Wayne Post
  • Students experience the lives of immigrants for a day

  • After participating in the 11th annual Ellis Island Reenactment Feb. 12, Kelley School fifth graders now have a greater understanding of what it was like for the more than 12 million immigrants to pass through the gateway to America from 1892 to 1954.

    • email print
  • After participating in the 11th annual Ellis Island Reenactment Feb. 12, Kelley School fifth graders now have a greater understanding of what it was like for the more than 12 million immigrants to pass through the gateway to America from 1892 to 1954.
    The “Great Hall” at Ellis Island — the school’s gymnasium — was transformed for the event. There, costumed fifth graders, playing the roles of immigrants, carried passports and birth certificates they created, as well as “possessions” they brought from their homelands, and waiting patiently to be “processed.”
    The reenactment was the culminating event of a two-month study in which students worked with Young Audiences of Rochester theater artist Brian Coughlin.
    “He worked with students for 5 sessions before the culminating event with the hope of sparking their heart, mind and soul with what it was like to be an immigrant coming to America,” said Robyn Ross-Squirrell who serves each year as the reenactment coordinator between Coughlin and fifth grade teachers as they prepare students for the event.
    The study gives children greater understanding of the value of their own citizenship and helps them appreciate what motivated so many of their ancestors to leave their homelands — and often other family members they loved — for the hope of a much better life in America.
    Students also learn about the trials and tribulations immigrants faced before coming to America. And their experiences at the Great Hall in Ellis Island demonstrates that the hardships encountered by millions after they arrived in America was only the beginning of the difficulties that lay ahead.
    As in previous years, before being taken to the “Great Hall at Ellis Island,” the Kelley School “immigrants” began their day in “steerage” — the school boiler room — to give them 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 the 6-second check. They were questioned about their health, education, and purpose for coming to America.
    Some were marked with chalk to identify the need for further questioning.
    Some “immigrants” were smart and even turned their jackets inside out to hide the markings.
    Once inside, they began the trying and lengthy experience of being processed.
    As in previous years, Ross said an “amazing” cast of adult actors _ community volunteers and school staff _ added to the experience as they convincingly portrayed Ellis Island attendants. Some have played the roles for several years. “We also had some new volunteers this year,’’ she said.
    They included: Janice Comer, Donna Holder, Chris Hasseler, Hannelora and Helmuth Reinhardt, Stan Herdman, John Zornow, Lorraine and Jack Williams, Deb Ebbrech, Cindy Ziegler, Carol Smeenk, Dave Tyler, Frank Scalise, James Lynch, Becky Hauf, Brenda Miller, Colleen McCarty, Chris Thayer, Krystina Hardter, Holly Kreuser, Karen Dean, Kate Mumford and Dave Christler.
    Page 2 of 2 - 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.
    Newark village attorney and Town of Arcadia Justice Art Williams administered the oath of American citizenship to the immigrants following their being successfully processed at Ellis Island.
    “I am always awed by the outcome of this residency,” Ross-Squirrell said. “The students really got into character, which only made this learning experience more powerful for them. I was amazed at how serious the students took on their roles as immigrants and what they took away from this experience.  This is such a unique 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.”
    And what did students think of the experience?
    Students in Karen Burgess’s class said dressing up as and playing the role immigrants helped them to visualize and understand the time period so much better than just reading about it in a book.
    They said the “officials” (at Ellis Island) were very strict. “Experiencing what we experienced gave us an opening to what it must have been like for so many of our ancestors.”
    Students in Wendy DePorter’s class said they now have “such a better understanding about how immigrants lived and what they were willing to endure to become a citizen of the United States.”
    Heather Jennette’s class said they “really got to know what it was like being an immigrant.  Steerage was cold, noisy and cramped.  Many of us were worried about being deported.  The officials made us nervous. We felt scared, excited and worried all rolled into one.”
    Amanda Carpenter and Judy Jasper’s class said learning through theatre and acting really helped because “we were able to experience everything and visualize our characters because we were acting and not just reading a textbook.  We enjoyed the whole experience. It was nerve wracking and exciting all at the same time.”  
      • calendar