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    Pupils explore immigrant experiences

    A re-enactment of life on Ellis Island 100 years ago gives students a new appreciation for America's immigrants.


    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published July 4, 2001

    [Times photo: im Damaske]
    Frontier Elementary students sit in cramped quarters on a ship as part of their "Immigration Day."
    LARGO -- They seemed nervous, just as you might expect immigrants hoping to gain admission into the United States to feel.

    Some gasped for air as they stuttered answers to the immigration officers' stringent questions. Others ran sweaty palms through their hair as they identified themselves and spoke about their plans in their new country.

    It was a scene produced Tuesday by fourth- and fifth-graders at Frontier Elementary. They were re-enacting events once common at Ellis Island, the New York Harbor destination for more than 12-million people from overseas seeking a better life in America in the late 19th and early 20th century.

    "Immigration Day" was the culmination of a three-week social studies lesson on foreign countries and movement to the United States. And the students took the project very seriously, according to their teacher, Cheryl Sinks, who developed the project at the year-round school as part of her curriculum about six years ago.

    Squeezing into a makeshift cardboard ship adorned with red, white and blue stars, 23 students sat dressed in clothes representing countries they had studied.

    The conditions were tight: They sat cramped with no room to stretch. They held clipboards and took a citizenship test, answering questions about the make-up of American government.

    An adult volunteer -- doubling as an immigration officer -- called them one-by-one to answer questions about their native country and their intentions in the United States. They carried passports made in class and had them marked as they were approved at each of the three checkpoints.

    "We celebrate holidays like Leprechaun days and we step-dance," said 11-year-old Brian Bowie, acting as Liam O'Brien of Dublin, Ireland. "We do lots of sports like hurling. I was born there and I lived there for three years until I came here.

    "And we like green," he added, smiling.

    Samantha Phimsipasom acted as an immigrant from Greece. She portrayed a character hoping for higher wages and freedom of speech and religion in the United States.

    Samantha, 11, said she enjoyed the research that went along with the project, and that she felt bad for the people who actually had to deal with the brutal conditions on ships crossing the Atlantic Ocean.

    As the students learned, some of the ships were filled with more than 2,000 people, and they couldn't bring many personal items. For the project, students were allowed only a pillow-case full of belongings. All of them brought food, and some carried pictures of their family, dictionaries for understanding English or a teddy bear.

    Sinks, who has been teaching at Frontier for seven years, said her former students often ask her if she's still coordinating Immigration Day. They tell her in letters the project was a fun catalyst in learning about foreign countries, she said.

    "The main thing that I want them to understand about Ellis Island and the immigrants is how it has really shaped the United States, and the appreciation of different cultures," Sinks said. "I thought up the project as something more hands-on. The more that they can take on roles and real-world applications, they're more likely to remember it."

    The question of the day from the students: "If we don't make it into America, are we going to fail social studies?"

    Sinks assured them they wouldn't. Nevertheless, all were approved for admission.

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