Take a Boat Trip to Ellis Island in This Immigration Lesson for Grades 2-4: Part of a Unit

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Please see links at bottom of page for parts 1 and 2 of this unit.

Journey to America

Once your students have their passports ready, they can embark on their journey to America. To simulate the crowded conditions, tape of a boat in your classroom or other large room in your school building. Make it just big enough to fit all of the students who will be traveling. Share that it could take two weeks or more to make the trip to America, and most often, there were no shower facilities. Ask students:

  • What challenges did these immigrants face?
  • What hardships were they presented with?
  • What do you think gave them the courage to take on such an endeavor?

As they prepare to enter Ellis Island, the following books are worth sharing:

  • Escaping to America by Rosalyn Schanzer
  • Journey to Ellis Island - How My Father Came to America by Carol Bierman and Laurie McGaw
  • Life on Ellis Island by Renee C Rebman

Ellis Island Simulation

To help the students experience what it was like for the immigrants to go through Ellis Island, hold a simulation. You will need to enlist some parent help to efficiently run the simulation. Use the Ellis Island Checkpoint form that can be downloaded from the Media Gallery. You can give the students play money in case they choose to purchase a train ticket. They will need at least $10 to make this purchase. As the students enter “Ellis Island” they will need to present their passport and share their first name and homeland with the registrar. Have stations set up for the Medical Examination, Mental Examination, and the Legal Inspection. Then, also set up a station that will be the Great Hall where the immigrants can have a snack and play a game of checkers, a game most immigrants had never played. The stations will entail the following:

  • Medical Exam: The person at this station will check vision and a eye chart may be useful. To check physical movements, you can have them do jumping jacks or touch their toes. Then, to check speaking and hearing, they can recite a nursery rhyme or the examiner can say a sentence and have the immigrant repeat it back. This would check hearing and speaking.
  • Mental Exam: The immigrants will count backwards from 20 to 0, solve simple arithmetic problems, and read a paragraph and follow the directions within. A sample paragraph that has been used in this simulation is:

This simple test is submitted in order to show your ability to read. Hold the card with both hands, then turn it upside down and place upon the table, using your left hand to do so.

  • Legal Inspection: Here, the legal inspector goes through the checklist in that particular section of the paper.

Once students have gone through all of the stations, they will then be taken back out into the hall to re-enter the Great Hall. As then enter, they will hand their Checklist to an examiner and they will determine if they will be detained or will enter America. As they enter, if an immigrant fails any of the sections of the exam, they will be temporarily detained and will go to the right as they descend the “stairway of separation.” Anyone taking the ferry to New York will go to the right, and those who purchased a train ticket will go to the left.

Reiterate that only about 2% of the immigrants were sent back to their homeland. Most of these had incurable diseases or were thought to become a burden on society. Those being detained were usually only kept for a week or so, usually until a sickness was cured or more information was gathered. Some families were separated as some were detained and others boarded the ferry. This is how Ellis Island became known as the Island of Tears.

Unit Wrap Up

Using the pages the students have collected, they can put together their immigration scrapbook. You may also ask that families send in pictures or a special family recipe. Provide construction paper, stickers, and markers so that they can decorate their pages. They can glue their completed pages, pictures, and recipe onto the construction paper. You may even ask them to write down what they learned through the unit and simulations, and about their favorite part of the unit. If your school has a binding machine, you can bind the pages together this way, or punch holes and use o-rings.

It is hoped that through this unit, the students learn what an amazing country we live in…one where people sacrificed everything to come here to pursue their dreams. Our country is one big melting pot, made up of all of these immigrants who traveled her long ago, and the ones who still come for those same dreams today.

This post is part of the series: Immigration Unit for Grades 2-4

This immigration unit will teach students why immigrants came to America and will take a very close look at the hardships they faced during their journey across the vast ocean.

  1. Immigration Unit: Part I
  2. Family Treasures and the Trip to Ellis Island: Part 2 in an Immigration Unit
  3. Immigration Unit Part III: Entering Ellis Island