Our 5th grade recently recreated the experiences of immigrants who came through Ellis Island at the turn of the 20th century.

After learning a little bit about Ellis Island and choosing a country–either Germany, Ireland, or Italy–each student researched why immigrants left these home countries, what their journeys to America were like, and how their lives changed (for better or for worse) as they made their new homes in the United States.

During their research, students learned about the hardships immigrants endured in their home countries and the prejudices they faced when they came to America. They learned about tenement housing, about child labor in factories, about derogatory nicknames and exclusionary signs like “No Irish Need Apply” that showed up in business windows.

Students learned about religious prejudice against Catholic and Jewish immigrants, political prejudice against socialists and communists, and the class discrimination that forced third-class passengers to endure the challenges of Ellis Island while their wealthier first- and second-class shipmates proceeded straight through customs to their new lives in America.

For their writing and for our simulation, the students were given new identities–names, ages, families, and occupations–from the countries they researched. They used their research notes and these new identities to write first-person letters describing their experiences to the loved ones they’d left behind in their home countries.

Finally, students participated with their families in an immersive Immigration Simulation. Dressed in period clothing and carrying their baggage and passports, the students traveled as families through literacy tests, medical exams, baggage claim, and more to learn firsthand about the Ellis Island experience.

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This is one of my favorite projects, and each year it gets better. Our fifth grade team and I have collaborated to tweak the research and writing process as well as the simulation itself to make this a meaningful experience for the students.

Our 5th graders letters and family photos are currently on display in the hallway, and they are generating excitement among students in the younger grades who can’t wait to be 5th graders and have this experience themselves.

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A family photo and letters on display: the Russo family

This year, one component we added was a new closing activity after the simulation. The following week, we had a read-aloud and discussion of Faith Ringgold’s 2016 picture book We Came to America: 

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image via Avid Bookshop (click to visit)

This simple, gorgeous book explores some of the same hardships the students learned about in their research. It also presents the challenges faced by American Indians–“some of us were already here”–and Africans who were brought here as slaves–“some of us came in chains.” Most powerfully, the book celebrates the diversity of colors, races, and religions that populate our country, ending with this lovely refrain:

We are ALL Americans, just the same.

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