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Ellis Island: Gateway to America
by Dara Mittelstaedt
University of Idaho

Grade: 5th
Time Allotment:Five, forty-five to sixty-minute class periods
Subject Matter: Social Studies,Geography, and Language Arts

"Ellis Island: Gateway to America," is designed to introduce students to the immigration station on Ellis Island. Through several activities, students will learn that immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island came to America from different countries, mostly those in Europe, and for different reasons that included a desire to escape poverty, war, or religious persecution.

Learning Objectives:
Students will be able to:

  • Define an immigrant
  • Locate several European countries on the map where immigrants came from
  • List several reasons why immigrants came to America

Idaho Standards:
449: Migration and Immigration - The student will understand the role of migration and immigration of people in the development of the United States.

National Standards:
National Council for the Social Studies:

  • Strand III:
    Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of people, places, and environments.
  • Strand V:
    Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of interactions among individuals, groups, and institutions.
  • Strand IX:
    Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of global connections and interdependence.

Media Components :
Journey to America (The American Experience) Videocassette Dist. By PBS Home Video, 1989


    This site has links to allow for an "immigrant experience" by reading the family histories of six Americans who immigrated, viewing a timeline that shows the forces behind immigration and their impact on the numbers of immigrants. There is also a link that allows one to look up their last name to see if any ancestors passed through.
    This site allows one to take a virtual tour of Ellis Island after choosing an identity of one of four immigrants from different countries.
    This site offers several video and audio clips of Ellis Island. Additional links allows one to view the floor plans of Ellis Island or take a "Who are you?" survey with sample questions that immigrants had to answer.

Journey to Ellis Island: How my father came to America. By Carol Bierman. Illustrated by Laurie McGaw. A Hyperion/Madison Press Book. 1998.
Approximately five feet of butcher paper
Materials for Mock Simulation: Prepare cards with name,native country and potential physical or mental disabilities that may/may not keep individuals from entering the country for mock simulation of entry to Ellis Island. Example:

Name: Sanson, Adele
Native Country: Sweden
Disablilities/illness: Tuberculosis

Prep For Teachers
Read Journey to Ellis Island: How my father came to America to ensure that you have a basic understanding of the book and can correctly pronounce and define any words that may be unfamiliar. Cut out five foot section of butcher paper, etc. Cue video to start at 9:90 - Narrator will be saying, "approved and ticketed" while the camera is on a women's face. The video needs to stop with the words "You're free to go" when the counter is at 20:67. Make copies of worksheet and distribute by computers. Obtain 3-4 volunteers (bilingual if possible).

  1. Prepare cards:
  2. Arrange chairs into benches.
  3. Set up stations.

Introductory Activities
I. Tell students "We are beginning a lesson on immigrants who traveled to Ellis Island that will take several days. An immigrant is a person who moves to a country to live that is not their native country . Many immigrants came to the United States between 1897 and 1954 for many reasons that we will soon learn about. Immigrants who were poor had to travel third class. When they arrived in America they were inspected at Ellis Island before being allowed into America. To begin this lesson, we will read Journey to Ellis Island: How my Father came to America. This is a story about an eleven-year-old boy from Russia who travels to America with his mom and younger sister. While we are reading this story, remember that this boy is close to your age, and try to imagine making the journey he did."

II. Read Journey to Ellis Island: How my father came to America. Show students the pictures and use the glossary on page 48 for pronunciation and definitions.

III. Conduct a class discussion asking the following questions:

  1. Why was the Weinstein family going to America?
  2. What was wrong with Yehuda and how did he get injured?
  3. Why were the inspectors worried about Yehuda's injury and would not allow him to enter America at first?
  4. Why did Yehuda and his family need to go to Ellis Island?
  5. Why did the medical examiners ask Yehuda to run around the island?
  6. Can you imagine making this journey without your mom or dad?

IV. Lead class discussion to make a K-W-L chart:
"Before we go any further with this lesson we need to make a K-W-L chart that will help us learn more about immigrants. I will record our responses on this piece of butcher paper.
" (Butcher paper should be taped to chalk board, or a hard surface that is visible by everyone.) "In the first section, labeled K, we will list things that we already know about immigrants that traveled to America. From the book and your previous knowledge, what are some things that we know about immigrants who came to America?" (Provide adequate "thinking time.") (Use prompt questions as needed: How did they get to America? What are some reasons why immigrants journeyed to America? Did all immigrants make the journey with their families or alone? Where were third class passengers inspected?)
"Now that we have a list of things that we know, let us make a list in the second section, L, of things that we want to learn more about. What are some things we want to know more about in order to better understand Ellis Island and the immigrants who came through there?" (Use prompt questions as needed: Where did these immigrants come from? What are other reasons that they came to America? Why did the immigrants have to be inspected? What happened to immigrants who were not allowed to enter America?)
"Remember that we can always add to the second column if we think of something else we want to know about. We will fill in the final section later."

Learning Activities
I. "Today we will be watching a video about immigrants who traveled to Ellis Island to get to America. Focus for Media Interaction: Review questions below have students raise their hands when they hear the answer to the question. Pause video and discuss and write answers on board.Begin video which should be cued to begin with the words "approved and ticketed" with a close-up of a woman's face and should be stopped when the inspectors say, "You're free to go."

II. Conduct a class discussion of the video with the following questions. Possible answers are provided, but should be given by the students:

  1. Where were most immigrants from Europe going to in America?
  2. How long would an average voyage on the ships take?
  3. What was the trip like for immigrants in third class, known as steerage?"
  4. Why did the first and second-class passengers not go to Ellis Island?
  5. How do you think the immigrants felt when they stepped off the boat?
  6. Why did some of the immigrants going through inspections receive chalk marks?
  7. ) Why were immigrants so closely inspected?

Discuss points brought up in video, review segments if necessary.

Day Two:
Give students instructions regarding Webquest. Have students go to bookmarked site: Have students complete Web worksheet. Allow students 30 minutes to complete. Advise students that Question #6 will require further instructions once the other questions have been completed. Remind students to pace themselves, so they can really learn about their character's unique experiences with Ellis Island. While students are working, circulate to answer questions and keep students on track.

II. "Now that you are all pretty close to finishing, I am going to write another address on the board. This site will allow you to find the distance that your character had to travel to reach America. (Write on the board). To get to this website, go into favorites and click on "How far is it?"

III. "Now that we have a better understanding of what immigrants experienced, we are going to take a closer look at Ellis Island. Please go into favorites again, and click on "Ellis Island." This will take us to the following site." (Write on the board). "Here we will find a map of the three floors of Ellis Island. You have fifteen minutes to explore, and get a better understanding of the layout of the immigration station. I want you to look at the map and pictures, but also read the captions on the side. While you are doing so, recall scenes from the video we watched and the virtual tour you just took."

IV. Review information, have students share their findings.

Culminating Activity
Day Three
. As students walk into the classroom, hand them their "identity." Once everyone is seated on the "benches", say: "Today we are going to complete our lesson on the immigration station at Ellis Island. On your card you will find your name, your native country, and any physical or mental disabilities that may keep you from entering the country. You will be going through three stations today. There are instructions on the table, and inspectors there to help you. (The three stations are listed below with links to help assist you in setting up these stations.) But since you are in a new country they are speaking a language different than yours. You need to sit and wait until an inspector at each station calls your name. If you receive a post-it note stuck to your clothes, you will have to wait for further examination before you are allowed to enter the country. Welcome to Ellis Island."

Health Inspection,
Intelligence Examination,
Legal Inspection

Discuss how this activity affected students.

I. Direct students' attention to the K-W-L chart. "Now that we have completed our lesson, we can go back and record what we have learned and fill in the L section on our chart. Let us look at some of the things we wanted to learn about and see what we know now that we did not know before." (Read some items in the W section.) "What are some things that we have learned?" (Use prompt questions as needed.)

II. "Since you have all made the journey to America, and are experts on Ellis Island and immigration, you will write a journal entry about your experience. In your journal entry, you should record how you felt entering a new country with everyone speaking a different language, going through several inspections, and how you felt when you were cleared to enter America. At the end of the entry, you should write a paragraph on how you would feel if you had actually immigrated to the United States.


  1. Social Studies/Geography: The study on immigration can be continued by looking at the immigrants who came from the Pacific, most by way of the Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco Bay.
  2. Language Arts: Students can read excerpts of autobiographies or biographies of immigrants who journeyed through Ellis Island.
  3. Art: Have students complete a follow-up art lesson documenting any aspect of immigration (the journey, new food, inspections, etc.)


  1. Invite a guest speaker who has had experience immigrating to America themselves, or has had a close family member who has done so.
  2. After having the class complete an art project and writing a short summary of what they have learned about Ellis Island, have their work displayed somewhere in the community.

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