ChMS goes back in time with Ellis Island simulation

CHELSEA – Sixth graders at Chelsea Middle School underwent background checks, health screenings, literacy tests and citizenship tests in order to be admitted into the country on Wednesday, Oct. 11. While all of that may seem excessive for a group of kids, it was part of a simulation where the students acted as immigrants at the Ellis Island processing center in 1903.

“We wanted to do this because we just finished a unit on immigration,” sixth grade social studies teacher Ginny Prosch said. “It’s really unique when you put yourself in the past and experience what the immigrants experienced.”

Before the simulation, students were given a name, age, occupation, home country and set of circumstances and had to do extensive research on their country and culture of origin and reasons why immigrants came to America during that time period.

“They had to write a farewell letter to their families and keep a journal of what it was like,” volunteer Marla Shuttlesworth said.

The simulation took place at the school’s outdoor track and students had to check in and answer basic questions about themselves before going through to five different stations for background checks, medical screenings, citizenship testing and finally, to purchase train tickets for different cities in the U.S.

“They have played their parts really well,” medical station volunteer Sarah Sisco said.

Sisco said she and other volunteers acted as if they were Ellis Island officials and she noticed how the students reacted to that.

“I love that experience of getting to see what it’s like,” Sisco said. “It’s a little uncomfortable and a little awkward for them. I think it makes it more realistic.”

“They can read about it all day long, but it’s a different experience to feel what they felt,” volunteer Melissa Garrett added.

Volunteers Sally Tidwell and Paula Davis, who ran the station with citizenship tests, said the simulation gave students a better understanding of what it took to become a U.S. citizen at that time.

“It’s good for the kids to learn how hard it is to become a citizen. It’s a privilege and there are requirements,” Tidwell said.

“Some of them know they’re going to get through, but they get nervous because they’re put on the spot. There were immigrants who didn’t know,” Davis said. “As U.S. citizens, we take it all for granted. When people come here for a better life, they don’t.”

Volunteer Theresa Freer said, as African-Americans, she and her sixth-grade daughter had a unique perspective on the simulations.

“When you look at our history, there were no farewell letters,” Freer said. “But she played her part and we had fun with it.”

Sixth grader Evan Dong, who acted as “Jan Olsen” from Norway said the simulation gave him a new appreciation for living in the U.S.

“I’ve learned a lot about why people have come here and why this is a great country,” Evan said.

“It changed me by helping me understand where we’re from,” a sixth-grader named Anna Kate said.

In November, students will participate in a more in-depth, three-day simulation known as Project American Life at the YMCA Hargis Retreat in Chelsea.

More photos from the Ellis Island simulation can be found online at Shelbycountyphotos.com.