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Valley Journals

Passing through Ellis Island

Apr 09, 2018 05:11PM ● By Jet Burnham

NJHS (National Junior Honors Society) students help run the simulation. (Jet Burnham/City Journals)

Rebecca Kirkman’s seventh-grade class was ousted from their classroom to make room for eighth-graders. Only after they’d left were they told they couldn’t go back for their personal items.

This action signaled the beginning of the annual Ellis Island Simulation at South Hills Middle School.

“Reading about it in a book, you think it must have been hard but going through it—the actual pain of waiting—you just get a different feel for it,” said Kalynn Allen, a ninth-grader who helped run the simulation this year.

The process of immigration took three class periods, beginning in the Homeland (library) where students completed two art projects to sell, earning them money for passage to America. Students completed tasks and passed through checkpoints, arriving at Ellis Island where their names were sometimes changed and misspelled. They were herded through medical and legal inspections as well as mental health and literacy tests, before they were allowed into the country (auditorium). 

Hope Thomas, a ninth-grade volunteer, said the simulation was designed to be as authentic as possible.

 “It’s more realistic than most things you do at school,” she said. “I feel like you learn it better because you experience it.”

Science teacher Bethany Alston visited Ellis Island last summer, collecting details about the actual process—the questions that were asked and the tests that were given—to recreate a more authentic simulation this year. 

Killian Glodowski was unable to complete the recreated puzzles at the mental inspection within the time limit. 

“I apparently have mental issues,” he said as he sat detained in the hospital. He said the experience made him realize how intimidating the process was for immigrants.

Once in America, students completed tasks at humanitarian aid stations, demonstrating job skills and calculating the exchange rate for their homeland currency (no calculators allowed) to receive U.S. dollars in order to purchase a train ticket.

Each task was closely evaluated by volunteers, who had participated in the simulation as seventh-graders. They had the authority to send participants back a step if they forgot a pencil, lost their paperwork or did not perform a task correctly. Those performing medical evaluations randomly assigned diseases to a percentage of students, and legal questioning often included terminology meant to confuse students into incorrect answers.

Heath Slack was deported for not answering legal questions satisfactorily. He had to start the entire process again, beginning with redoing the art assignments in the Homeland. He said it was frustrating but still a lot better than the real Ellis Island experience. 

“We couldn’t do exactly what they did because that would be painful,” Heath said. 

Anna Jensen narrowly missed being deported when was delayed in the hospital twice. When she passed the legal questioning for the second time, she was so excited she danced and yelled, waving her baby in the air. She was immediately detained on suspicion of insanity.

Kalynn said when she participated two years ago. The hardest part was the way she was treated.

“It was not necessarily unfairly but just the luck of the draw,” she said. “If you’re unlucky, then you have to do so many other hard things. But on Ellis Island, that’s the way it goes.”

Seventh-grade curriculum covers American History, but all subjects were integrated to prepare students for a more authentic experience.

“We try to involve as many teachers of seventh-graders as we can,” said Julie Rushton, the language arts teacher who first started the simulation 10 years ago. “It has just gone from something so small to enormous!” 

The preparation began months in advance as language arts teachers assigned students to research one of their own ancestors and the country they immigrated from. Math teachers talked to their classes about money and the economic situation of the late 1800s and early 1900s. The college career center addressed employment opportunities available to immigrants and taught students how to fill out a job application. The art department highlighted art pieces with immigration subjects and the music department played music for the students that immigrants would have listened to.

While studying cells in science, students learned about diseases that prevented immigrants from entering the country. 

“Having them learn about the disease helps them understand how body systems are affected, so it ties in nicely to the curriculum,” Alston said. 

With all the knowledge they’d collected from each subject, students wrote a personal history of their ancestor.

“I feel it’s so important for them to really embrace their ancestor and really think about what it would have been like when they came here,” said Rushton. “It’s fun because they really get to know their ancestor.”