This spring, Kelly Tieger set out to teach her fourth grade students about immigration and encourage them to develop empathy for those who immigrated through Ellis Island at the turn of the 20th century. To achieve this, Ms. Tieger designed an immersive unit that required students to create their own characters who made the journey across the Atlantic in pursuit of a new life. To conclude the study, she created a simulation of the immigrant inspection process to allow students to experience the same feelings of bewilderment, hope, and fear that immigrants had upon their arrival to New York. Understanding the story of immigration, she believes, is imperative to understanding our country today. 


“I love to teach immigration in the fourth grade, because students at this age are really beginning to open up their awareness to the world around them,” shares Ms. Tieger. This awareness is a gateway to cultivating empathy and compassion toward others, and enabled students to develop and even “become” fictional characters from the early 1900s.

In order to more deeply understand the trials and tribulations associated with moving to a new country, students penned journal entries as their characters, researched family trees, and designed authentic costumes. The highlight of the unit was the immersive role play event that brought to life the arrival of millions of people to the immigrant inspection station in New York Harbor; students never broke character as they reenacted the arrival process.

Ms. Tieger explains that dramatic play is a valuable tool to encourage deeper learning. “The beauty of a role play is that it taps back into the power of dramatic play and the imagination to help the history come alive, and feel intensely real, personal, and meaningful,” she explains. “An immersive experience can raise the stakes for students; it can turn the theoretical into something visceral. It’s memorable, meaningful, and importantly — fun.”