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Coming to America: Third Graders Reenact Ellis Island Experience

Barb Milosch

Donning mustaches, top hats, leather flying helmets, suits, high lace collars, and more, third graders at Sayre School, who had been studying the great wave of European immigration to the United States from the late 1800s to early 1900s, participated in an Ellis Island simulation in early December.

Against the backdrop of world flag banners and simple sets designed by the children, each student explored the quest for freedom from the point of view of a well-known immigrant as they arrived at the Immigration Station, recorded their name, and answered questions. 

Teachers Julie Renner and Heron Presson continued the educational module created by Renner and Victoria Baker after they spent Fall Break in 2022 at Ellis Island and the National Immigration Museum in New York City, using Sayre’s professional development fund. 

Why it matters

Studying immigration is considered fundamental to understanding the history and culture of the United States, which has the largest immigrant population in the world.

Immigration lessons not only enrich students’ historical knowledge but also foster empathy while promoting inclusivity and belonging, said Renner. These principles overlap with the Sayre School’s core values of wisdom, integrity, respect, and compassion. 

At Sayre, project-based modules in the Lower School are designed to help students cultivate 21st century  skills such as collaboration, critical thinking, communication, innovation, and problem-solving. “The 3rd grade social studies curriculum, when presented through project-based learning, helps children see how they fit into a multicultural world,” Renner said.

Steeped in history

The lessons began with the third graders researching their family heritage and creating family trees. Students then worked together to create an immigration timeline of Ellis Island. They also engaged with a virtual tour of the Ellis Island National Monument, viewing many of the sites that Renner and Baker had visited on their 2022 trip. 

Next, students examined the diverse backgrounds of people who arrived through Ellis Island around the turn of the 20th century. From 1892 to 1924, the “Gateway to the World” was the largest and most active immigration station in the United States, welcoming more than 12 million newcomers in a process that took about three to seven hours per person. 

Adopting personas

The project culminated in a “Follow in the Footsteps” adventure with parents, friends, and family taking on personas of well-known Ellis Island immigrants as researched and presented by their children through a keynote presentation accessible on their parent’s iPads. Knute Rockne (1893) from Norway, who became an award-winning football coach at Notre Dame University, was one of many immigrants portrayed.

The 3rd graders, portraying immigration officials and health inspectors, queried their parents, family, and friends on some of the 29 questions that new arrivals were typically asked, such as their occupation and the general state of their  health.

Enriching knowledge

While discovering how different cultures and occupations contributed to the growth of the United States, students also walked away with an understanding of the hardships that immigrants had fled from and the challenges and opportunities they faced upon arrival in New York. 

For Hoot Fleming, who portrayed Charles Atlas, America’s first body builder, learning about Europeans’ arduous journies from their home countries was an eye-opener. “The immigrants that went through Ellis Island, did not have it so great. It is a very long process,” Fleming said. 

“This project answered a lot of questions I’d been wondering about,” said Eisley McCombs, who portrayed Annie Moore, a 17-year-old Irish girl who arrived in 1891 and became the first settler to be welcomed into the newly-built Immigration Station at Ellis Island. 

Immigration has been a constant thread throughout American history, shaping the nation's culture, economy, and societal values. Teaching immigration history provides a more comprehensive and accurate understanding of the United States' past, present, and future, said Presson.