As a boom box played Neil Diamond’s “Coming to America,” students gathered at one end of the school, dressed in period clothing, and looked into the distance, where a Statue of Liberty was posted at the other end of a long hallway.
They were told they were on a ship. They had been on it for weeks. It was big, smelly and crowded. They were coming to America seeking better opportunities for themselves and their families. They just needed to get through Ellis Island’s immigration services.
“Sometimes history can be so boring for kids. We really wanted them to walk away with an authentic experience,” said Julie Farrell, a fifth-grade teacher at Chalker.
The school’s fifth grade has been doing the annual “Ellis Island Day,” for seven years now, as it ties into the history curriculum that covers immigration in the early 1900s said Farrell, who joined the school six years ago.
On Jan. 24, 116 fifth-graders came to school dressed in clothes they had found at thrift stores and in their parent’s closets. They were each given a country early last week they would be pretending to emigrate from, and many of the boys wore button-down shirts and top hats. Girls dressed in long, dark furs with scarves over their heads, Farrell said.
They brought pillowcases stuffed with their most important possessions. Many were filled with stuffed animals, books, pictures and Bibles.
When they arrived on the “docks,” students were led through a series of classrooms, which were decorated to emulate Ellis Island.
They were handed passports, birth certificates, immunization records and set out to get them all approved. The room was filled with parent volunteers speaking Russian, Arabic, Swedish and French.
For three hours, students used hand gestures and moved from station to station.
At the health station, they were asked to read an eye chart, and perform a pseudo-physical exam.
At the character station, they had to answer a number of questions about the people they were impersonating.
If they did anything wrong, students were sent to the deportation officer, where they had to prove their validity for staying in the country.
Eventually, students made it to the clearance station, a classroom with its walls covered with flags from countries around the world. They stood, took an oath of loyalty and recited the Pledge of Allegiance.