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The Ellis Island Experience

by Cheryl Steindel-Cymer and Alison Silverman

There are some distinct advantages to being a homeschool Brownie Girl Scout troop. You can meet in the morning when you are fresh as opposed to after a long day of school. You have parents that are more inclined to be involved (instead of bedraggled). As a leader, one can modify the program because homeschooling parents understand the importance of flexibility more than most. Homeschool Brownie Troop # 444 embodies all of these characteristics, as well as many others, and let me tell you, they know how to combine fun and learning like nobody’s business!

The troop’s first meeting of the year was on September 11. As the events of that day sunk in and became part of world history, we began to ask questions like: “How do you help your children understand what it means to be a citizen of the United States? How do they appreciate their quality of life and value the opportunities that this country has to offer? How do you begin to broaden their awareness of, and sensitivity to, what people in different countries have experienced over the years in terms of their standard of living and governmental policies? How can they comprehend the challenges involved in leaving all you have ever known and coming to the United States to start a new life?”

These were questions raised by Ginny Grady, homeschooling mother of two and leader of a homeschooling Brownie Girl Scout troop. Her answer: Recreate the experience of what it was like to come through immigration at Ellis Island in New York City seeking a new life in the United States.

It was from this starting point that the “Ellis Island Experience” evolved. The Brownie troop, with girls, ages seven to nine, in collaboration with the troop co-leaders, parents and other interested homeschoolers rallied together to create a historical reenactment of an immigrant’s journey of sailing across the Atlantic Ocean with the hope of being allowed entry into the United States.

The year was set at 1902, and the girls were given the task of deciding what their country of origin was and the reasons why they were seeking entry into the United States. To enhance the impact of the experience, the girls were asked to think about what they would be wearing and how they would be talking? What kind of education and skills would they have that might be helpful for them in the new world? In the one satchel they could carry with them, what would they bring? What would they need in terms of money, supplies, personal items and mementos? What would you expect to happen at Ellis Island? What would you do if you were refused entry into the United States? Who would you meet, where would you go, and how would you live once you did enter the United States?

Just like the immigrants coming through Ellis Island one hundred years ago, our girls each had their own unique reasons for leaving family, friends and all they knew for a chance to experience something different in the United States. Some of the participants were escaping war, religious persecution, famine and/or economic hardship with the hope of improving their quality of life. A few were drawn by a sense of adventure and a chance for a fresh start. In discussing the project with the girls, it quickly became clear that many of them had a personal story involving a parent, grandparent, other relative or friend that had come from other parts of the world to establish a life in this country.

In the weeks preceding the “boat’s arrival,” the girls worked on making passports. They painted an 18-foot tall replica of the Statue of Liberty and talked about the inscription on its base. They were introduced to “Sophie,” one of the troop co-leaders who took on the character of a Russian woman who was taking a boat to America to seek religious acceptance (and maybe a cure for her palsy?). Descriptions and pictures of life on the ship were found in books. From these activities, discussions about such concepts as democracy, freedom and citizenship emerged.

On the day of the immigrants’ landing, the Grady’s home was transformed into Ellis Island. The front yard became New York Harbor with the Statue of Liberty greeting the new arrivals. The girls were dressed in costume and carried their satchel of belongings and their passport. A parent positioned their boat on the driveway, and the girls ate boiled potatoes while on the “ship” to simulate life in steerage on their transatlantic crossing.

“Stations” were established in the house that simulated the steps immigrants went through during their processing on the Island. So, there were medical examination rooms, a board of inquiry, a registry hall, a money exchange table, a “booth” for buying tickets for destinations to other parts of the country and a ferry station to take them to New Your City. Pictures from the early 1900’s taken at Ellis Island were posted around the house that correlated with the simulated stations of our recreated Ellis Island. Parents and other participating homeschoolers were dressed in costume and became immigration inspectors, translators, medical personnel or relief aid social workers.

To add to the experience, just before getting off the boat, each girl was unexpectedly given a special directive to add to their character that was aimed at heightening her sense of tension and anticipation about being processed through immigration. So, a girl might have been told that she had developed a chronic cough, had a limp, had poor eyesight, couldn’t read or write, had stolen to support her family back in her home country, had no money, etc.

The intention was to give the girls the sense that it was confusing and stressful for many immigrants going through Ellis Island. They were typically coming from some situation of hardship with a desire to change their lives. Many did not know the English language. In turn, they were uncertain whether they would be allowed to stay in the United States or would be refused entry because of illness, political orientation, their background, lack of proper documentation, etc.

So, the mood that was established was one of excitement tinged with anxiety and insecurity. And the girls really felt it! These kids, who are so used to being loved and cared about by their families and friends, had their worlds turned upside down for a few hours – it was quite effective.

Initially, the girls enjoyed the novelty of being on the boat. However, the party atmosphere quickly shifted when they disembarked at the front doorway to Ellis Island. It was here that immigration officials checked their passports and inspectors began talking to them in a language they did not understand (one of our parents spoke fluent German). Names on their passports were changed because it was “too hard” to pronounce or write.

As the scrutiny process continued, the medical doctor, because of their presenting physical conditions, quarantined some girls. The Board of Inquiry diverted others for special evaluation, because of their background. Some items from the girls’ satchels were confiscated (apparently some of the immigrants were bringing pets into the country!). Ultimately, after passing through several exams and receiving “stamps” in their passports, all of our Ellis Island immigrants were granted entry into the United States. Troop leader Ginny Grady had them all corralled on the “ferry” (her living room sofas) and to the tune of “Amazing Grace” recorded by a children’s choir, she threw open the doors leading to her backyard. Everyone got off the ferry and was welcomed to their new country with American music, hot dogs and red, white and blue chips! (A few moist eyes were duly noted).

So, did the Ellis Island experience meet its’ objectives? It did appear from some of the girls’ reactions and comments that they began to think about what it was like for their relatives to come to the United States to seek a new home in this country. They shared what surprised them, made them feel happy, scared or angered by the process. Some talked about their confusion, their sense of being intimidated by the inspectors and ultimately their excitement about entering the United States.

What further meaning will the girls place on their walk through Ellis Island? Well, that’s for the future to tell. What can be stated is that the participants, the adults as well as the children, felt that they were part of a special learning experience that highlighted an aspect of the history of this country as well as some of their own personal family stories. The sentiment of most of us that were involved was summed up by one of the Brownies who enthusiastically declared, “That was great, when can we do this again?”

Copyright © 2006 Modern Media