Second Graders "Time Travel" to Explore Immigration During the Turn of the Century!

What was it like for immigrants coming to America at the turn of the century? What happened at Ellis Island? How did new immigrants live in our city in the late 1800s? Our second graders have been exploring these questions and more during their Immigration at the Turn of the Century unit. To further their study, they traveled to the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side and “time-traveled” during a dramatic role-playing exercise at school! 

During their visit to the Tenement Museum, they met Bridget Moore, an Irish immigrant girl from the late 1800s, who arrived in the United States alone when she was just 17 years old. Students entered her three-room apartment and learned about daily life as a newcomer to New York City. The actors were met with questions from our inquisitive second graders such as What was it like being new here in America? What do you and your family do for fun? and How do you communicate with your family back in Ireland? There were many surprising moments such as learning about outhouses, where they got their water from, and how they cooked their food. Stepping back in time to learn how and why people come here (and still do!) was enlightening for our students and gave them a front row seat to what life was like in New York City from 1880-1920. 

To try and better understand the experience of immigrants to New York City during the wave of European immigration in the 1840s to 1920s, the second graders used their time-traveling imaginations and drama skills to imagine themselves being processed through Ellis Island, with their teachers acting as immigration officers and fellow immigrants. Inspector Ko and Inspector Noll administered the literacy and legal examinations, while Doctor Rosenberg put immigrants through the physical exam. In the end, all the students were accepted to NYC, though our one rejected immigrant (Ms. Rindfuss) managed to fool the inspectors by turning her marked coat inside out to sneak in. 

Afterward, back in our classrooms in 2019, students debriefed and discussed what it felt like — “nervous, crowded, loud, scary, exciting, hopeful” — and what it must have felt like more than a century ago for all of the people looking for a new life in America. Though we will never know what the true experience was like, through using “time traveling skills,” we can better imagine it (at least a little).

Stay tuned for more of their discoveries as they further study this fascinating unit on immigration.