Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Pearl S. Buck: "On Discovering America"


The Lesson


American author Pearl S. Buck spent most of her life in China. She returned to  the U.S. in 1934 and became an advocate for immigration.

American author Pearl S. Buck spent most of her life in China. She returned to the U.S. in 1934 and became an advocate for immigration.

Credit: Image courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.

The future of America depends on immigration— it must, or we who are here will grow stagnant with too little life of our own.

—Pearl S. Buck, "On Discovering America" (1937)

American author Pearl S. Buck returned to the United States in 1934 after spending most of her life in China. Upon her return, Buck found a climate of religious intolerance and ethnic prejudice as various groups struggled to identify themselves as the only "true" Americans. In her essay, "On Discovering America," published in the June 1937 issue of Survey Graphic magazine, Buck explores the meaning of the term "American" and immigrant relations in the 1930s. In this lesson, students will explore American immigration patterns in the 1930s and look at how the media portrayed immigrants during that time. Through a study of Pearl S. Buck's essay, "On Discovering America," they will learn about American attitudes toward immigrants and the meaning of the term "American" to both native and immigrant populations.

Guiding Questions

  • How did Americans view immigrants in the 1930s, and how did the media portray them?
  • How does Pearl Buck's essay portray immigration and its role in the history of the United States?

Learning Objectives

At the end of this lesson, students will be able to

  • Describe some of the myths and realities of immigration in America
  • Explain how Americans viewed immigrants in the 1930s, citing examples from Pearl S. Buck's essay, "On Discovering America"
  • Show how the media portrayed immigrants in the 1930s through manuscripts, images, audio, and video from that time


America has long been a country to which emigrants of all races, ethnicities, and religious affiliations have ventured in search of freedom and opportunity. While hundreds of thousands of immigrants came to America in the nineteenth century, the American government began to restrict immigration after World War I.

Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1924, which limited the number of European immigrants to 150,000 per year, and also prohibited Japanese immigration. In the 1930s, as thousands of Jews attempted to flee persecution in Europe, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared that "no country would be expected or asked to receive a greater number of emigrants than is permitted by existing legislation."[1] The immigrant quota system was in place until 1965. See the EDSITEment-reviewed Digital History's topic category "Voices," which also includes a chronology: Landmarks in Immigration History. Scroll down to the section of this online textbook, "The Huddled Masses," to learn about the new immigrants and the anti-immigrant reaction. "Around the turn of the twentieth century, mass immigration from eastern and southern Europe dramatically altered the population's ethnic and religious composition. Unlike earlier immigrants, who had come from Britain, Canada, Germany,Ireland, and Scandinavia, the “new immigrants” came increasingly from Hungary, Italy, Poland, and Russia. The newcomers were often Catholic or Jewish and two-thirds of them settled in cities." 

[1]Maier, Pauline, et al., Inventing America: A History of the United States, 2nd ed., New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006, p. 746.

Preparation Instructions

  • Review the lesson plan and the websites used throughout. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and websites.
  • Preview the materials available on the EDSITEment LaunchPad and determine an appropriate way to ensure student groups will not all review the same material for Activity 3: Immigrants in the Media.
  • Read Pearl S. Buck's essay, "On Discovering America," available at the EDSITEment-reviewed American Studies at UVA website.
  • Download and print out the American Immigration Policy (PDF) handout. Make enough copies to give to the class.
  • Familiarize yourself with the interactive quiz, Immigration: Myths and Realities, and bookmark the URL for student use.
  • Download and print out the Pearl S. Buck: "On Discovering America" Reading Questions (PDF) student worksheet. Make enough copies to give to the class.
  • Students can access the websites used in this lesson via the Immigration LaunchPad. Bookmark the LaunchPad URL for student use.
  • Immigration can be a contentious issue; before beginning the lesson, stress the need for respect, for historical distance, and for objective reasoning. Students should feel free to express their opinions, but should also be sure to do so in a respectful, informed manner.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Immigration: Myths and Realities

Ask students to think about what it would be like to relocate to America from a foreign country. What would they expect to find in America? What would they leave behind? What languages, customs, traditions, and even prejudices might they bring with them to their new home? If students in your class have experienced this transition, ask them to share their experiences with the class.

Ask students to test their knowledge of immigration by taking the PBS Immigration: Myths and Realities online quiz linked via the EDSITEment-reviewed The New Americans. The quiz looks at issues such as why people come to America, how many enter the country legally, and how many jobs employ them. Depending on the available technology, students might work individually, in groups, or all at once using a projector.

Discuss the results of the quiz as a class. Did any answers surprise your students? What misconceptions might they have had before taking the quiz? How did the answers affect their views?

Provide historical context about the history of immigration using the information contained in the "Background Information for the Teacher" section of this lesson. In addition, give each student a copy of the American Immigration Policy handout [PDF] for reference. Visit with students, or have them review from home, the American Immigration Council's "Giving the Facts a Fighting Chance: Addressing Common Questions on Immigration" review of immigration facts and fictions, as well as an extensive Immigration Timeline from the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation. If time allows, teachers might assign an independent research project encouraging students to explore a major immigration law or event, and have them present the report to the class.

Note how immigration patterns to the United States have changed. For example, immigration from Asia was severely restricted in the early 20th century, but today 26 percent of U.S. immigrants come from Asia. Note, too, how fears about immigration persist—in the belief, for example, that immigrants take jobs away from others.

Activity 2. Pearl S. Buck, "On Discovering America"

Introduce students to American author Pearl S. Buck. Explain that Buck, the child of Christian missionaries, spent most of her life in China. She returned to America in 1934, "an immigrant among immigrants … in my native land." Refer students to the following Pearl S. Buck biographies, which provide background on Buck's life and career.

Like many of her contemporaries—among them Henry Roth and Michael Gold—Pearl S. Buck wrote about the plight of immigrants grappling with social and cultural change. As noted in Phillip Lopate's essay, Immigrant Fiction: Exploring an American Identity," available at The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, many works about the immigrant experience describe feelings of disorientation as their characters shifted from the macrocosm of the foreign countries from which they moved to the microcosm of the neighborhoods where they attempted to reassemble and reenact their old-world lives, often with mixed results. The website provides a good overview of works from the 1930s that address the immigrant experience.

Before proceeding, you may wish to make a distinction between "immigrant" and "migrant" workers. According to the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, an "immigrant" is a person "who has been granted the right by the [Custom and Immigration Services] to reside permanently in the United States and to work without restrictions in the United States"; a "migrant", according to the U.S. Customs and Immigration Service is "a person who leaves his/her country of origin to seek residence in another country." Note that the Great Depression resulted in migration within America as displaced workers attempted to find employment. Migration was a common theme in American literature of the 1930s, one addressed in novels such as John Steinbeck's 1939 novel, The Grapes of Wrath.

Distribute the Pearl S. Buck: On Discovering America Reading Questions (PDF). As a homework assignment, ask students to read Pearl S. Buck's essay, "On Discovering America," available at the EDSITEment-reviewed American Studies at UVA website. You may also point them to the Pearl S. Buck biographies and "Immigrant Fiction" essay for home reading.

Ask students to pay particular attention to Buck's observations of immigrant relations and how she defined the term "American." Have students answer the questions on the worksheet, referring to the essay and the American Immigration Policy handout (PDF) as needed. They should prepare to discuss their answers in class. As an alternate exercise, have students read the essay and then work in groups to answer the questions.

Activity 3. Immigrants in the Media

Students will conduct Internet research to see how the media (documents, photographs, audio, video) portrayed American immigrants in the 1930s. Explain that they will create a computer presentation in which they share the information they find.

Refer students to the Immigration LaunchPad as they research immigrant relations in the 1930s. Many of the websites listed on the LaunchPad link to sources that contain documents and audiovisual material about immigration. Ask students to answer the questions listed on the LaunchPad (also available as a PDF). They will use these notes in their presentation.

Assemble students into groups. Preview the materials available on the EDSITEment LaunchPad and determine an appropriate way to ensure student groups will not all review the same material. Ask each group to find five to ten documents, photographs, audio clips, or video clips for the presentation. Appoint, or have each group self-select, a "technician" to assemble the group's photos and notes into a computer presentation, or have each member create a certain number of pages or slides (depending on the software used) that can be easily combined into a single presentation or submission. Have each group share its presentation with the class and discuss how Americans of different ethnicities and backgrounds were portrayed. If time is limited, you may request each group to turn in its presentation after sharing one or two items with the class.


Use the Assessment Rubric (PDF) to gauge your students' learning.

Note that there are ample opportunities for writing assignments throughout the lesson plan. Students might offer a personal response to Buck's essay, an analysis of the impact of the Immigration Act of 1924, or a short analysis of one of the documents, photos, or clips they viewed in the Immigrants in the Media section.

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

2-3 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Literature and Language Arts > Place > American
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Essay
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Immigration/Migration
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Cultural analysis
  • Developing a hypothesis
  • Historical analysis
  • Internet skills
  • Interpretation
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Online research
  • Using primary sources
  • Writing skills
  • Kay Davis, Cultural Studios (Reston, VA)


Activity Worksheets
Student Resources