Each fall, fourth graders at East Cobb Christian School in Marietta, Georgia, study immigration. They discuss specific reasons why people chose to immigrate (religious freedom, political unrest in their homeland, opportunities for a better way of life) and what life was like for people on board ship. They also learned what immigrants could expect once they arrived in the United States, including what it would be like when they arrived at Ellis Island as well as tensions among, and discrimination against, different groups of immigrants.
As a wrap up to the unit, the students do a classroom reenactment of passing through Ellis Island. This is Maggie Bailey’s first year teaching the unit, but it’s a tradition in the fourth grade, going back about 20 years. Some years students select their countries of origin and other years they are assigned a country.
A week or so before the reenactment, the students fill out immigrant profiles, coming up with their names, ages, nationalities, and so on. Then they dress up as their nationality/profession for the reenactment. The classroom is set up in stations—for example, medical and legal stations—and the students come to school on that day ready to see if they will be admitted into the United States.
Teachers act as officers that ran Ellis Island and put the students through some similar tests that immigrants would have gone through. “You really have to act in character as an officer,” said Bailey. “It’s important to try to be as stern and dismissive as an officer would have been back at Ellis Island. For a class of 15 we had two adults acting as officers, but if you could get another adult in character that would be even better.” The “officers” have to walk around to look for a limp, check their ears, eyes, and so on for infections from travelling, and ask them questions about the United States and what they intend to do if they are admitted.
The kids have so much fun pretending to be immigrants and look forward to doing the reenactment when they come to 4th grade. “Some of my kids this year had to sweat out whether we were going to let them in, and they really enjoyed experiencing a tiny bit of what real immigrants might have felt when going through Ellis Island,” said Bailey.