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New Canaan Country School Third Graders Retrace Steps of Immigrants at Ellis Island

Maddie Barto ran the length of the American Immigrant Wall of Honor followed closely by her friend, Gray Mathews.  She was scanning the 700,000 names inscribed, looking for that of her great grandfather, Vincenzo Biocca, an Italian Immigrant. Success! Maddie and Gray were thrilled with their discovery!

Maddie, Gray and their New Canaan Country School third grade classmates, were visiting Ellis Island, May 11, as a culminating highlight of their year-long “Peopling of America” inquiry. The social studies unit had used a wide variety of hands-on, experiential methods to teach the students about the different groups that came to America and how they contributed to the fabric of our nation. The students had spent time researching their own ancestry and cultural identities, interviewing family members and reporting their findings. Teachers had also introduced them to poetry, literature and personal narratives such as the story of Annie Moore, a teen from Ireland, who was the first person to pass through federal immigrant inspection at the Ellis Island station where they now stood.

In the weeks leading up to the field trip, they had been studying the period 1892-1924, learning about conditions in Europe that led to emigration, the journey itself, what happened to families as they arrived on Ellis Island and how they built a new life in America.

They had even staged a complete recreation of the Great Hall immigration experience, assuming the identities of specific immigrants and dressing in clothes of that period and culture. Teachers and school administrators played the roles of immigration officers and health inspectors, speaking in a wide variety of foreign languages to recreate the perplexing and chaotic atmosphere of arriving in a strange land. The student “immigrants” were asked a series of interview questions and underwent mock health and mental examinations as part of the re-enactment.

“We purposely made the experience disorienting,” said Grade 3 Teacher Michal Speck of the totally immersive experience. “We wanted to give the students a small taste of the challenges that immigrants faced as they entered the country.”

Back at Ellis Island, students walked through the very rooms that thousands of immigrants had passed through before them. They browsed exhibits of objects and photographs and listened to audio recordings of personal stories and recollections. Looking around them, Maddie and Gray took it all in.

“We are retracing the actual steps of all those people who came before us,” marveled Gray. “That’s pretty amazing.”

New Canaan Country School is a co-ed, independent day school for students in pre-K (ages 3 & 4) through Grade 9. The school sits on a 75-acre campus located at 635 Frogtown Rd in New Canaan, CT and provides bus transportation to families living in Westchester and Fairfield Counties. For more information, please visit: countryschool.net.

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