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Essential Lens: Analyzing Photographs Across the Curriculum

Activating Students’ Prior Knowledge

Learning Targets

  • I can differentiate amongst key terms such as refugee, migrant, displaced person, and stateless person.
  • I can reflect on my prior awareness and knowledge about refugees and displaced people.


Note: Sections of this background are taken from the Collection introduction because they support the learning targets of this activity.

As of this writing, more than 65 million people around the world have been displaced, representing the highest number since the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), also known as the UN Refugee Agency, began its reporting more than fifty years ago. This number includes 21.3 million refugees, 40.8 million internally displaced persons, and 3.2 million asylum seekers. To comprehend the scale of this number, it is useful to understand that 1 person in 100 worldwide has been displaced from their home, and if these 65 million people were a nation unto themselves, they would make up the twenty-first largest in the world. Another way to understand the gravity of the current situation is to consider that 34,000 people per day — an average of 24 people every minute — are forcibly displaced as a result of conflict or persecution. Young people are particularly impacted: Some 94,400 unaccompanied or separated children, representing 78 countries, applied for asylum in 2015. Today, more than half (54 percent) of all refugees worldwide come from just three countries: the Syrian Arab Republic, Afghanistan, and Somalia. Worldwide, Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ethiopia, and Jordan host the largest numbers of these refugees.

But what does it mean to be a refugee or displaced person? The term “refugee” was given a precise legal definition in 1951. It was defined by the newly organized (in 1950) United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as someone who, “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country. This definition has been refined over time. (See Activity 2.) A refugee is not the same as an internally displaced person (IDP). Refugees cross an international border; IDPs have been forced to leave their home, but have not crossed a border and, therefore, remain in their own country.

Grade Level

  • High School


  • U.S. History

The increasing numbers of refugees are the focus of intense political rhetoric and media attention. Their plight has renewed discussions about the following issues:

  • the meaning of nationhood, culture, and citizenship;
  • the definition of human rights;
  • the legal and fiscal responsibilities of nation-states; and,
  • the ethics of national and regional efforts at control of refugees.

Meanwhile, internally displaced persons (IDPs), who do not fit the legal definition of refugee because they have not left their homeland, pose another set of challenges to international law and to the mandates of humanitarian organizations.

The scale and complexity of the contemporary refugee crisis has also raised new ethical and human rights questions such as: What are the rights of the deceased? Thousands perish on their journey for safe refuge, and their relatives and friends, as well as the international community, call for the need for a registry of the dead, and the care and rights of those orphaned by these tragedies.

Begin the Activity

In this four-part activity, students move from thinking locally to more broadly about displaced people. The intent is to help students understand that their community likely has members who have been displaced. This will set the stage for the ensuing activities, where more specifics and historical events will be examined.

Part I

In pairs, ask students to define and give examples for the following four terms:

  • Refugee
  • Migrant
  • Internally displaced person
  • Stateless person

Recognize that students may not know these terms, they may confuse them, or they may not have thought much about them. Similarly, some students may themselves be displaced. In this part of the activity, students simply reveal what they know about these terms. Depending on their experiences, this first part may take 5 minutes, or it may last 10 or 15. Have each pair write down a short definition for each term. If they have never heard the term, they should not write a definition.

When they have shared all they know about these terms, project the following definitions overhead for each of the four terms and have the pairs compare them with what they discussed and wrote down.

  • Refugee: a person who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, violence, or natural disasters [1]
  • Internally displaced person: a person who has been forced to leave his or her home or place of habitual residence; typically does not leave the country [2]
  • Migrant: a person who is working/will work for pay in a country of which he or she is not a national [3]
  • Stateless person: a person who is not considered a national by any state under the operation of its law; that is, a person who does not have a nationality of any country [4]

Part II

By combining pairs of students, create groups of four. Ask these groups of students to tell each other what they know about refugees or migrants in their community or region and in the United States. If they are part of a community of refugees or migrants, they can add information about when this group formed and why they are currently living in this location. Others in class can add to this by sharing what they know about refugees and migrants near their home and across the United States. If time allows, ask the students to share with each other their sources of information about migrants and refugees. Is it from the news? Books? School? Parents? Where?

Part III

In the same groups of four, ask students to discuss the four questions below. As they discuss, have all group members take notes on what they discuss, but have one student be the official note-taker for the group. Tell them they will use these notes when each group shares their answers with the class.

  1. What images come to mind when you hear the terms “refugee,” “migrant,” “internally displaced person,” or “stateless person”?
  2. What time period or era and what countries do you think of in regard to these terms?
  3. What kinds of conditions will displace people from their country or community? What examples can you cite or use to support your answers?
  4. Where have you heard these terms or other terms related to them? Consider music, the Internet, news, school, friends, and so on.

After each group has had a chance to answer these questions, have them share their answers with the entire class.

Part IV

As an exit slip for the day (a piece of paper that they turn in as they leave class), ask students to write two questions they have about this topic. Encourage them to think of different kinds of questions: these could be questions about policy or human rights, about a particular kind of refugee experience, or about historical roots. They should reflect on what they already know, and consider questions that would help expand, correct, or clarify that knowledge. As you collect these questions, you will have a quick assessment of students’ prior knowledge and how much additional detail you will need to provide. These questions can also be used to initiate class discussions.

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Essential Lens: Analyzing Photographs Across the Curriculum


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