Letters from Rifka

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Unit Overview: Immigration

In this unit, students will learn to read, write, and speak about Immigration in America during the late 1800’s early 1900’s. Students will read a variety of informational texts about the causes of Immigration and the impact it had on Immigrants coming to America. Through close reading, note-taking, and summarizing students will learn how to synthesize information from multiple texts in order to write and speak about a topic knowledgably. Students also closely read and analyze firsthand accounts to help them understand the impact immigration had on people. They will compare these accounts with secondhand accounts to deepen their understanding of the topic.

In the second part of this Unit, students will apply what they learned from reading informational texts about Immigration to help them have a deeper understanding of the historical fiction book Letters from Rifka by Karen Hesse. Through close reading, writing about the reading, and conversation with peers, students will analyze the characters in this book. They will learn how to understand characters by paying attention to their actions and how they respond to challenges. Students will also explore the themes in this book by paying careful attention to how characters respond to challenges.

For the final performance task students will write a Literary Analysis of Letters from Rifka by Karen Hesse. They will use their notes and written responses from the book to help them develop an idea in which they want to write about. After they have explored possible ideas to write about, they will choose one idea, create a thesis statement around that idea, and support their thesis with evidence from the text.

Guiding Questions and Big Ideas:

  • Why did people immigrate to the United Stated during the late 1800’s?

  • What challenges did immigrants face and how did they respond to these challenges?

  • We can learn about immigration from the experiences of real people and fictional characters.

  • People respond differently to similar events in their lives.

  • Writers use a variety of sources (including firsthand and secondhand accounts) to speak knowledgeably about a topic.

Texts and Resources

What Was Ellis Island? by Patricia Brennan Demuth

Immigrants: A Library of Congress Book by Martin W. Sandler

Letters from Rifka by Karen Hesse


Content Connections:

This unit is designed to address ELA standards for reading and writing. It also integrates the following social studies standard:

Historical Perspective

SS-05-5.2.2 Students will explain reasons (e.g., freedoms, opportunities, fleeing negative situations) immigrants came to America long ago (Colonization and Settlement, Industrialization and Immigration, Twentieth Century to Present) and compare with why immigrants come to America today.

Support for English Language Learners

In each lesson there are supports built in for English Language Learners (ELL’s) and struggling students. The following is a list of additional strategies that can be applied to any of the following lessons.

  • Audio recordings of text can aid some students in comprehension. Students can pause and replay confusing portions while they follow along with the text.

  • ELL language acquisition is facilitated by interacting with native speakers of English who provide models of language. Pair ELL students with native English speakers. During the lesson provide time for students to turn and talk and share their thinking with a partner.

  • For students needing additional supports producing language, consider offering a sentence frame, sentence starter, or cloze sentence to provide the structure required.

  • Students needing additional supports may benefit from partially filled-in graphic organizers and students response organizers.

  • Consider partnering an ELL with a student who speaks the same language when discussion of complex content is required. This can let students have more meaningful discussions and clarify points in their language.

CCSS Standards Addressed in This Unit


Approximate Days for Instruction

Focus Standards

Supporting Standards

Lesson 1: Building background knowledge- causes of immigration

1-2 days

RI.5.1, RI.5.3, RI.5.10; SL.5.1 a-c

RF.5.4, W.5.8, W.5.9, SL.5.4, L.5.4

Lesson 2: Building background knowledge- analyzing TWO accounts of the same event

2 days

RI.5.1, RI.5.4, RI.5.6, RI.5.10, L.5.4, W.5.10

RF.5.4, W.5.8, W.5.9, SL.5.1, SL.5.4,

Lesson 3: Building background knowledge- What happened at Ellis Island?

2 days

RI.5.1, RI.5.6, RI.5.10, W.5.10

RF.5.4, W.5.8, W.5.9, SL.5.1, SL.5.4, L.5.4

Lesson 4: Introducing historical fiction: Letters to Rifka by Karen Hesse

1-2 days

RL.5.1, RL.5.3, RL.5.10

RF.5.4, W.5.9, SL.5.1,SL.5.3, SL.5.4, L.5.4

Lesson 5: Growing ideas about characters- paying attention to actions

1-2 days

RL.5.1, RL.5.3, RL.5.10

RF.5.4, W.5.9, SL.5.1,SL.5.3, SL.5.4, L.5.4

Lesson 6: Growing ideas about characters: paying attention to how they respond to challenges

1-2 days

RL.5.1, RL.5.3, RL.5.10

RF.5.4, W.5.9, SL.5.1,SL.5.3, SL.5.4, L.5.4

Lesson 7: Growing ideas about characters- “Why did..?”

1-2 days

RL.5.1, RL.5.3, RL.5.10, W.510

RF.5.4, W.5.9, SL.5.1,SL.5.3, SL.5.4, L.5.4

Lesson 8: Finding themes in historical fiction

2 days

RL.5.1, RL.5.2, RL.5.10

RF.5.4, W.5.9, SL.5.1,SL.5.3, SL.5.4, L.5.4

Lesson 9: Paying attention to how characters change

1-2 days

RL.5.1, RL.5.3, RL.5.10

RF.5.4, W.5.9, SL.5.1,SL.5.3, SL.5.4, L.5.4

Lesson 10: Introducing the literary Essay

1 day

W.5.1, W.5.9

W.5.4, W.5.5, L.5.1, L.5.2, L.5.3,

Lesson 11: Theorizing about characters to develop ideas to write about

1 day

W.5.1, W.5.5, W.5.9, SL.5.1

RL.5.3, RL.5.10, L.5.3

Lesson 12: “What is this story really about?” Theorizing about themes to develop ideas to writing about

1-2 days

W.5.1, W.5.5, W.5.9, SL.5.1

RL.5.2, RL.5.10

Lesson 13: Turning our “big ideas” into a thesis statement

1-2 days

W.5.1, W.5.5, W.5.9, SL.5.1

RL.5.2, RL.5.10

Lesson 14: Identifying reasons and examples to explain and support a thesis statement

1-2 days

W.5.1, W.5.4, W.5.5, W.5.9, SL.5.1


Lesson 15: Elaborating ideas to support and explain reasons

1-2 days

W.5.1, W.5.4, W.5.5, W.5.9, SL.5.1

L.5.6, SL.5.3

Lesson 16: Organizing ideas to write a literary essay

2-3 days

W.5.1, W.5.4, W.5.5, W.5.9, SL.5.1

L.5.6, SL.5.3

Lesson 17: Revising literary essays for meaning

1 day

W.5.1, W.5.4, W.5.5, SL.5.1

L.5.6, SL.5.3

Lesson 18: Using a revision/editing checklist

1 day

W.5.1, W.5.4, W.5.5, SL.5.1. L.5.1, L.5.2, L.5.3


Lesson 1: Building Background Knowledge (Causes for Immigration)

Focus Standards:

RI.5.1: Quote accurately from a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text.

RI.5.3: Explain the relationship or interactions between two or more individuals, events, ideas, or concepts in a historical, scientific, or technical text based on specific information in the text.

RI.5.10: By the end of the year, read and comprehend informational texts, including, history/social studies, science, and technical texts, at the high end of the grades 4-5 text complexity band independently and proficiently.

SL.5.1: Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade 5 topics and texts, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly.
Learning Target:

I can explain the relationship between events in a historical text.

Anticipatory Set: To engage students in this unit, begin by connecting immigration to their own lives. If you have students in your class that have emigrated from another country, allow them to share their stories. You could also invite student’s family members that have immigrated to America to come and speak to students about their experiences.
Vocabulary: Explain to students that throughout this unit on Immigration, they will be learning new vocabulary words. Provide students with an Alpha-box (an organizer to help keep track of vocabulary). This organizer can be found by clicking on the following link: https://www.asdk12.org/MiddleLink/LA/vocabulary/forms/Alphaboxes.pdf
Introduce the following words to students:

immigrant (pg. 22)

oppressed (pg. 24)

possession (pg. 28)

Use the following procedure to introduce each word:

Step 1: Define the word in kid friendly language (tap into the prior of knowledge of students)

Step 2: Use the word in a sentence.

Step 3: Students explain the new word with a partner and also use the word in a sentence.

Step 4: Teacher reads aloud the sentence from the text that contains the new word.

Step 5: Students record the word on their Alpha-box

Mini-Lesson- Explain to students that from 1820-1925, millions of people left their homes to start a new life in America. Tell students that they will be reading chapter 2 from What Was Ellis Island? by Patricia Brennan Demuth to learn about why people were immigrating to America. Record the following questions on chart paper:

  • Why did people choose America to immigrate to?

  • Why were people leaving their homeland to come to America?

Tell students that as they read, they will use sticky notes to flag evidence that supports the reasons for immigration. Read aloud the first few paragraphs while modeling for students how to flag evidence for why people immigrated to America.

Work Time- Have students continue to read the rest of the chapter, flagging causes for Immigration. While students are working independently, pull a small group of students who may need more support including ELLs or struggling readers.
Extensions for Depth and Complexity: Students can access additional resources to help them understand the causes of immigration. The following link contains an article about the causes of immigration:


Have students read the article and add any new information they learned in their reading response notebooks.
Share Time- During share time students will work in small groups of 3-4 to share the information they flagged in the book. Before sending students off, remind students of the Group Norms for working in small groups. Then record the following conversation starters on chart paper:

  • I agree because…

  • I disagree because…

  • Can you tell me more…

Group Norms

*Come to the group prepared

*Look and listen to the speaker

*Take turns

*Respect others’ opinions

*Stay on topic

What makes you think that…?

Teach students how to use these conversation starters before sending them off. One way is to model for students what a good discussion looks likes and sounds like. To do this, choose a small group to start their discussion while the rest of the class listens in. As the students begin discussing provide the groups with feedback to help guide their conversations. Finally, send students off in their small groups. Remind students that they should address the following questions while sharing in their groups:

  • Why did people choose America to immigrate to?

  • Why were people leaving their homeland to come to America?

While students are working in their small groups, circulate the room listening in to student’s conversations. Provide groups with specific feedback about their conversations and prompt them when necessary. Bring students back together and have them share their evidence for why people were immigrating to America and why they chose America to immigrate to.
Formative Assessment- Have students answer the following prompt:

  • Explain TWO reasons why people immigrated to America in the Early 1800’s. Use evidence from the text to support your thinking.

  • To help support struggling students and ELLs provide them with the following sentence starters to help support their writing.

One reason people immigrated to America was_________________________________. I know this because _____________________________________________________. Another reason people immigrated to America was _____________________________. I know this because ______________________________________________________.
Collect and analyze student’s responses.

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