Power In the Classroom – Storytelling Ellis Island

The room hushed, eyes all looked expectantly toward the guest. She stood at the front of the classroom, took a deep breath and held the trance a few extra seconds. Her words spilled out. At first the words came in a soft trickle then stronger as the story grew. The story character climbed the gang plank of a great ship to take her to America, the storytellers legs moved in a rhythmic climbing motion. She stood. hunched under the imperceptible load of baggage and treasured belongings, the story character / storyteller stood onboard the ship. She spun side to side listening to the array of orders being shouted in many languages. So many children were pressed to the mothers sides , just as hers were. America, here we come, what will you hold for all of us.

In those moments the story character and the storyteller melded into one. That is how it works, bringing to life a story. The students stayed with the story, sometimes echoing the sounds or moving in reaction to the  story line. The journey to America and the Ellis Island  experience became real inside the classroom. For those few minutes the students smelled the stench below decks, felt the reeling deck beneath their feet, then rejoiced at the shouted elation “America”. The streets were not paved with gold, the journey was hard, set back, after set back the family struggled, then pulled themselves up to try again. After years of hard work, even the weather turned on the family wiping out all they had gained. The students audible gasps and moans showed their empathy for this family.

Hemlock boughs hang low over the quiet river. Up the hill in the screen porch in a small house an elderly couple sit and relax. They earned their rest. The journey had been long and fraught with troubles. Old age had come and now they enjoyed these golden days by the river, a river that reminded them of all they left behind. The students ease back in their seats relieved to hear the outcome is restful and rewarding. They slowly let the air they had been holding in go, a gentle sigh fills the room. We are all tired, it is as if we all made that journey and stood in each place and weathered each storm together. A couple of students glance around the room as if it might have changed while they were away on the  journey. They are quiet as they pick up pencils, some write, some draw, they choose the way to express the story. In the end their work is amazing.

201512 quote

This was a story collected by an oral history. The story was a true experience, a real life chronicle. It immersed the students in the Ellis Island experience as part of their history curriculum. Storytelling and family stories have an immense power to  teach. Every student took away something that day. One may have taken the empathy, another resilience, another fierce independence. The story will stay with them, it will flood back in their mind at the mention of Ellis Island. Storytelling is a key to experiential learning in education. What we can not experience in person we can feel and learn via story.

This was probably the most powerful teaching lesson/ storytelling I have experienced to date. The students were eighth grade. Many had made their own journey to America. Some had grandparents who came. Everyone could garner some gem from the story and write and draw activity that followed. I have never been more convinced of the power of storytelling in the classroom.

student artwork depicting a scene from the story


Previous posts on Family stories; collecting and telling:

5 Ways to Preserve Family Stories

3 Prompts to Collect a Family Story

One Response to Power In the Classroom – Storytelling Ellis Island

  1. What a great experience for these kids! I visited Ellis Island recently, and it gave me shivers. I imagined what my great-grandfather saw when he arrived from Scotland, alone, at age 21.

    These oral histories are so rich and meaningful. I love it that these kids are exposed to them at an early age.

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