Clutching passports and carrying suitcases, 19th century immigrants trudge toward the HMS Campania, a giant sailing vessel that will carry them on a three-week journey across the sea to a new land filled with hope and a promising new life – the United States of America.
The immigrants in this scene are actually Sand Creek Elementary School fourth-graders experiencing the challenges, the sacrifice and the fear so many of their forefathers endured as they left their home countries during the 19th century.
The Ellis Island simulation served as a climactic end to the students’ two-week unit studying the northeast region of the United States.
“They’re never going to forget this experience. They’ve read the stories, they’ve watched the videos, but living it like this … they will never forget this,” said Amy Sundem, a Sand Creek fourth-grade teacher, who hopes to get the unit incorporated into all District 11 elementary schools’ fourth-grade curriculum.
When students arrived at school Dec. 20, they were given a passport and a suitcase, then sent to the gymnasium-turned-Campania sailing ship.
There, teachers posing as immigration agents examined their passports, demanding to know their full names, their country of origin and why they were coming to America.
Then students took their seats in first class, sat on the floor directly behind in second class, or huddled together on the floor in the rear as third-class passengers.
First-class passengers were served simple food and beverages, while the others’ stomachs rumbled and growled with hunger.
Soon, the lights went out and the sickening sounds of babies crying, people vomiting and children screaming filled the air as Hollywood sound effects gave the impression winds were blowing, seas were rocking and the Campania was breaking through rolling waves.
Finally, the Statue of Liberty was in sight and laughter and cheer filled the air.
Next, students made their way from the gymnasium through Sand Creek hallways to one of four stations: the medical center, the information center, the baggage center or the deportation center.
Each station presented another lesson, another vicarious experience sure to fix itself in students’ minds as they learned about immigrating to America.
“I know my dad’s grandpa came here from Germany, but I never knew what it was like, what he had to go through to get here. I’m glad he did though,” one fourth-grader said as he left the deportation room.
“This really makes the lesson real, letting the kids live it, not just read about it,” said Sundem.
Sue Austreng is at firstname.lastname@example.org