Social Education 57(1) pps. 45-47
©1993 National Council for the Social Studies

A Study of Immigrant Experience

Marion R. Dedrick
Cooper Middle School
Fairfax County, Virginia
The centennial celebration of the 1892 opening of Ellis Island offers an excellent opportunity for an immigration studies unit. I have developed a successful series of lessons related to eastern and southern European immigration to the United States. The lessons address immigrants' decisions to come to the United States, crossing the North Atlantic, their passage through Ellis Island, and their searches for jobs and housing. My 7th grade U.S. history students spend a week learning about immigration and writing fictional-but historically accurate-journals. As the students complete the lessons, they not only become involved in the study of U.S. immigration but also improve their writing skills.
Although I have spent a week on these immigration lessons with my classes, they could easily be extended to two weeks with the first day spent on the introduction, two days on each of the four sections, and a final day on group sharing and evaluation. Furthermore, teachers could certainly modify the lessons for elementary or high school classes.

To begin this unit, the class discusses what makes a diary one that others would want to read, and I establish basic requirements. For example, I require that students write both a rough draft and a second draft for every entry and that they show evidence of true revision-not just a copy of the previous draft. Each entry must also have a heading that indicates the place and the date, making it possible for the writer to skip periods of time and move quickly to another location and event. Each writing assignment includes prewriting activities, composing a first draft, sharing, revising, and writing a second draft with additional sharing.

To create interesting and informative writing, students gather solid historical information from our basal text, supplementary classroom texts, lectures, discussions, films, selected readings, and books, articles, and pamphlets from the library.

Day One-The Decision
I introduce the immigration unit with Land of Immigrants, a sixteen-minute film. We then discuss the film briefly and exchange any information students have from their own backgrounds.

I announce the assigned journal and establish some basic requirements:

1.The journal must be at least four pages long.
2.Every entry must have a rough draft and at least a second draft.
3.The central character may be male, female, married, single, young, or old, but must have limited finances.
4.The immigrant must come from eastern or southern Europe in 1892.
I list the following countries on the chalkboard: Greece, Turkey, Russia, Italy, Rumania, Bulgaria, Albania, Austria-Hungary, Montenegro, Serbia, Spain, and Portugal. A historical atlas is also available for the students.

Using the chalkboard to record ideas, the class contributes information about these immigrants and focuses on the following leading questions: What type of people left southern and eastern Europe in 1892? Why did they leave? How had they heard about the United States? Who did they leave behind? What type of transportation did they use to take them to the port of debarkation? How did they feel about leaving home? What were their hopes and dreams?

Next, the students compose a rough draft about their character's decision to come to the United States. An assigned journal partner evaluates this draft. Journal partners help each other throughout the assignment with ideas, comments, and proofreading. As a homework assignment, the students complete the second draft.

As the first entry in his immigrant's diary, Andy Wilson wrote the following:

Athens, Greece
February 9, 1892
Dear Diary,
I haven't been able to write for the last few days because we have been on the run. We have had to leave Russia because of all the mistreatment of us. More than half of the Jewish population of Europe live in Russia. They put us in isolated towns in the worst conditions. We haven't done anything wrong. We obey the laws, and yet we're persecuted, and our houses are destroyed. We are taxed unreasonably and sometimes even killed. But there is America.
I've heard that America is full of opportunity. We can live and worship freely and not have anything done to us.
We have very little to take to America, not much more than we can carry. We haven't got very much food for our family. We mostly brought roots like carrots and rutabagas, and we also brought cabbages, but not much else. We have twenty-four dollars in American money for the trip, just enough for Father and me. I would rather have waited and saved so Mother could have come, too. But we will send for her later. We must reach the land of promise, the land of hope and food for all where we can have a free life in America.

Working with the first draft, Andy's journal partner helped with some corrections in spelling and punctuation and suggested including the plan to bring his mother over later-a common practice. Suggestions for a third draft might include indicating the name of his native Russian village and a port of debarkation on the Black Sea, and discussing his hope of a free education. Andy was commended for his use of many historical facts including Russia's pogroms against the Jews, the immigrants' hopes for a better life in the United States, and the realistic list of provisions they carried with them.

Day Two-The Crossing
I start this lesson with two rough sketches on the chalkboard, one showing the location of the steerage section of the ship, the other giving an idea of the quarters in steerage. As the class studies the sketches, we discuss the conversion of the cargo section to the steerage quarters in immigrant ships bound for the United States. We also talk about the crowded conditions, lack of sanitation, likelihood of seasickness, serious diseases, and rodent infestation. The students come to understand that these conditions added to the immigrants' loneliness and fear, and contributed to the frequent quarrels and fights among the passengers.

The students then meet with their journal partners and review each other's second drafts about the decision to come to the United States. Next, they brainstorm about incidents that might occur as their central character crosses the North Atlantic. They then compose the second diary entry about the crossing and revise it after reviewing it with their journal partner. As a homework assignment, the students complete a revision of the rough draft and write a second draft on the crossing.

Cathy Carleton wrote the following entry in her journal:

On Board
April 12, 1892
Dear Diary,
I've been on this ship four days, and I already hate it. We are stopped at Montenegro to pick up more people. Just what we need!
We stay in the lowest deck of the steamboat. It's just like one big hallway down here. Beds are on either side, water closets and stoves are at either end, and in the middle are the dining tables. We all have a big bed we share with about eight other people. I share mine with Maria, Karen, Sharon, Bethany, Elizabeth, Victoria, Haily, and Caroline. We are packed like sardines in here! And the stench! It smells worse than rotten eggs. I guess when you have so many sweaty people in one room for days at a time it does tend to smell.
Lots of unexpected things have happened here. A woman gave birth yesterday to twins, and many people here are sick. They have cholera, typhus, typhoid fever and lice, only to name a few. Even some people I bunk with are sick. Maria and Caroline have lice. Elizabeth and Karen have cholera. And Bethany, poor Bethany has typhus and is close to death. I am lucky and only have a light case of lice.

In this second draft, Cathy has succeeded in describing crowded and uncomfortable conditions that encouraged disease. She might have had a more convincing entry if she had focused on one serious disease and its symptoms rather than listing several. She also could have included some of the other hardships encountered on the crossing such as fights, seasickness, confusion due to the many languages, and the schemes of the crew and captain to cheat the passengers out of the little they had. For a third draft, Cathy should also replace the names of her bunk mates with names commonly used in southern and eastern Europe.

Day Three-Ellis Island
When the students enter the room on day three of this unit, they find the walls covered with historical pictures of Ellis Island. Students then read copies of the pamphlet Ellis Island, a government publication. Next, they meet in groups of three, without their journal partners this time, and exchange ideas and information about Ellis Island and what a newcomer might experience there. Returning to their journal partners, they once again compose, share, revise, and then write their second draft about Ellis Island.

Mariana Elias wrote the following journal entry:

Ellis Island
August 8, 1892
Dear Diary,
Today we reached the harbor of New York. We had to wait one hour before we got on a ferry. It seemed like forever!
I was so excited when I first stepped on American land! I felt like an American already.
As soon as we got off the ferry, we went into a big room where people took your bags. Fortunately, I knew a little English and understood that they were just holding them for us so we didn't have to carry them around. I told my friends from the ship.
I stood in line for four hours! Finally, I got to a place where they put letters on some people, a code I guess, and sent the ones without letters to a different room. I had no letter on my back and was worried that I would be sent back, but all they did was check me mentally and physically. Then I went to a man who asked me all these questions. Someone had told me about this and told me all the right answers. I was trying to remember them.
They also changed my name to Tony because they said it was easier to say in English. I was afraid to argue because I feared they would send me back.
Finally, they sent me to a staircase that was separated into three parts. I was sent to the right and was admitted to America!
Atilio or Tony

With the help of her journal partner, Mariana has written a fine section on the examinations at Ellis Island. Still another revision could tell about the throngs of people being processed and how very large Ellis Island must have appeared to these immigrants. A heightened sense of confusion and anxiety would have been captured if Atilio had not known any English; that he did know a little English was not typical of immigrants from eastern or southern Europe in 1892. Mariana might also have stressed even more the immigrants' overwhelming fear of rejection at Ellis Island.

Day Four-The Search for Housing and a Job
Meeting with their journal partners, students review their revised entries about Ellis Island. Then they view a film, The Immigrant Experience-The Long, Long Journey. This film, providing an excellent review of Ellis Island, addresses the problems of housing, employment, and schooling in New York. As a class, we brainstorm and form a list on the chalkboard of probable jobs for an immigrant in 1892. Then we continue brainstorming and form a second list of problems and difficulties in housing that an immigrant might have encountered. Next, the students write a rough draft telling about their searches for jobs and housing. Students review and revise this draft with their journal partners before they complete the second draft for homework.

Ameet Maturu wrote this entry:

New York, New York
July 20, 1892
Dear Diary,
I have finally found a job working for a suspender factory. I make about one dollar and ten cents a day. I have also found a small place to live in, "Little Italy." All my friends live here, and here I can speak Italian with them. For food there is a small vendor across the street where I buy most of my food cheaply.
There is only one problem. When I walk on the streets, people speak different languages on every block.
I think I will never leave my new country.
Michael Divinci

Ameet has briefly covered the subjects of a job and housing, and has told his readers something about the settlement of immigrants in ethnic groups in New York. In his third revision, the section on the suspender factory could tell about working conditions, hours, and union organization. This revision might include a paragraph on Little Italy telling us about the housing conditions and the connections with the political bosses. Ameet could develop his discussion of the food vendor to cover the purchase of specific foods and their preparation; he might even include some Italian menus and recipes.

Finally, I assign students to groups of four or five in which they read each other's journals. I interrupt at intervals and ask for students to read to each other short segments of their diaries. I emphasize sharing entries that capture the story of immigration to the United States in 1892. We spend the last part of the period on a final revision of the journal.

Anderson, Lydia. Immigration. New York: Franklin Watts, 1981.Brown, Richard C., and Herbert J. Bass. One Flag, One Land. Morristown, N.J.: Silver Burdett Co., 1985.Cavanah, Frances. We Wanted to Be Free. Philadelphia: Macrae Smith Co., 1971.Fisher, Leonard Everett. Ellis Island, Gateway to the New World. New York: Holiday House, 1986.Magocsi, Paul R. The Russian Americans. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1989.Muggamin, Howard. The Jewish Americans. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988.Newmann, Fred M., and Donald W. Oliver. The Immigrant's Experience. Middletown, Conn.: Xerox Corporation, 1971.Toor, Rachel. The Polish Americans. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988.U.S. Department of the Interior. Ellis Island. Washington, D.C.: National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, n.d.Photo Resources
Groskinsky, Henry, and Doris G. Kinney. "Reopening the Gateway to America." Life (September 1990): 27-38."Immigration." Mount Dora, Fla.: Documentary Photo Aids, Inc.Film Resources
The Immigrant Experience-The Long, Long Journey. 16mm and VCR (color), 31 mins. 1973. Coronet/MTI Film and Video. 108 Wilmot Road, Deerfield, IL 60015.Land of Immigrants. 16mm (color), 16 mins. 1966. Media, a Division of Churchill Films Inc. 12210 Nebraska Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90025.