Connecting Ellis Island and Immigration to Historical Fiction
in the Upper Elementary Classroom
As educators, we all have our favorite “thing” to teach. Many literacy teachers have favorite units or novels. For me, I’ve always been inspired by our Ellis Island and Immigration Unit in Social Studies, which is integrated with our Historical Fiction Unit in ELA.
Each year, my fourth-graders embark on a journey through time via our Ellis Island and Immigration Unit. Each year, I am humbled by my students’ expanded understanding of this historic site’s impact on our nation’s history and their deepened appreciation of the immigrant experience.
So how can unifying Ellis Island and immigration with historical fiction make that much of an impact in an upper elementary classroom? Well, for starters, we place a heavy emphasis on knowing our personal history. Each year, students research their families’ history at first mention of this unit, and their connection to the unit becomes enmeshed with their learning. Some students can trace their ancestry to Ellis Island, others earlier, and others are immigrants themselves or the children of immigrants. It promotes the investigation and appreciation of all students’ identities. This post serves as a brief glimpse into how my colleagues and I have crafted this unit. It is by no means a step-by-step guide but can be used as a launching point for your own classroom.
Before beginning this unit, I introduce the immigrant experience from the 1800s through the early 1900s to my students using historical fiction picture book read-alouds. Some of the historical fiction picture books we read during this immersion period include: When Jessie Came From Across the Sea by Amy Hest, The Keeping Quilt by Patricia Polacco, and Eve Bunting’s books Dreaming of America and How Many Days to America. Throughout the immersion process, I ask students to draw upon their schema and answer a guiding question. Prior to the read aloud, I pose a guiding question to generate valuable conversation. Usually, my students and I are able to address misconceptions about the time period and/or the reasons immigrants journeyed to the United States. (Figure 1) We also discuss gaps in our knowledge of the time period and how we will fill these gaps through our continued study of Ellis Island and immigration.
Students share their thoughts about the guiding question before reading the book When Jessie Came From Across the Sea and discuss what they do and do not know about immigration during this time period in America’s history.
During Social Studies, the students watch History.com’s video “Deconstructing Ellis Island” (https://www.history.com/topics/immigration/ellis-island) in order to gain a brief overview of the island’s construction and past. We discuss how Ellis Island was not the only immigration station in the United States during the 1800s and early 1900s, but it is one of the most famous. At this point in the unit, we discuss why it may have the nicknames, “Island of Hope” and “Island of Tears”. These discussions lead to a deeper analysis of the immigrant experience by exposing students to the positive and negative emotions immigrants had while traveling to Ellis Island, such as the experiences during the voyage of a first-class passenger versus the experiences of a passenger traveling in steerage.
After watching “Deconstructing Ellis Island” and drawing upon our previous read-alouds, students share the range of emotions and experiences encountered by passengers traveling in steerage.
Through classroom conversations, we discuss other ways in which people of various backgrounds came to live in what is now the United States (Native American ancestry, indentured servitude, enslavement, religious persecution, natural disasters, the opportunity for wealth and/or to own land, etc.) Due to our proximity to this historic site (I teach in New Jersey), we discuss the large percentage of people around us who can trace their ancestry to Ellis Island.
Sharing my own ancestry is of the utmost importance during this unit, so I share what I know about my ancestors. I can trace great-grandparents from Norway, Germany, and Italy through Ellis Island. By projecting manifests and other artifacts from my great-grandparents’ voyages, I incorporate my personal connection to this time period and exemplify how heritage plays an important role in our lives. I explain that our heritage is powerful and that each of us can investigate how we all came to be in this classroom together. This discussion inevitably results in students sharing their own families immigration stories and their personal histories.
Students have the option to share their families’ immigration stories or personal histories through our Historical Fiction Unit. Throughout this unit, students examine various historical fiction texts. We spend almost two weeks immersing ourselves in historical fiction picture books. Thus, as a team, we dedicate this final unit of our school year to student-generated historical fiction picture books. When students learn that they can illustrate their tales, their engagement increases significantly. Some even bring in pictures of their ancestors to use as inspiration for their drawings.
By integrating Social Studies and ELA in the upper elementary classroom, we are able to make personal histories come to life. Many students choose to write their books on their ancestors while changing some of the events to create the fictional aspect, but others create completely fictional characters in a historical setting. They learn to interview family members, search through old family records, and investigate through Ancestry.com. The personal connection is so strong in this unit that students independently research their heritage (How much did milk cost when my great-grandfather was a kid in Greece? Why did my great-great grandmother leave her whole family behind to come to America at age 16?)
Our historical connections to immigration do not end with Ellis Island. In fact, we then move on to discussing the Holocaust and the large wave of immigration that occurred at this time. Thus, this cross-curricular unit serves as a foundation to discover more about other periods of immigration up through modern-day immigration in the United States. The doors them open up for me to read aloud novels such as Refugee by Alan Gratz and Front Desk by Kelly Yang.
These cross-curricular units have been a labor of love for many years with the input of many excellent educators in my district. Do not feel that you need to replicate what we have done. Rather, try small steps. Even providing students with a few minutes to write about their ancestry will provide immense insight into who they are and how you all came to be together in this classroom. It reminds us that we all have a story to tell and even if we don’t exactly know what that story is, we can all learn a little more about ourselves and others in the process.
If you are looking for a launching point to start your own immigration immersion unit, check out http://teacher.scholastic.com/activities/immigration/ .