Everyone Needs an Authentic Learning Experience: Read about Don Robert’s Journey to Ellis Island

Everyone Needs an Authentic Learning Experience:

Read about Don Robert’s Journey to Ellis Island

By: Meghan Ables, 2016 Arkansas Teacher of the Year

Flashback:  I’m sitting in history and we are discussing immigration to America.  The teacher reads a first-hand account and says to the class, “Can’t you just imagine how hard that must have been?”  We all simultaneously nod our heads in agreement, but no empathy resonates within us.  For us, seeing a picture of Ellis Island evoked no emotion; seeing images of people reaching out towards the Statue of Liberty was just a picture.  At Don Roberts Elementary, this historical time became more than an image, more than a place in time—it became real as they had an authentic learning experience as immigrants.

Set the Stage:

For the second year in a row, Don Roberts fourth grade teachers planned the “Ellis Island Experience” for the entire fourth grade class.  This wasn’t just a program on a stage; this was a trip back in time.  Students dressed the part, community members played the part, and the teachers enforced the rules with a specific plan.  By the end, students were sacrificing their freedom for their classmates.  Such a touching moment during reflection when a student said, “I want to share their (immigrants) stories to everyone.” It was real.  It was authentic.

Let’s start from the beginning.  For the past few weeks, students researched different countries based on where they would be immigrating from.  They had to create a story of why they were coming to America, make a passport, earn money, pack their bags, and dress for the journey.  On this particular day, each student had to know his story and passport information. Some had to work hard to keep their families together.  Some students were marked with spots or face coloring to represent a medical condition or disease.  Some had broken limbs while some of the girls had babies.  Some had no money while others had plenty.  But all of them had one goal, to hear those words, “Welcome to America.”

Journey to America:

Out on the playground, the students gathered for their journey.  Over 100 students were packed in tight as they traveled towards the Statue of Liberty.   Six students volunteered to be captains on the ferry.  Upon arrival to the music building, students were greeted with parents and community members who were yelling at them in a foreign language.  The room was crowded and lines were backed up as they waited to have their bags inspected. The students were given directions in languages they could not understand.  They looked around and would ask for help, and finally they learned to use non-verbal cues to know what to do next.

Series of Inspections:

Once they made it through the initial bag check, they moved towards the medical examination station. On the way, some of the Americans were marking their hands with strange letters and symbols.  Students weren’t sure what those markings meant, and they kept on pushing through.  The medical exam lines were extremely long, and divided by gender. Real doctors from the community came in to do these medical exams, including checking their eyes, mouth, skin, and temperature if needed.  Some of the students did not pass their physical exams, but they kept going anyway trying to find a way through.

The next station was the registration table, where students received paperwork (written in Greek) to be filled out.  Students had to get in line if they had questions and ask for English versions of the paperwork if they needed help filling it out. The lines were long and there were only a couple dozen pencils.  Students had to wait for clip board, wait for chairs, wait for pencils, and wait in line to turn the forms back in.  This was a true test of patience for many of them.  While this was going on, other students were walking around begging for money to get through.  Others were begging to tag along as part of the “family” so they could blend in.

Finally, students had to wait in line for the legal inspection (this is the role I played).  As a legal inspector, I checked their passports, made sure they had money, and conducted an interview.  I was very strict and serious.  I would ask them why they were coming to America.  I would quiz them on the details of their passports.  I would ask them how they were going to contribute to society.  I asked them what they were bringing with them.  If their passports weren’t marked correctly, I made them go to the end of the line.  I would bet that some of these students waited 20 minutes to get to me.  There were looks of frustration as some couldn’t remember their year of birth.  Some skipped the medical checks.  Some forgot to get stamped at a station.  Looks of frustration surrounded me.

Life-changing Decisions:

Then came that dreadful moment…one young girl was the mother and she did not pass her medical exam.  Her three children did pass, so I looked at her and said, “You have a decision to make…..will you let them go on or have them return with you?”  It was a powerful moment as she looked at her classmates (children) and said, “Children, you must go on to America. I’m sorry I can’t go with you.”  One after another, these students were facing life and death decisions.  Go on to freedom or stay with my family?  There were some very intense discussions as families decided how to split up.

In the end, students who made it to America returned to the gym to face their classmates who did not.  Each student who was not let through had to stand and say why they could not go.  The ones who were approved and chose to stay behind had to explain why they stayed behind.  It was so powerful to hear fourth graders explaining why it made since for the father to go to America with the son and the mother to stay behind with the sick daughter.  Some explained how they had to beg for money.  Some tried to wipe the dots off their face to sneak past the legal inspectors.

Take Away from the Experience:

The emotion and empathy in the room was palpable. Kids were thinking deeply about what they had been discussing in class.  These were deep thoughts with emotion behind them.  The assistant principal went to the front and challenged the students.  He said it’s not what you have learned through this experience, but what you will do with what you have learned One small girl raised her hand and said, “I will share their stories.”  None of this can be taught with a text book.  These students learned in a way that will forever be in their minds and hearts.  That, my friends, is real, authentic learning.


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