


Work in groups of three students. Give each group a dilemma card describing the situation, the place, and the people involved. Assure students that there is no one right answer to any of these dilemmas. Every immigrant had to decide for themselves how to work out the situations they faced. They did not all react the same way. In an improvisational kit, actors don't know exactly what the other characters will say or do, so you must think and react the way your character might.

Give the groups a minute or so to confer (they can decide generally how each of the three will react to the situation, but not actually rehearse), then ask the first group to act out their dilemma. Feel free to use props like babushkas and other hats, sports or school equipment, pots and pans, tools, etc.


Optionally, the group can script their resolution of the dilemma, though this approach requires more class time for scripting and rehearsal and takes away the emotional impact of role-playing without a script. Students may feel more comfortable scripting a skit if they are not familiar with improvisation.

Story writing

If the activity is used as a story-starter, each student should receive one of the cards. They will need to decide whether to tell their story in first person (allowing them to tell what the main immigrant child is thinking) or in the third person (allowing them to tell what all the characters are thinking).

Consider giving younger students the option of writing an illustrated story. Comic book style panels would lend themselves well to telling this kind of conflict.

Family Folklife

Reading: Peopling Pennsylvania: Belonging

Assign students the reading Part 2.2 Proud of Who We Are to introduce the concept of folk traditions and how they function as "glue" holding ethnic and other cultural groups together.

As the character Tevye explains in the musical "Fiddler on the Roof," traditions help us know who we are -- "they help us keep our balance, like a fiddler on a roof!" Every family has traditions, which tell everyone "this is how we do things here."

Traditions don't have to date from the "Old Country," but often they do. Long after ethnic groups or become "American," traditional customs, words, foods, values hang on. Or families continue the tradition of change by creating new traditions! That is how culture is transmitted.

Activity: Family Folklife Interview

This activity will help students recognize traditions in their families and probably discover some that have been a part of the family for generations. Other traditions may have come from communities outside the family -- a church, school, organization, or peer group.

This activity works best as an individual homework assignment, so students can interview an older family member (encourage phone interviews, if necessary). If this seems too challenging (with foster families, for example), it can also work as a cooperative learning activity with teams of three or four students interview a grandparent of one student.


Interview an older adult in your family to find out more about family traditions and how they have changed over the generations:

Psyanky: Ukrainian Easter Eggs

Some families are fortunate to have traditional foods, customs, music, and crafts that have survived from one generation to another. (Maybe you can revive a family tradition you discovered in your Family Folklife Interview!) Ukrainians have an Easter tradition that is still passed down in many families or through churches. They decorate special eggs called "psyanky" to give to each other on Easter. The beautiful patterns made with melted wax and dyes combine special symbols of faith. Every egg is different.

You don't have to be Ukrainian to enjoy making -- or just looking at -- these creations! You can see step-by-step how psyanky are made and learn how to decorate them yourself.

Ancestry of Pennsylvania and the USA

We can also learn by looking at ethnic heritage on a national scale rather than on a family scale! The U.S. Census does just that every ten years. The census asks people where their ancestors come from. Some people's ancestors (especially recent immigrants) have come from only one country or region. Others (especially those whose families immigrated a while back) have ancestors from a few countries or regions (why? -- think back to the Lifecycle of an Ethnic Community!)


The Ancestry of Pennsylvania and the USA, 2000 document contains two versions: one shows the complete graphs, the other includes a table of figures and blank graphs. Choose the one you prefer depending on whether you want students to have the experience of plotting their own graphs. To make valid comparisons, students should plot percentages, not the population numbers.

Compare the PA and USA graphs, then discuss:

  • For which regions does the USA show a higher percentage than Pennsylvania?
  • For which regions does Pennsylvania show a higher percentage than the USA?
  • What could be the reasons for these differences?
  • Where do you fit on this chart (probably in more than one place!)?



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