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Pupils recreate rigors of arrival in America

Clark Elementary School fourth-graders dramatize the difficulties new immigrants faced on Ellis Island.

© St. Petersburg Times
published May 3, 2002

WEST MEADOWS -- A man is shuttled from checkpoint to checkpoint. A woman is about to give birth. Newly arrived at New York's Ellis Island, they wonder about their place in America.

Clark Elementary School fourth-graders experienced the difficulties of the immigration process during their "Ellis Island: Gateway to Dreams" simulation Tuesday.

Through Web searches, students such as Jorge Passalacqua and London Enos assumed the identities of actual immigrants, dressing and speaking the part as they learned the hardships of life in a strange land.

As the classes involved arrived at school, students immediately entered their characters. In the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, guards took travelers just off the boat to stations that included character checks, job qualifications and health inspections.

At the end of the weary process was the Loyalty Oath Station, where immigrants were told whether they had enough points to become U.S. citizens or be deported. London's character was allowed to stay with her new baby boy. Jorge's wasn't so fortunate, with a skin rash creating a health risk and forcing him to leave.

Teachers Laura Burek, Priscilla Towner and Cher Gauweiler led the project, which took on greater meaning after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the subsequent war in Afghanistan.

It was a catalyst for discussions about discrimination, racism and sexism, Burek said. They also learned about health issues, (such as Jorge's character) that might make it difficult for an immigrant to clear inspection.

Students read books about the countries where immigrants came from, such as Poland, Italy, Ireland, Germany and Sweden. They also had to write diaries to Old World relatives and interact in small group dramatizations.

Much of the simulation was improvisational, adding to the realism. London said she could see how frightened her character might have been, fearing she might be deported.

It was a difficult life, said London, who is in Burek's class.

"My mom's eight-months pregnant, so I could relate to that," she said. "And I liked dressing up and being somebody else and learning about the history of the people. But I wasn't sure I would be allowed to stay until I saw Ms. Gauweiler [checkpoint supervisor Gertrude Goldstein in the simulation] and she said that I can stay in America if I have a baby."

Gauweiler said the students gleaned much about tolerance and what it means to live in America.

"I think it made them more aware of people now who want to get into the country, and how some people would give anything to live in this country," Gauweiler said.

"There's probably more of an appreciation of what freedom means. It's more poignant when you teach that because there are so many people that are being looked at wrongly because of who they are.

"We have a large Middle Eastern population here, and those students have felt the effects of that. This gives them an opportunity to feel like they're Americans as well. Their parents love America, they work long hours in their own businesses, and it gives them pride in their parents and the people who came before them."

The project culminates with a multicultural musical production on May 22.

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