Classroom Time Machine: Ellis Island and the Immigrant Experience

blue educator

Ric White builds research skills and global connections in his classrooms through student-driven simulations. He has been an educator for six years and currently teaches at Cliff Valley School in Atlanta, Georgia.

Our Educator of the Week, Ric White. Photo by Elizabeth Stockdale

Activity: Ellis Island Simulation
Subject: Social Studies
Grade: 6-8

Tell us about your activity.

The Ellis Island simulation was a multi-week project where students honed their research skills, engaged with American immigrant stories, and turned the gym into a replica of the historic site.

Students were split into teams of immigrants and Ellis Island officials. Both groups prepared for the simulation by researching the narratives of immigrant families and the history of Ellis Island.

On the day of the simulation, “officials” prepared Ellis Island (the gym) for an influx of immigrants, while “immigrants” got their bags packed for the “Atlantic crossing.”

Immigrants were crammed onboard and into tiny quarters (the science storeroom) where they experienced darkness, bad weather (provided by spray bottles), and terrible smells (fish).

After reaching Ellis Island, immigrants went through luggage checks, interviews, medical examinations, and other inspections based on historical procedures the students had researched.

Immigrants were allowed into their new homeland, New York City (the playground) after passing inspection and experiencing what Ellis Island would have been like in the early 1900s.

immigration line (1)
Students dressed in historically accurate period costumes wait in inspection lines outside of “Ellis Island.” Photo by Ric White
Immigrants to the U.S. nervously await official approval. Photo by Paul Thompson
Ric provided historic photos from Ellis Island, like this one, to help students accurately dress for the simulation. Photo by Paul Thompson

How long did this activity take and what preparations were needed?

The lesson took 3 weeks of classes and plenty of behind-the-scenes work, but it was all worth it! Students received background information including immigration, relocation, and occupational data about the United States at the turn of the 20th century. They also had access to real-life stories of Ellis Island officials and immigrant families.

Students researched the outfits that people from different parts of Europe would have worn on their journey across the Atlantic. Many students were able to use clothes and luggage from their grandparents, who actually were immigrants!

Want to learn more about this activity? Check out this webinar Ric White put together.

Describe the student impact of this lesson. How has this changed the communities they live in?

Students described shifts in their understanding of immigration, both in the past and in the present. They learned about the many push and pull factors driving people to emigrate and were able to connect them with today’s immigration narratives. Beyond bridging multiple geographies and time periods, the project empowered students to develop their own opinions around immigration.

Newly arriving immigrants on Ellis Island.
Newly arriving immigrants on Ellis Island. Photo by International Museum of Photography
An immigrant boy carries luggage at Ellis Island. Photo by Paul Thompson
An immigrant boy carries luggage at Ellis Island. Photo by Paul Thompson


If you could take your students on a field trip to anywhere in the world (or in outer space!), where would you go? What would you do?

I’d want a field trip to where the families of my students emigrated from, so that they could explore historical sites and contextualize what their ancestors experienced. Going to New York City to visit Ellis Island and the Tenement Museum would also help students better understand what immigrant life was like during that era.

Nat Geo FYI: For more activities about immigration patterns, check out this suite of activities!

The Educator of the Week series features inspiring activities and lessons that educators are implementing with their students that connect them to the world in bold and exciting ways.

Leave a Reply