Prep school students travel through time to Ellis Island

Categories: Around the Diocese

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St. John’s Prep seventh-grader Sabella Akre, left, plays the part of an immigrant named Maria Milano coming into the United States through Ellis Island in the early 1900s during an interactive day of learning Nov. 24. Eighth-grader Sabrina Wuolu, right, plays an Ellis Island processor named Loretta Piannin. Dianne Towalski / The Visitor

Course’s themes help foster discussion on migration in light of current events

By Kristi Anderson
The Visitor

Dressed in authentic period costumes of the early 1900s, seventh- and eighth-grade students at St. John’s Preparatory School in Collegeville traveled through time to be part of the Ellis Island immigration process during an interactive day of learning Nov. 24.

Every other year, the middle-schoolers reenact what it was like to arrive at Ellis Island, turning their classroom into different stations that one might have encountered when seeking refuge in the United States at the turn of the 20th century. Each student is given a role — an immigrant, an aid worker, a health inspector, an official — each with a true life story they spent time researching.

“It’s a thoughtful day,” said Jill Pauly, director of communications and events for the school. “The students really get a feel for what it was like to flee from harm with the hope of making a new life. The students who are given the roles of immigration officials really do make decisions on whether to allow the ‘immigrants’ into the country.”

Some of the students had various “conditions” that might make their entry easier like a high level of education, a good grasp of the English language and a solid work ethic — or more difficult, like being 88 years old with a bad cough and no family.

Kristoff Kowalkowski is a seventh-grader at the prep school. He played “Vito Florenciano,” a young Italian man who attended school in his home country and helped with many different kinds of jobs. Though he had no money, his family, who already lived in the U.S., sent him a ticket to join them.

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Eighth-grader Zander Lourey plays the official that checks the ship’s manifest as passengers begin the immigration process during an interactive day of learning at St. John’s Preparatory School Nov. 24. Dianne Towalski / The Visitor

Valeriya Woodard, also a seventh-grader, played 22-year-old Sophia Ferrari, also an Italian, who was well-educated and attractive. Both students made it “in” to the country.

Kowalkowski said that he thought it was hard to be an immigrant then — and now. “Its hard for them. There were so many questions and some I didn’t even know what they meant,” he said. “But it is also really exciting at the same time because it’s a new experience and they are looking for a better life.”

Woodard agreed. “The process now is probably more in depth with all of the terrorism happening,” she said. “If I was doing this in real life today, I probably wouldn’t leave my country.”

Timely themes

Dan Stark, middle school social studies teacher, has been teaching this course for eight years, on a two-year cycle. Students spend about two weeks on this topic.

They begin by coming off the ship where an official checks the ship’s manifest, asks a series of questions and records the information, which he then shares with the officials making the final decisions.

“They have to keep their stories straight all day,” Stark explained. “Immigrants had to do that in real life, too.”

Most of the stories are of immigrants from places like Italy, Greece, Poland and northern Europe. The workers might be immigrants themselves and all have back-stories, too.

“All of them have something that could potentially be a problem. If they’ve done their homework, they should have letters with them to help them get clearance,” he said.

At the end, Stark does a “debriefing” with the students in which they talk about their experiences. Later in the course, they will explore more about modern stories of immigration.

“It is a recurring theme that naturally will keep coming up throughout the year,” Stark said. “But is also such a timely thing with the events in Paris. At first, it is so hard to hear our country not wanting to ‘welcome a stranger.’ But it is also hard to look at who it is we are being asked to welcome if we don’t do background checks. So we are going to talk about all of that.”

The lessons Stark teaches oftentimes overlap with what students are hearing in other courses, like theology, taught by Susan Kolb. Using a compilation of short stories that span from as early as the 1800s to the early 2000s, Kolb has been teaching students about different types of intolerance.

“In each of these stories, students are identifying those that are oppressed and those that are doing the oppressing,” she explained. “Within theology, we are discussing what it means to be intolerant and developing an understanding of how that affects us in our own lives.”

She said that sometimes people live in their own “little bubbles.”

“Intolerance didn’t just happen years ago,” she said. “We talk about things like the attacks in Paris and Black Lives Matter. We will continue to discuss what our role is and how we can be more tolerant and make the world a better place. I am amazed at how the students use their critical thinking skills to apply what they are learning in these classes to what is going on today.”

Pauly agrees that, this year, the immigration exercise is especially timely.

“As we all see the global crises so many families from war-torn countries face, our young people get to experience the immigrants’ journey and discuss it together.”