The Fourth Grade Immigration Unit Goes Virtual

The traditional Ellis Island one-day field trip is the single biggest educational event for FCS fourth graders, one eagerly anticipated by all. When the pandemic rendered an in-person visit impossible, fourth grade teacher Alice McBee knew she had to find a way to salvage the trip – to make it virtual, without losing the impact of the experience. “The important thing was keeping the magic and the wonder,” explained Alice, “and so much of that is on the classroom teacher.” She needed to tap into her creativity and bring her acting game to make it as real as possible.  

Alice drew upon the personalized scavenger hunt, devised by former fourth grade teacher Christine Ramsey, that is traditionally used to help guide students through the field trip and is based on the fourth grade curriculum. Alice had also done extensive research, including visiting Ellis island with FCS fourth grade teaching colleague Lauren Tedesco.

The class reads two books for their immigration unit – Letters from Rifka, about a Russian Jewish family’s emigration in 1919 to the US via Belgium, based on the personal account of author Karen Hesse’s great-aunt Lucille Avrutin; and Inside Out and Back Again, inspired by author Thanhha Lai’s childhood experience as a Vietnamese refugee to the US after the Fall of Saigon. 

Historic photo of the Registry Room – also known as the “Great Hall” – in operation

In groups of around four students to keep the experience intimate, Alice took the students through a more modernized version of Rifka’s journey to Ellis Island, starting in Belgium, using Google Earth. They went from Antwerp through the English Channel, across the Atlantic, with Alice pointing out important spots and asking the students questions along the way – generating, wherever possible, the sense that they were actually there on the boat. Tapping into her talents as an actor and her prior background in community theatre was crucial to bringing things to life.   

When they “arrived” at Ellis Island, Alice switched to the Ellis Island website and its virtual tour – which wasn’t designed for her purpose but did provide some behind-the-scenes places and parts of the island that hadn’t been renovated – before moving up into the legendary Great Hall, with its high, vaulted ceiling. At this point, she used a slideshow of her own photographs to continue the visit. 

At the far end of the main hall are the Stairs of Separation, as they were known – “a long flight of stairs that go back down. There’s no fanfare to these stairs,” explained Alice, “but the stairs themselves have worn away with the feet of all the people who’ve walked over them – the millions of immigrants. You can see how the stairs have worn away unevenly, and that part always gives me chills. We traditionally crouch down at one end and look back up the flight of stairs, and you can see the light shining on the edge of each stair.” Using her own slideshow photographs, she was able to recreate the powerful moment virtually for her students.

“As I always do with the kids, I asked questions such as, ‘How would this feel to you if you were an immigrant?’” The sense of awe of the students and their responses – “anxious, nervous, excited, hopeful” – showed Alice that, “at that point, they were really in it with me.” It felt very similar to the reactions that she would have expected to see had they been there in person, which surprised and encouraged her. Typically, many students connect the experience to their own ancestors’ stories, often with a sense of wonder and amazement that they are retracing their ancestors’ steps, and this virtual visit was no different. “I worked harder this spring than I’ve ever worked in my life,” she said, and clearly, her efforts were rewarded. “I was impressed and proud of the fact that the children were so willing to accept the fantasy. There was an element of theater in it, but it was also personal for them.”

“The invitation from Alice to join her fourth grade virtual tour of Ellis Island as the culmination of her annual spring immigration study was intriguing,” said Interim Lower School Assistant Principal Ginger Fifer. “How could it come close to the experience and excitement of actually being there, on a field trip I had established 20 years previously with my fourth grade class? Alice was masterful in plotting our course through Google Maps from eastern Europe to the two tiny islands on the Hudson River, places which held so much hope for thousands of brave immigrants, ready to begin a new life in America at the turn of the 20th century. Passing the Statue of Liberty and moving through the Ellis Island Immigration Museum virtually provided us all with a deep understanding of why Ellis Island was indeed the ‘Island of Hope, Island of Tears’ for so many of our forebears in the FCS community. Alice’s expertise, both as teacher and tour guide, resulted in an unforgettable experience.”

Angel Island

The second virtual trip of the fourth grade immigration unit was to Angel Island State Park in the San Francisco Bay. From 1910 to 1940, the northeast corner of Angel Island served as an immigration station, processing immigrants from 84 different countries, with a majority being Chinese immigrants. Chinese immigrants who had been denied entry under the racist Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 were investigated. “Where Ellis Island essentially was welcoming and supporting immigrants, even providing hospital care for the sick and playgrounds for the children,” explained Alice, Angel Island had the more nefarious aim of rooting out non-US citizens, and the interrogations were far more brutal. 

Ranger John Clagett speaking to students from a bunk bed on Angel Island

For this visit, Alice was able to tap into the expertise of ranger John Clagett, who led the students as a class on a live zoom tour from Angel Island, where he lives. 

“It was a very different experience but equally interesting,” said Alice. “Because it was the last week of school, we had that terrible storm that came through that knocked out power for many kids. So John graciously suggested a make-up visit a week after school was over. He was able to directly answer the students’ questions and react to their observations, and he was very engaging with them.”

“We were able to see in real time these poems in Chinese that had been covered over and then revealed by people who realized that this is actually something to preserve. It was cool for us to be able to directly engage with John, who knows so much about this and was also ready to be playful and upbeat.” 

Alice McBee

Carrying his camera mounted on a tripod with him as he walked, John began by showing students the view of San Francisco Bay before taking them through the buildings. Prior to the tour, Alice had briefed him on the curricular work she had done with the students, including the books they had read. 

The facility was a lot more basic than Ellis Island. The bunks that housed immigrants on Angel Island were stacked three-beds high, and the walls were covered with poetry. “The immigrants would carve poems into the walls. The guards saw it as graffiti, but it was actually a form of protest,” explained Alice. “We were able to see in real time these poems in Chinese that had been covered over and then revealed by people who realized that this is actually something to preserve. It was cool for us to be able to directly engage with John, who knows so much about this and was also ready to be playful and upbeat.” 

John Clagett showing the poems in Chinese on the walls

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