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How to Teach Immigration? Try a Hands-On Approach

In early January, my academic team launched its interdisciplinary study of immigration. The culminating event is a field trip to the Ellis Island Museum and Statue of Liberty. But first, we held a simulated event to let students "live" the immigration experience and make meaningful connections with past generations.

As unsuspecting students were engaged in academics, each classroom was visited in an urgent manner by a rather stern principal. Despite teacher questions and mild protests about disrupting lessons, the principal ordered all students to immediately clear possessions from their lockers.

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Picture if you can the complete chaos, not to mention noise, of nearly 120 12-year-olds trying to organize bulky coats, hats, texts, papers, binders, lunches (some dating back to the fall), and art projects into their backpacks. Lockers slammed open and closed while students struggled to follow shouted instructions from unfamiliar adults. Then everyone was herded into the cafeteria.

Surly administrators (acting as Ellis Island technicians) accosted students as they arrived in the cafeteria and separated them according to gender. Students were immediately divided again based on their height.

The next stop was an inspection station. While seemingly unfriendly adults maintained silence, students were directed to a table where eyes, ears, mouth, and hair were checked. Questions about diet were fired in rapid succession. Some students were given a green sticker on their shoulder and instructed to move to a corner of the cafeteria where they were forbidden to sit or ease their heavy burdens. Other students received a yellow sticker and were sent to various areas of the cafeteria for more questioning concerning family background and living conditions. Eventually, about a third of the students with green stickers (the criteria: students with both braces and glasses) were removed as intrigued peers watched.

Those separated from the cafeteria had their belongings thoroughly searched in a remote classroom. Some had items confiscated without sufficient explanation. Finally, nearly 90 minutes after the ordeal began all students were reunited in the cafeteria.

The remainder of the day was used to explain the purpose of the simulated event and to debrief students. This allowed for open discussion concerning the fears and sense of the unknown that many students felt. We held small group discussions relating the simulation to real immigration experiences.

These discussions and insights, now in their second year, are fascinating as perceptions are shared concerning the stark reality many immigrants found awaiting them in the land of opportunity.

A letter explaining the day's events and detailing the simulation objectives is sent home with the students. We encourage our families to share their experiences in an open discussion about their personal histories. We also ask for parent feedback and solicit volunteers to join us at school to share personal immigration stories as part of our "Immigration Tales" day.

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Could such a harsh experience be an educational success? To answer that question, one only needs to look into the eyes of an excited child as she composes herself to relate a poem to her peers and extended family during our curriculum showcase evening. With a surge of pride, she shares how she actually lived immigration experiences much like those of her grandparents.

* Patrick Gustafson has taught middle school and high school English for 12 years.

'Surly administrators (acting as Ellis Island technicians) accosted students as they arrived in the cafeteria.'

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