By 9 a.m. Friday morning, fifth-graders at Larne Elementary School had their belongings taken and their personal history scrutinized.
Some had been told they had diseases or had failed intelligence tests or criminal background checks. Others had been told their names weren’t “American enough” and needed to be changed. Some students had even tried to bribe corrupt officials.
And all of this was done in the name of education.
For five years, arts in education teacher Debbie Faulkner has coordinated a small-scale Ellis Island experience for the fifth-grade students to show them what it was like to be an immigrant in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
“This puts them in the moment,” Faulkner said. “This brings it to life.”
For two weeks, the students have been preparing for the exercise, Faulkner said. Each student was randomly assigned a country of origin and an occupation and had to research to come up with a name and a back story for their immigrant. They even earned money and bought a ticket to take a boat to the United States.
On Friday, many dressed in character and packed belongings they thought they would need in their new country.
Through the hard work of teachers, staff members and volunteers, the students went through the Ellis Island experience, complete with medical checks, criminal background checks, intelligence and citizenship tests and other roadblocks immigrants encountered when entering through Ellis Island’s Great Hall in New York Harbor.
More than 12 million immigrants entered through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1954, according to the Ellis Island Foundation.
“I was on a nasty boat,” said student Shaniya Phillips, whose immigrant identity was a Russian doctor. She traveled in steerage, the most inexpensive form of boat travel. She wanted to come to America to find work, she said.
Before she went through the “Great Hall” and all the tests of Ellis Island, she said she expected it to be hard and said she was sure that the guards would take more of her money.
But, she said, as a student, she was learning a lot. “It’s good because we get to act like it’s real,” Shaniya said.
Student Ashley Stiles, whose immigrant identity was that of a fisherman from Germany, said Ellis Island officials took some of her belongings that she would need to get a job in the United States. But she was allowed in to the country.
“I had mixed emotions,” she said. “I learned a lot and this was more fun than just reading about (Ellis Island) in a book.”
Other students were not so lucky. Brynn Dickerson, whose immigrant identity was that of a Russian woman, was told she would be deported because she failed one of the tests administered in the “Great Hall.”
If this were her real life, she said it would make her feel sad.
“It’s really good because we know how the immigrants felt and what they went through,” Brynn said.