Education: Heritage Discovery Center

Johnstown Area Heritage Association
Teachers' Guide: Before your visit

Making a Life

Strangers in a Strange Land

Materials for this lesson
Readings Activities Primary sources




     ** Referenced PA Standards **

Building a Community

"Community" is a wonderful, but ambiguous word! The goal of this set of pre-visit activities is to expand students' notions of what a community is. Ironically, however, we will not be making the concept of "community" more simple, but more complex.  Understanding how complex our network of communities truly is will make it easier for students to understand why "belonging" is so important to humans. And more to the point of "Through Immigrants' Eyes," it reveals how much immigrants gave up when they left old communities behind, and how important it was to them to build strong new communities here in America.

Specifically, a full understanding of "belonging" to a "community" explains much about the character of western Pennsylvania cities, boroughs, and the neighborhoods within them. Interactions between overlapping communities in a given place are at the root of much of the history of these places -- of all history, for that matter! Cambria City, a neighborhood of Johnstown, where the Johnstown Heritage Discovery Center is located, will serve as a laboratory for investigating the concepts of "community," "belonging," "neighborhoods," "culture," and "ethnic groups."

"Belonging" is a key quality of community. People might technically qualify for membership in many different groups, but not "belong" to them. What makes a group a community? A sense of belonging, which requires sharing values, goals, and traditions.

"Belonging" explains why "neighborhood" does not mean the same thing as "community." A neighborhood, or geographic community, can actually contain many overlapping communities. In other words, many communities share the same "turf." And individuals can be members of many communities at the same time.

Reading: "Peopling Pennsylvania"

Have students read the section "Making a Place a Home" from the article "Peopling Pennsylvania."  You could summarize this article as an equation:

community ≠ neighborhood ≠ ethnic or cultural group

Let's take a look at some definitions of "community." conveniently lists definitions from a variety of online dictionaries.

Community: Where I Belong Diagram

"Community: Where I Belong" is an introspective exercise to help students explore the concept of community in a personal way. Begin by brainstorming the general kinds of groups students might belong to: family, school, neighborhood, clubs, religions, teams, interest groups that meet together online or through newsletters or magazines, ethnic groups, scouts, even cliques and gangs.

Ask students to list the specific groups they belong to a piece of scrap paper (chances are there won't be two lists that are alike in the whole class) or the back of their worksheet. They should list even groups they barely belong to (groups they haven't attended in a while, for example).

Next, ask them to create a diagram showing how all these groups relate to them and each other. You might call this a Venn diagram, graphic organizer, or concept map, depending on the terms with which your students are familiar. Copy and distribute the blank form of the Community: Where I Belong worksheet. Show them this example, if they are inexperienced in concept visualization work.

The Community: Where I Belong worksheet which contains directions and two circles -- family and school -- will help to get you started.

  • Diagram all of the possible groups where you are member .
  • Mark groups you feel like you really belong to in a different color.

Example: you may feel like an "outsider" on an athletic team where you usually "warm the bench" (a great example of shared lingo!), but feel like you really belong to the orchestra where your playing ability has earned you "first chair" (more lingo). Mark your orchestra circle in a different color to show your sense of belonging.


  • What is it about the groups you marked in color that makes you identify more strongly with them?
  • How many in the class have put their ethnic group in this category?
  • Which ethnic groups, if any, seem to be more like a community? Why?

Life Cycle of an Ethnic Community

The last question above "Which ethnic groups, if any, seem to be more like a community and why?" is a perfect segue into this key activity.

Using primary sources, including interview transcripts, documents, and historic photographs, students will trace how ethnic communities change from one generation to another.

Human behavior never sticks to a clear-cut formula.  Both ethnic families and the neighborhoods that house them follow a fairly typical pattern from one generation to the next.


Read about this journey in the "2.3 Becoming "American"" article from "Peopling Pennsylvania." As you read, begin to fill in the (blank) Life Cycle of an Ethnic Community graphic organizer with some of the changes that happen to immigrants, their children (first-generation American-born), and their grandchildren (second-generation Americans).

While families go through these changes, ethnic groups (which are just collections of families, after all) do also. The neighborhoods they live in also change (in fact, many people change neighborhoods and move).

Make some predictions: What are some of the changes you think you will see over three generations? [Post predictions on the chalkboard.]


  • Read the interview transcripts from first and second generation Johnstowners, who experienced these changes in their lives.
  • Look through the photographs in these galleries for clues about each generation's relationship to its ethnic group and neighborhood.
    • What communities do the different generations belong to? How do their personal experiences, family lives, and ethnic identity/pride change from one generation to another? How does the neighborhood change?
    • Write down your findings where they fit in the columns and rows of the organizer.
    • Choose a quote from one of the interviews and find a photo in the galleries that goes with it. Explain why they go together and show where they fit in the "Life Cycle of an Ethnic Community" .

Ask students to share some of their findings. Life Cycle of an Ethnic Community contains a key to help you lead this discussion. Alternatively, use the key as a hand-out and focus on finding examples of each stage in the interviews and photographs.


  • Which of your predictions turned out to be true?
  • What surprised you by being different than your predictions?
  • Summarize in a sentence or two how ethnic families and communities change over time.

Optional Reading

Out of this Furnace by Thomas Bell (published by the University of Pittsburgh Press) is a great fictional telling of this process. Semi-autobiographical, it follows three generations of a steelworking family in the Monongahela Valley. The reading level is suitable for eighth grade and older.

Museum Characters

Assign students the characters they will assume on the field trip. (Museum characters).

  • Research the character's homeland at the time he or she immigrated (about 1900);
  • Think about the communities they might be leaving;
  • Predict what they will look for when they get to the USA.


Continued "During your Museum Visit"


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