Driving Empathy and Real World Connections With Ellis Island Simulation

Whitby School

How might a teacher successfully teach the concept of empathy? How could we make immigration feel real and relevant for all of our students? These were the questions that the fourth grade teachers grappled with prior to the start of our unit of inquiry on migration. After discussions with colleagues and some networking with teachers from other schools, we decided that the best way to accomplish these two lofty goals would be to have students take on the roles of immigrants from our past. To ground us in context, we chose to create immigrant roles that would situate our student participants at Ellis Island in the United States in the early 1900s.

And, the biggest question loomed: Would it ultimately impact our kids? We weren't sure at first, but it was worth a try.

How would this work? Could we pull it off with limited student research, allowing it to serve as a provocation to inspire further inquiry? And, the biggest question loomed: Would it ultimately impact our kids? We weren't sure at first, but it was worth a try. To begin, we generated excitement in our classrooms by showing short documentaries of immigrant life in the time period. As we sat reflecting about what life must have been like for these people, we asked our students how they might better get a sense for this.

Students suggested field trips, which we assured them we would do. Another suggested virtual reality to make everything feel more real, and we let them know about the possibility of this opportunity, too. A third student asked about role play. Upon this suggestion, we revealed to the students that in our hands, we held their new identities. Next week, we wanted them to come to school dressed in character and fully committed to their assigned roles. Our students could hardly contain their excitement, and the teachers were right there with them.

When the day arrived, students dropped their luggage and headed to the dock to catch the disembarking ship. Once they arrived at “Ellis Island” (a.k.a. our Performing Arts Center), students made their way through stations manned by teachers and faculty. They were quizzed by officials on their personal lives, their religions, and their political affiliations. Students were surveyed and questioned by our acting health officials, and they came away with more questions than they had had to begin with.


Did this simulation inspire that interest and empathy we'd hoped for? The short answer: yes. Our students, as always, are excited about their new unit, but there's a sense of investment this time around that feels even more intense. In their follow up reflections, some deep student questions emerged that set us up for more relevant and challenging inquiry:

  • How can we support immigrants?
  • How should we treat illegal immigrants?
  • How do you deal with the challenges you face as an immigrant?
  • Why do people have opinions against immigration?

Empathy, though? There are strong hints in those questions, but what else might prove that it’s taking seed? In one student’s reflection journal he remarked, “I felt that I wasn't treated fairly. I mean, I coughed once at the health station and I got marked for mental illness. How is that even possible? It wasn't right.” Another student reflected, “I wondered what I would do after getting deported and not being allowed in (to the US). I mean, would I even be welcome back in my home country? I bet not. That must be such a scary thing.” Our students are beginning to grapple with perspective and trying to see the world from someone else’s eyes.

This is precisely what learning should be: relevant and engaging. When learning becomes more than just consuming surface level information, it becomes an infinitely powerful tool for students. They can take their newly found knowledge and make strong connections in areas outside the classroom by actively participating in discussions about current events. There is no “right” answer to the new questions that have emerged from this exercise, but there is vast opportunity for the development of connections, for application across varied contexts, and for challenging thinking and discourse to occur. Learning engagements that push our students to seek and respect multiple perspectives help to nurture students who care about the world in which they live – both in areas that directly affect them and those that don't. Link to download "10 Things to Look For In an Inspirational Classroom"