Exploring Ellis Island
Imagine getting off a boat from Europe 100 years ago at Ellis Island in New York! You speak no English, you are carrying everything you own and you have no idea what will happen once you get off the island. On Friday, October 26th, the 4th grade class, along with their teachers and eight parent chaperones, left school at 6:30 AM to take a four-hour bus ride to the ferry in Jersey City, NJ to begin their journey back in time.
As soon as the students disembarked from the ferry, Ranger Kathy, a National Park Service Ranger, greeted them at the dock. She led students along the path many immigrants took when they first arrived in this country. After walking through the Arrivals Hall, Ranger Kathy took questions and then brought the students up the stairs. She explained how doctors would stand overlooking the staircase giving each immigrant a six-second visual exam. If a new arrival limped, coughed or looked sick in any way, a doctor would mark his or her coat with chalk. The marked immigrant could be detained for up to two weeks before receiving medical clearance.
Next, Ranger Kathy asked students to step inside the shoes of Ellis Island immigrants and role-play how they might answer a series of questions about their plans after arriving in New York City.
Where were they going to live? How much money did they have? Did they already have a job? Did they come to this country with a special skill?
What answers would reassure officials that a particular immigrant was safe to admit to the country? What answers might be cause for concern?
If an immigrant couldn’t answer all these questions easily, he or she was brought to a hearing room for more questioning. Eighty percent of immigrants coming through Ellis Island were admitted without delay, but many were detained and a small percentage were deported back to their country!
After the tour, students explored the museum exhibits in small groups, paying particular attention to the exhibit of treasured objects brought to America from many immigrants’ native countries. Students took notes and made sketches to incorporate into their final product–a historical fiction narrative in the voice of an early immigrant to America, chronicling conditions in the immigrant’s homeland, the voyage to and arrival at Ellis Island, and the hopes and challenges of making a new life in a new land.
Throughout the day, our 4th graders were wonderful ambassadors of our school and thoughtful questioners and note-takers. Ranger Kathy was extremely impressed with their preparation and knowledge. At the end of the day, students and chaperones re-boarded the ferry and made a stop at the Statue of Liberty. In the words of 4th grader, Ezekiel Freeman-Fanfan, “When I first saw Lady Liberty I felt touched because she reminded me of my grandmother.” What a beautiful sight (a beacon of hope) for all new arrivals! What a remarkable fieldwork experience–one that students will remember for a lifetime.