Social Studies

Experience of Ellis Island Expected to Enrich Curriculum

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — July 25, 2006 9 min read
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The fragile lace shawl that has been in her family for four generations took on greater meaning as Patricia Bilby learned more about the experience her great-grandmother may have had when she arrived here from Germany with the garment more than a century ago.

Teacher Mary Sinha pauses before a panorama of the past during a two-week workshop on immigration on Ellis Island.

At the culmination of a two-week workshop on Ellis Island, the New Jersey English teacher was misty-eyed holding the hand-knit heirloom as she outlined her plans to use her family’s story to engage her students in a discussion of immigration past and present.

As part of a professional-development program organized by the Save Ellis Island Foundation, the exhibits, databases, photo archives, and recorded interviews at this museum helped put the nation’s current debate over immigration policies and processes into a broader historical context for the teacher at Bishop George Ahr High School in Edison, N.J. She and the two dozen other participants expect that deeper perspective will enrich class lessons across the curriculum for students newly arrived in this country, as well as those whose ancestors planted roots long ago.

“I’m experiencing intense emotion here, and I’m motivated to try and create a similar experience for my students,” Ms. Bilby said. “For students [who are immigrants today], I’ve realized how disorienting and difficult it must be for them to have a foot in two places, to speak two languages.”

Until now, many of the teachers here have offered their students only a cursory look at immigration in the United States, primarily through standard literary selections. But the emotional nature of this site, which seems to echo with the voices of many of the 12 million people who passed through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1954, tends to give them new insight into the importance of the topic and how the stories of the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” can bring academic content to life for students, says Dorothy Hartman, the foundation’s director of education and public programs.

“Being in the location has a certain power of its own,” she said this month. “There is a lot out there on the Internet on immigration, but some of the resources here and the experience of being here can’t be duplicated.”

Ample Opportunities

Across the country, hundreds of teachers are interrupting their summer breaks to dig deeper into history, science, literature, and other subjects on location at parks and historic sites. Through a National Park Service program, for example, groups of educators will research the complexities of the Revolutionary War at Valley Forge, Pa.; walk the Nebraska prairie where 19th-century homesteaders staked their claim to free land; observe nature’s response to a volcanic eruption in the craters of Arizona; and study early aviation at the Wright Brothers’ bicycle and print shop in Dayton, Ohio.

Teachers at this session on Ellis Island, held July 5-14, learned from scholars and park personnel about early immigration laws, the health inspections that immigration officers conducted to control disease and gauge the mental acuity of aspiring citizens, and the ways the influx of millions of people changed the nation. They listened to recordings of immigrants who recalled the hardships they had endured to escape revolution, disease, and despair in their native countries for the promise of freedom and opportunity in America. Visits to nearby labor museums laid out the stark working conditions many faced upon their acceptance into the country.

And during a day spent at a U.S. Department of Homeland Security station at Newark International Airport in New Jersey, the teachers observed current immigration policies in action as federal agents processed newcomers. A larger cadre of teachers from around the country are attending similar sessions this month through the federal Teaching American History grant program.

“This brings the current issues in immigration alive for them, issues that are very much the same now as in the past,” said Cynthia R. Garrett, the superintendent of the site for the U.S. National Park Service. New York has jurisdiction over the original three-acre island, but in 1998 the U.S. Supreme Court granted New Jersey ownership rights to the remaining 21 acres that were gradually added with fill during the 1900s.

“We want this site to be meaningful for them and their students whether they can visit here or not,” Ms. Garrett said.

Beefing Up Content

Indeed, the teachers found meaning in the displays of photographs, the stacks of weather-worn suitcases, and the personal effects that are used throughout the museum to weave together the stories of individuals and the economic and political realities that impelled them to risk the often-treacherous ocean passage to reach the United States.

Teachers learned to use artifacts, like Ms. Bilby’s shawl, in hands-on classroom activities to help students imagine what immigrants in that earlier era felt and experienced on their way to American citizenship. In an exercise using historical photographs, the teachers created their own narratives as they imagined what the immigrants would write on postcards to their families back home.

From left, teacher Barbara Noonan, Nancy Koppel, and Pat Picinich sift through photos for clues to the lives of immigrants to the United States from the late 1800s and early 1900s.

One haunting image of an immigrant family gazing across the harbor to the Statue of Liberty, one teacher suggested, reflects both the hope many had for a better life, and the sadness they felt leaving their homeland. The teachers then debated how those earlier experiences compare with those facing immigrants today.

The lectures, tours, and activities formed the basis of detailed lessons the participants crafted as part of the workshop, which was first offered last year through a grant from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and the New Jersey Council on the Humanities. The units, which include reading assignments, writing activities, research, and oral presentations, meet state standards in English/language arts, while also integrating topics for social studies, science, mathematics, and computer-skills lessons.

After Pat Picinich attended the workshop last year, she beefed up her social studies unit on immigration, she said. Each of her students at Our Lady of Sorrows School in South Orange, N.J., for example, adopted the persona of an individual or family who arrived at Ellis Island during the peak immigration years. The students—some of whom are recent immigrants from Nigeria—read related literary selections featuring true and fictional accounts of life in that era. They wrote journal entries about the immigrants’ travels, and, after a field trip to Ellis Island, gathered artifacts and documents for their own museum exhibit.

“They had no concept of what that time was like,” said Ms. Picinich, who taught about the period’s important events and figures, as well as world geography, as part of the unit.

She attended the workshop, which this time focused on literature, again this year. “Even students who were not [the best students] felt inspired to write page after page about what they learned.”

Claudia Ocello, who helps run the foundation’s education programs, suggested a variety of ways to use artifacts and photographs in the classroom. She stuffed an antique suitcase with the clothing, keepsakes, and small household items that immigrants commonly carried with them on their journey. In small groups, the teachers passed around the items looking for clues to the owner’s heritage and economic status.

“If this came in a suitcase with an immigrant, what does it suggest to you?” Ms. Ocello asked as one group held up a simple cotton skirt and a blouse with no buttons. Along with the iron skillet and hand-tulle handkerchief, the items suggested a modest life in the immigrant’s home country.

Using enlarged photographs, Ms. Ocello led the teachers through an analysis of the setting, the clothing, and facial expressions on the subjects, and urged the attendees to imagine themselves in the scene.

“You can see behind their eyes,” one teacher said. “You wonder where they came from, what they looked like as an old man years later, and where their progeny went.”

Past and Present

Many of the site-based workshops are intended to raise teachers’ awareness of the educational value of historic sites and to encourage them to return with their students during the school year. But they also introduce participants to the array of on-site and off-site resources that can augment lessons and make content more meaningful for students.

Cole Kleitsch was unaware of all the resources that are available on the topic until he attended the workshop here last year. Mr. Kleitsch, who teaches social studies at West Side Academy, a public school for disadvantaged 9th graders in Newark, soon began using a collection of photographs and documents from the museum to supplement his curriculum.

His class of predominantly African-American children at first showed ambivalence toward contemporary immigrants, an attitude the teacher says reflects the tensions between black and Hispanic residents in the community. So Mr. Kleitsch asked his students to compare the issues outlined in newspaper clippings from previous waves of immigration with those published recently. They then analyzed U.S. migration throughout history, including the journeys made by slaves via the Underground Railroad, to compare the conditions and prospects that inspired people to flee from their homes and families.

A group of New Jersey teachers views historic photos on Ellis Island. They are taught ways to use the pictures in lessons.

“The great wealth of stories hooks them into the subject and connects them to today’s headlines,” he said. “This clarified for my students that we’ve done this before.”

At the completion of the unit, in which his students debated illegal immigration and other controversial issues related to the topic, Mr. Kleitsch’s class generally agreed that immigrants should be welcome in this country. “They agreed that we don’t mind if anyone comes in, but please knock on the front door first and don’t come in through the windows or break down the back door,” he said.

Many of the Ellis Island resources are accessible online. The Save Ellis Island Foundation, which has raised millions of dollars to restore the historic buildings on the island, is hoping to spread its curriculum materials to farther-flung classrooms through an educational Web site it plans to unveil later this summer. But for teachers here, learning about the educational value of the site firsthand sparked their own interest in the topic.

“Being here and reliving it is invaluable for these teachers, and it will come alive for my students,” said Marc Levenson, who teaches history at New Jersey’s Plainfield High School, an urban district southwest of here.

Mr. Levenson, who has a number of Hispanic immigrants among his students, said he considered the topic of immigration to be dry before he attended the workshop. But no more.

“No matter what you’re teaching, you teach better when you have that fire in your eye,” he added. “I now have that interest in this topic, and when you are interested, your students are interested.”

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A version of this article appeared in the July 26, 2006 edition of Education Week as Experience of Ellis Island Expected to Enrich Curriculum


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