Dutchess Day School third grade teacher Lisa Stewart was reading a book about Ellis Island with a group of her students one day, as part of their study of immigration and American history. Soon, the students had devised a plan to create Ellis Island right in their classroom and invite the second and fourth graders to participate in the re-enactment as hopeful immigrants.
The Ellis Island research began in earnest, all while the children were in rehearsal for their play, a musical called We Come from Everywhere, which also focused on immigration and the American melting pot. Their fascination with Ellis Island, which at one period in time was a doorway into the country for so many families, was wrapped up in both their academic studies and their personal stories. In preparing for their play, as well as their recreation of Ellis Island, the third graders also studied their own family histories of immigration and developed a strong understanding of the huge range of cultures and ethnicities represented in the country they call home.
On March 16, the day after their play was performed for the whole school and parents, the third graders were at their stations in their own recreation of Ellis Island in their classroom, waiting the first people to “land” on their “shores.” Basing their Ellis Island experiential stations on the system in place at the original Ellis Island during the peak era of immigration, the student “immigrants” were expected to pass certain medical and vision tests, answer a long list of questions, and get their paperwork stamped in order to continue.
Because the staircase at Ellis Island became a place for immigrants to be observed for infirmities such as limps or breathing problems, the five steps leading to the third grade classroom were the first “test” people had to take. They then proceeded to the medical station, took a vision test created by the students, completed puzzles as a “brain test” of mental acuity, and were asked to interpret a photograph.
In doing their research, the students had access to copies of original documents such as passenger manifests, passports, and a variety of written documents detailing tests and processes used by the Ellis Island staff. The third graders created all their own documentation for their Ellis Island reenactment using a typewriter, as they said using a computer would not have been historically accurate. They also created passports that they handed to visitors, and inside each could be found the list of required stations where hopeful immigrants had to receive a stamp in order for them to proceed to the next station and, eventually, be approved for entry.
Some visitors were sent to medical quarantine, and provided with a diagnosis. While the majority of visitors that day were eventually “approved,” some were not – again, the young scholars wished to be historically accurate. Mrs. Stewart reports that “the students were so excited by this project that they initiated largely on their own, and so particular about their research and historical accuracy – within reason – that the second and fourth graders who visited remained completely in character and took the re-enactment very seriously. There was a lot of learning happening and everyone had a great time, too.”
Dutchess Day School is an elementary and middle school in Millbrook, NY, that provides a strong academic foundation, values children’s natural curiosity, and fosters an enduring enthusiasm for learning. To learn more visit DutchessDay.org online.