Suitcase Stories

Students create suitcase stories to describe an ancestor’s journey to America and important objects they might have packed.

Suitcase Stories lesson plan


People migrate or immigrate to new countries for new opportunities and a better life. Have you ever wondered how your family got to the place you live now? Where did they come from?

In this project, you will interview family members to learn more about your ancestors, where they came from, and how they came to this county. You will share a story of their experience, talking about the their journey and objects you know, or think, they might have taken with them.


Use books, videos, and other resources to help students understand what it is like to immigrate.

You might want to start with an overview of immigration, such as Betsy Maestro's Coming to America: The Story of Immigration. Scholastic also has a great Meet Young Immigrants collection of stories from real kids who have recently immigrated to the United States.

Ask families in your class if anyone has an immigration story they can share in person or over a video call. There is nothing quite like a personal story to help students better understand what it is like to immigrate.

You could also watch Dan Yaccarino read his book All the Way to America: The Story of a Big Italian Family and a Little Shovel, which sets the tone for this lesson perfectly.

Depending on the background of your students, you may want to read and explore a range of immigration stories. Here are just a few fantastic picture books that share immigrant experiences:


Once you have their interest and have established a basic understanding of what it means to immigrate, have students ask their parents about their family’s immigration story. Be sure to send families a note to let them know more about their project before their child comes home with questions.

Have students share what they have learned with the class. This will help you get a better sense of how much information your students have access to in order to write their suitcase story. It's also a great opportunity to find and indicate all the locations on a world map or globe.

image of valued family object and description from student project

As students share their initial family discussions, other students will likely ask questions about their classmates’ stories. Write down any questions that arise as students share their stories. If students don’t have questions during class discussions, give them time to reflect and write down “I wonder” questions on their own.

Look back at the list of questions and share any additional I wonder questions you or your students have. Display these for all students to see. Then, work together to develop a short list of questions everyone should try to answer about their family’s immigration story.

Create a document with 4-5 key questions you developed as a class, along with space for student answers. Send the document home with students so they have more clearly ask parents, grandparents, and family members about their experiences.

To help students better understand what it was like to immigrate, you might ask them to complete a Venn Diagram comparing their life to their ancestors or an empathy map that shows what an ancestor might have seen, heard, thought, and felt on their journey to this county.

Have students translate their notes and ideas into a paragraph or story about their ancestor’s journey. You may want to use sentence starters to support student writing, such as:

Educator, Jayme Johnson, of St. John’s School in Dallas (the inspiration for this lesson), adds a personal component this this project by asking students to share what they would bring with them if they were making a long journey to live in a new country. She provides students with an additional prompt:

Have students use a digital tool, like Wixie to turn their written story into a slideshow or video. Have students create a page for each idea and use paint tools and images to illustrate the story. Students can use their writing as a script to record narration for each slide or page.

If your students immigrated recently, have them tell their personal story using an object they took with them.


When student work is done, it is time to show off their amazing efforts. Host a family movie night and showcase student stories for all to see and hear. If you cannot get together face to face, create an online gallery of student's work on your classroom webpage and share the URL to each student project with family members so they can share with relatives.

Student’s stories are likely to be a treasured family memory, especially if students interviewed family members and shared actual experiences. Print student’s stories so they can take their work home with them. Tools like Wixie have built-in print options to print four pages of a project onto one sheet of paper, making it easy to fold into a booklet students can read and share with family.

If students have included voice, export their work digitally to better capture their work for the future and ensure viewers can read or listen and watch the story. You might export each student’s story as an eBook, so students can read and enjoy on their iPads at home or as a movie that can be easily watched on a range of mobile devices.


Capitalize on the specific objects, and their associated stories, each student shares to have an individual conversation with them about their thoughts and perspective on their ancestor’s immigation experience.

If the story isn’t a personal experience, it will be a powerful exercise in practicing empathy. The images and words students use to tell their suitcase story will reflect their ability to empathize as well as showcase their unique personalities (style of talking and presenting the story).

The final stories are great learning artifacts you can use as summative assessments, but the conversations you have during the process will provide a more comprehensive picture of their learning. You may want to develop a rubric or checklist to guide their learnind during the process and help them reflect on the success of their final product.

Free checklist maker at

Ask students to explain their writing and illustrations as they are working. Prompt with questions about their story to encourage them to write and draw more detailed information.

If you aren’t face-to-face, take advantage of digital feedback options to motivate and support learners. Each student’s voice narration will give you insight into oral proficiency and reading fluency.


Betsy Maestro. Coming to America: The Story of Immigration. ISBN: 0590441515

Aya Khalil. The Arabic Quilt: An Immigrant Story. ISBN: 0884487547

Veronica Lawlor. I Was Dreaming to Come to America: Memories from the Ellis Island Oral History Project. ISBN: 0140556222

Amada Irma Perez. My Diary From Here to There/Mi diario de aqui hasta alla. ISBN: 0892392304

Allen Say. Grandfather's Journey. ISBN: 0547076800

Dan Yaccarino. All the Way to America: The Story of a Big Italian Family and a Little Shovel. ISBN: 0375859209

Scholastic - Meet Young Immigrants

Museum of Tolerance - Finding Our Families, Finding Ourselves

My Immigration Story - Paragraphs about immigration


NCSS- National Council for Social Studies C3 Framework

Dimension 2: Geography
D2.Geo.7.3-5. Explain how cultural and environmental characteristics affect the distribution and movement of people, goods, and ideas.
D2.Geo.8.3-5. Explain how human settlements and movements relate to the locations and use of various natural resources.
D2.Geo.9.3-5. Analyze the effects of catastrophic environmental and technological events on human settlements and migration.

Common Core State Standards - English Language Arts


Write narratives in which they recount a well-elaborated event or short sequence of events, include details to describe actions, thoughts, and feelings, use temporal words to signal event order, and provide a sense of closure.

Create audio recordings of stories or poems; add drawings or other visual displays to stories or recounts of experiences when appropriate to clarify ideas, thoughts, and feelings.

Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, descriptive details, and clear event sequences.

Report on a topic or text, tell a story, or recount an experience with appropriate facts and relevant, descriptive details, speaking clearly at an understandable pace.

Create engaging audio recordings of stories or poems that demonstrate fluid reading at an understandable pace; add visual displays when appropriate to emphasize or enhance certain facts or details.

Report on a topic or text, tell a story, or recount an experience in an organized manner, using appropriate facts and relevant, descriptive details to support main ideas or themes; speak clearly at an understandable pace.

Add audio recordings and visual displays to presentations when appropriate to enhance the development of main ideas or themes.

ISTE Standards for Students

3. Knowledge Constructor
Students critically curate a variety of resources using digital tools to construct knowledge, produce creative artifacts and make meaningful learning experiences for themselves and others. Students:

b. evaluate the accuracy, perspective, credibility and relevance of information, media, data or other resources.

c. curate information from digital resources using a variety of tools and methods to create collections of artifacts that demonstrate meaningful connections or conclusions.

6. Creative Communicator
Students communicate clearly and express themselves creatively for a variety of purposes using the platforms, tools, styles, formats and digital media appropriate to their goals. Students:

a. choose the appropriate platforms and tools for meeting the desired objectives of their creation or communication.

b. create original works or responsibly repurpose or remix digital resources into new creations.

d. publish or present content that customizes the message and medium for their intended audiences.

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