What Makes Someone an American?

From Sentenced Home collection, lesson plan 3 of 4

(90-120 minutes + assignments)

Grade Level: 9-12, College

Subject areas: Social Studies, Current Events, Language Arts, Debate, Sociology, Criminal Justice and Law Enforcement, Ethics, Psychology

Purpose of the lesson: What makes someone an American? With the U.S. made up of people from around the world, there are many cultures that have come together to make our country what it is today. Through immigration, we have enriched our culture and history and become a land of great diversity. The lesson examines what it means to be “American” and how children adapt to new cultures.


Students will:

  • Learn about what qualifies a person to be a U.S. citizen
  • Learn about and discuss acceptance theories including assimilation, the melting pot theory and cultural pluralism
  • Brainstorm and participate in group discussion activities
  • Utilize critical viewing and reading skills
  • Complete, compare and contrast activities based on reading and viewing
  • Form opinions based on quotes and film content and share these in class discussions
  • Complete a creative writing assignment centered on the struggles


Brainstorming, stating and supporting opinions in class discussion, critical reading and viewing, note taking, compare and contrast, project planning, oral presentation.


  • Film Modules 1,2, 3 and 4, Sentenced Home (can be streamed or ordered on DVD)
  • board/overhead
  • student handout (provided with guide)
  • quotes
  • Teacher Handouts A and B
  • Computers with Internet access and/or with DVD capability
  • LCD projector or DVD player
  • Whiteboard/markers, or chalkboard/chalk
  • Sentenced Home Film Modules 1, 2 and 4 (can be streamed or ordered on DVD)
  • Teacher Handouts A and B
  • Student Handout C

National Teaching Standards Addressed:

Grades 9-12

National standards from the following organizations were used in developing this lesson plan. See Recommended National Standards in Educator’s Guide for full descriptions of standards employed.

National Council of Teachers of English/International Reading Association

National Council for the Social Studies

Curricula writer: Lisa Prososki

Lisa Prososki is an independent educational consultant who taught middle school and high school English, social studies, reading and technology courses for 12 years. Prososki has worked extensively with PBS, authoring and editing many lesson plans for various PBS programs and TeacherSource.

Advisor, Phitsamay Sychitkokhong Uy

Phitsamay Sychitkokhong Uy is a research associate at the Education Development Center. Originally born in Laos, she taught for ten years as an elementary teacher, literacy specialist and Asian American studies instructor. She is currently working on her dissertation at Harvard University investigating the dropout rates of Southeast Asian American students.

  1. Previewing Activity: Write the following question on the board or overhead:

    • What makes someone an American?
  2. As a class, brainstorm for 3-5 minutes to answer this question. Record responses on the board or overhead projector. You may want to consider breaking the content into sub-sections such as culture, dress, language, customs, life style, attitudes, experiences, portrayal in the media and popular culture, etc. depending on the amount of time you have.

  3. Next, ask students to think about how they would answer the following question:

    • How would you handle being forced to move to a foreign country based on your ancestry?

    (i.e. if you are part German, you’d move to Germany, if you are Chinese, you’d move to China, etc.) Explain why. After students have had several minutes to think about this question, facilitate a short discussion about it by listing everything that would make assimilating into another country’s culture difficult.

  4. Ask students to imagine what life would be like if they were forced to move to another country all alone. Have students pair up and talk to one another about this using the following types of questions as prompts:

    • The three most difficult things about being forced to move to another country would be…
    • The three things that would be most frightening to me would be…
    • The biggest challenges I think I would face in another country would be…
  5. Talk to students about how people adjust to making moves that force them to become a part of another culture. Using Teacher Handout B: Citizenship and Immigration Terminology, discuss the three basic acceptance theories briefly to help students better understand the difficulties of adjusting to life in a foreign country.

  6. Explain to students that in this lesson, they are going to meet two men struggling with their identity. Distribute Student Handout C: Comparing and Contrasting and review the directions with the class. View Sentenced Home Film Modules 1, 2, 3 and 4. In addition, read or distribute copies of “The Film”, and “The People”. Provide students with time to complete the Comparing and Contrasting activity with their partner.

  7. Talk about the data students recorded on Comparing and Contrasting using questions like those listed below and by referencing the quotes available on Teacher Handout A: Supplemental Materials in the Activity 3 section.

    • What does it mean to be a Cambodian American?
    • What differences do you see between the ways these men interact in American society vs. the interactions of their parents? What do you think causes this difference between the two generations?
    • Why do you think it is easier for children to assimilate to a new culture rather than adults? Provide specific examples.
    • In what way are the men from the film “without a country”?
    • Do you think the men will be able to build successful lives in their “homeland”? Why?
    • What obligation do the U.S. and Cambodian governments have to assist these deportees with successful assimilation into their native culture? Why?
    • If there had been more programs in place to keep the men in the film from feeling like “the minority within the minority,” do you think they could have been spared from deportation? Explain you answers.

    NOTE: The Sentenced Home quotes are referenced in this step, and could be distributed to students for use during discussion.

  8. Place the following quote on the board or overhead and read them aloud to students:

    • “I’m three thousand miles away, you know what I’m saying? You made it happen, you know what I’m saying? To deport a like me, who you accepted with loving arms, and open arms, you know what I’m saying? To your country, you know what I’m saying? As your permanent residency, you know what I’m saying? As your child, you know what I’m saying? Of the killing field and . You accepted me with open arms, you know what I’m saying? You accepted me with you welfare system, you know what I’m saying? You accept me with your social security system, you know what I’m saying? You accept me with your project, you know what I’m saying? You inner city ghetto living every day living, you accepted me, you know what I’m saying? And in the click, you know what I’m saying? In the blink of an eye, you know what I’m saying? You reject me as a stepchild, you know what I’m saying? You can never scare me no more . Kill me, ***.” Kim Ho Ma—deportee

    Ask students to think about the point Kim is trying to make in this statement in terms of what makes someone an American. Discuss this as a class. Ask students to comment on the emotions and feelings Kim is conveying and talk about the level of empathy students have for him.

    NOTE: The Sentenced Home quotes are referenced in this step and could be distributed to students for use during discussion. Note that the quote contains offensive language.

  9. As a closing activity, have students imagine what it would be like to be forced to move to a foreign country alone. Direct them to write a series of journal entries (at least 5) or a biographical story that tells about what they encountered. Some ideas to get students started could include:

    • Describe your first day in this city/town
    • Describe trying to communicate with others and to fit in with them
    • Describe coming to school/work on the first day
    • Describe what it was like leaving your friends and family members behind and trying to make new friends
    • Describe the cultural differences you noticed between yourself and those around you
    • Describe what it feels like to be a minority (in terms of your culture)

    Provide students with the opportunity to share their work with the class and discuss whether or not they are able to make more of an emotional connection with deportees like the ones in the film now that they have taken time to think about what their lives might be like if they were in a similar situation.

Keeping in mind what the men in the film experienced when deported to Cambodia as well as what they felt growing up as “the minority within the minority,” think about what can be done in your school or community to help newcomers feel welcome, particularly those who are relocating from a foreign country. Work with a partner to develop a program or plan for a club, event, or activity that could help students become a part of the school community. Chances are that there are already some students who may not feel part of the school, immigrant or not. Devise ways to reach out to students of all types. Share your plan with classmates.

NOTE: Assure that planned activities incorporate input from community members who can assess the appropriateness of the student plan.

OPTIONAL: As a group, vote on the best plan and work as a class to implement this plan within your school. Assess the success of the program through talking with participants and by conducting class discussion about how the activity helped students connect with one another in a positive way.

OPTIONAL: After selecting a project, partner with other community-based service organizations such as youth or faith-based groups or organizations that specialize in serving immigrant families and execute the plan to assist people in the broader community.

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