By SARA MILLER
Kitsap News Group
Ellis Island in New York was the gateway for more than 12 million immigrants into the United States as the nation’s busiest immigrant inspection station from 1892 until 1954.
In 2017, fifth graders at Hidden Creek Elementary learned exactly what it was like to immigrate from Russia to the United States in 1908.
With immigration being the hot topic that it is in today’s modern world, teachers Michele Standridge, Christine Fleagle and Margarita Hemmings wanted to teach their class about the past and how it hasn’t changed that much.
“Ellis Island fits in with unity of inquiry because we’re an IB school,” Fleagle said. Fleagle originally designed this project when she taught in North Carolina and was excited to introduce it to her current students.
“We’re learning about immigration and migration and the differences. We wanted them to focus on the historical pieces like why they immigrated, what was the push, what was the pull and what do we see today as evidence of immigration and how we’re a melting pot.”
The students started this experience by doing country projects to learn about the people from different countries that immigrated through Ellis Island, the ones that didn’t and why that was.
They then took a test on what they learned to establish what boarding class they would be in. The top 15 students were in first class, the next 25 were in second class and the rest were in steerage.
“We did that on purpose because steerage had way more passengers compared to first class,” Standridge said. “So they all knew what was at stake during the WebQuest.”
Students came dressed in immigration attire; brought luggage filled with books, blankets and games; and members of first class even wrote letters home saying they will send money for them once they reach America.
The students were boarded on the New Amsterdam one class at a time, with long waits in between boarding.
“A big part of it is waiting,” Fleagle said. “Immigrants had to wait a long time with the bureaucratic system in place. There were rules and regulations, sitting, waiting, not knowing. So there is purposefully a lot of down time to wait.”
Students from younger classes lined the dock to wave goodbye to their “family members” as the ship departed. Inside, passengers were divided up by classes. First-class passengers got chairs and tables with table cloths. They were given apple juice and snacks individually for the nine-day voyage. Second class had a larger area to sit in. They were given water and a cup of snacks to share. And steerage sat tightly in close quarters. They were given a “bucket of dirty water” (lightly steeped tea) and the six remaining crackers that first class threw away to be split amongst all the passengers.
As the rain poured, setting the scene of sailing on the Atlantic, passengers settled in until they docked in Ellis Island and saw the Statue of Liberty out the window.
As a part of the project, the students created a large bulletin board with both Lady Liberties (the American and French versions) puzzled together with the symbols each statue represented.
“Students built that piece by piece to make it like a puzzle,” Fleagle said. “They had to figure out each piece and figure out the symbols and what was important about it.”
The seven jewels on the crown representing the seven seas and seven continents. Her torch representing enlightenment. The broken chains at her feet representing her walking toward freedom. And the toga representing Libertas, the Greek goddess of freedom were all symbols the class designated to their Statues of Liberty and what they saw as they docked in Ellis Island.
First stop after departing the vessel was a medical inspection. Volunteers were encouraged to keep a straight face and not make the process easy for the students.
“We want it to be as authentic as possible,” Fleagle said. “If they don’t have their identification card, send them to the end of the line. They all should have a story about why they’re traveling, who they’re meeting, how they afforded it. If they can’t answer, they could be sent to medical or legal quarantine.”
At medical inspection, they had to perform a series of tests to make sure they were healthy enough to enter the country. Then, they underwent a legal inspection where they answered questions about their address in Russia, who they’re meeting in America, what are the colors of the Russia flag, occupation, number of children, and others.
“If their last name is too long, volunteers can shorten it,” Fleagle said. “They have a lot of people to process, and we want them to understand that bureaucratic system.”
After gaining entrance to the country, they were sent to the currency exchange counter where they needed to figure out the exchange rate of rubles to dollars in 1908 and in 2017.
Each step was meticulously planned to teach to coincide with lessons they were learning in class, as well as actual historic significance.
“We’ve allowed them to express what immigration means to them and how important our country is to them,” Fleagle said. “They’re the future of our country, and we really express that in our classrooms.”
Fleagle said herself, Standridge and Hemmings all encourage their students to think what would it have been like for them as adults then and today. How would they vote? How would they look at immigration from these different perspectives?
Gabriel, a fifth grader in Standridge’s class, said immigration to him means people coming to settle in America for many reasons.
“It’s important because we get more people, and they need our help,” Gabriel said. “They might need freedom, they might need us, and we should help.”
Fellow classmate Ethan agreed, saying it’s the job as Americans to help those who need it.