Seventh Graders Study Immigrants’ Plight by Stepping Into Their Shoes

Through a classroom reenactment and a field trip to Ellis Island, seventh graders in Paul Friedman and Mary Chappell’s humanities classes learned the realities of immigration, both past and present.

On November 9, students dressed and acted the part of immigrants traveling through Ellis Island in the early 20th century. Middle school teachers played the roles of stern immigration officials and checkpoint inspectors. The students went through four stations — baggage, medical, interview and information — before a final hearing with the inspector general. At each station, the immigration officials and inspectors questioned the students about everything from the contents of their luggage to their health and plans for work in the United States.

“Students researched their country, crafted group backstories, and wrote in the voice of their character,” Friedman said. “This experience teaches them to think on their feet, adapt, work together, and also provides them some insights into the challenges of immigrating to the United States in the past and also today.” 

It was an eye-opening experience for Valentina Valdivia ’27, whose character was a Greek mother immigrating to the United States with her family. “The inspections were much harder than I expected,” she said, noting that the questions her family was asked and the harshness with which the inspectors treated them was “nerve-wracking.” “One small mistake could lead to the deportation of you and your family,” she explained. Mason Rosenblatt ’27, who acted as a German immigrant, agreed: “There is a lot of harsh treatment, especially towards people from certain countries.” 

After walking in the shoes of immigrants for a day, the students then walked the path immigrants took at Ellis Island.

Upon seeing the Statue of Liberty for the first time, Valdivia recalled reading how immigrants felt when first glimpsing the statue. She described seeing the statue as “truly moving. I was so lucky to be able to experience a small portion of the emotion” that immigrants felt upon seeing it. 

In the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration, students saw items immigrants brought with them, learned how they dressed, and gained a better understanding of the stations and inspections. “I also learned more about the different tests that the immigrants had to go through,” Rosenblatt shared. 

For Valdivia, the graffiti on the walls from immigrants who had walked the halls drove home the reality of their plight. “They had walked through the halls you were walking in. It almost felt like I was walking among ghosts,” she said. She also noted the impact of seeing the Wall of Honor, which includes the names of 775,000 immigrants: “It was truly unbelievable and breathtaking.” 

For Chappell, the immigration unit is important because it helps students develop empathy for the experiences of immigrants in the 1900s and today. “This unit emphasizes the sacrifices immigrants make when fleeing oppression and seeking a better life for their families,” she explained. “Students have immigrant ancestors, many of whom came through Ellis Island, and the students all express gratitude for how hard it must have been to give up so much to travel by ship and begin a new life. Today’s immigrants sacrifice in the same way.”

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