For the tenth consecutive year, the Ellis Island reenactment March 30 at Kelley Intermediate School gave fifth graders, a unique opportunity to better understand what it was like for the more than 12 million immigrants who passed through the gateway to America from 1892 to 1954.
To make the two-month unit of study as authentic as possible, students worked with Young Audiences of Rochester theater artist Brian Coughlin who helped them during five sessions play the roles of the immigrants they were learning about. His work complimented extensive preparatory work done by fifth grade teachers.
The unit culminated with the long-awaited Ellis Island Reenactment in the school’s gymnasium that had been transformed for the day to resemble the Great Hall at Ellis Island.
Once inside the “Great Hall, the costumed fifth graders went through the daunting experience of being processed. And for some, the experience ended with the great disappointment of being deported.
As in previous years, before being taken to the “Great Hall at Ellis Island,” the Kelley School “immigrants” began their day in “steerage” _ the boiler room in the basement of the school _ to gave students more of an understanding of the cramped, uncomfortable ship accommodations many immigrants endured on their voyage to America.
After disembarking from the “ship,” students, waited in line to enter the Great Hall. Many had to deal with a six-second check, being questioned about their health, education and reason for coming to America.
Once at the Great Hall, they began the trying and lengthy experience of being processed. To authenticate the exercise, every student was required to act the part of an immigrant and remain in his or her character throughout the entire exercise including being in costume and having a passport and possessions.
“Some were marked with chalk to identify the need for further questioning,’’ Ross-Squirrell explained. “Some “immigrants” were smart, and even turned their jackets inside out to hide the markings to avoid further questioning.’’
As in previous years, a group of adult actors _ community volunteers and school staff, some who have participated for the eighth time _ added to the experience as they convincingly portrayed Ellis Island attendants.
“Once again, we had an amazing group of volunteers,’’ Ross-Squirrell said. They included: Janice Comer, Dorothy Muscolino, Donna Holder, Mary Beth Holgado, Chris Hasseler, Susie Earl, Hannelora Reinhardt, Hazel and Stan Herdman, John Zornow, Linda LaCastro, Lorraine and Jack Williams, Debbie Elbricht, Cindy Ziegler, Carol Smeenk, Dave Tyler, Frank Scalise, James Lynch, Becky Hauf, Chris Davis, Dorothy Moorehouse, Caitlin Simonse, Karen Dean, Kate Mumford and Dave Christler.
The volunteer actors were instructed to really get into their characters so the experience would be as authentic as possible for students. Since every attendant at Ellis Island was not the welcoming friend of the immigrant, that meant that those playing the parts were instructed to be gruff, insensitive and even unscrupulous at times in their dealings with the immigrants who’d just completed long and often grueling journeys from their homelands.
And what did students have to say about their experience?
“Using theatre arts and acting helped me understand that time period better and through this experience you could feel what the immigrants must have felt,” Bailey McCormick, a pupil in Karen Burgess’s class said.
Students from Amanda Carpenter and Judy Jasper’s class said the unit was enjoyable and fun because they experienced what immigrants had to go though. They liked listening to “Immigrant Voices” on their iPod and learned the immigrants were sad and scared. They didn’t realize how hard and difficult it was for them until their experience on Ellis Island Day.
Jill Manuel’s class liked walking into the Great Hal and seeing all the stations. They said they set up seemed real having to dress as an immigrant made the experience real.
“It felt like we got into a time machine and went back in time. Everyone was acting like it was real,” said Hannah Herman, a student in Lacie Urban’s class.
“This year was by far one of our smoothest re-enactments,” Ross-Squirrell said. “Every year it gets better and better. I was amazed at how seriously the students took on their roles as immigrants and what they took away from this experience. This is a wonderful way to bring history to life as well as a way for our students to learn and appreciate the sacrifices many of our ancestors endured in coming to America.”
Again this year, the study will end on a far more dramatic note at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum in New York.
Ross-Squirell, Principal Chris Mizro and Jeff Hamelinck, a teacher on special assignment at the school, planned the trip again this year to the museum where exhibits chronicle Ellis Island’s role in immigration history and include artifacts like clothing, suitcases and toys, photographs, prints, videos, interactive displays, oral histories and more. Students will also visit the nearby Statue of Liberty.
“Like last year, this trip will add a powerful dimension to the immigration study unit that these children will also never forget,’’ Mizro said.
The cost of the trip is being paid almost entirely through donations and monies raised at numerous events and activities in which some local businesses have played an integral role.
One hundred forty one students plan to make the trip on commercial buses and the entire cost per pupil for transportation and entrance to the museum and Statue of Liberty is about $100 each.
The final Ellis Island fund raiser will be a chicken barbeque event at Mike Barnard Chevrolet Buick Cadillac GMC in Newark and they event _ from 9 to 3 pm. _ will include a bake sale and gift basket raffle.
The Chicken barbeque is $8.50 and will be sold beginning at 11 a.m. until 3 p.m.
Mike Barnard Chevrolet Buick Cadillac GMC in Newark will be donating $500 as part of the Mike Barnard Auto Group’s desire this year to help various local non-profit groups and charities.