Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. / Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.
In 1883, Emma Lazarus wrote these words in her famous sonnet “The New Colossus,” which is inscribed on a plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty. More than a century later, the Statue of Liberty continues to symbolize the universal message of hope and freedom for immigrants coming to America and people seeking freedom around the world. In addition, the Statue of Liberty reminds us to teach the importance of national monuments in our classrooms. We New Yorkers have the luxury of having glorious Niagara Falls in our state as well. However, a majority of students in my district will never see these wonders, despite the fact that we are only a few hours away. Since we are in the midst of my favorite social studies unit, immigration, I decided to focus upon the magnificence of the Statue of Liberty and the pride she instills in all citizens of the United States.
We began by watching the "Cities" episode of the History Channel’s incredible series America: The Story of Us, which chronicles the shift from westward expansion to vertical metropolises such as New York City. It also provides little-known details about the remarkable gift given to us by the French. Did you know that there was competition amongst many big cities to claim the Statue of Liberty? Thankfully Joseph Pulitzer used his newspaper prowess to take out full-page ads asking for donations to keep her in the New York Harbor. Furthermore, the amount of time to assemble such a monstrous figure was astounding. My 7th and 8th graders hung on every word of the narration, and were particularly intrigued by the fact that when building the cement pedestal, workers threw coins inside the base for good luck. These details provided inspiration for a project-based learning project: creating a pop-up Statue of Liberty by hand.
Although nervous about the prospect of taking on such a big undertaking, I was intrigued by the possibilities. Since a large number of my students are visual learners, they would need as many pieces of inspiration as possible. It turned out that one of our greatest resources was the Ellis Island Web site. Not only was there valuable information that we would use later on in the unit, but the site featured a “Lady Liberty TorchCam” that provided LIVE views of the New York City skyline, the Hudson River, and all aspects of the statue herself. What an amazing opportunity for the kids to experience our subject firsthand!
Now that we had some background knowledge, our next challenge was the actual construction. I decided to break the class into small groups that focused specifically on my students' strong points. For example, I asked my best artists to design the statue itself while my math masters carefully measured the lines of the skyline buildings. Those who were mastery learners were delegated the task of compiling data into an informational mini-book. As a group we decided to use an old reference book as the base of our project, and as fate would have it, the center page focused on the great state of New York!
At first, the students needed quite a bit of guidance, and I was peppered with a flurry of questions such as “How are we going to get her to stand up without falling over?” and “What kind of materials should we use?” However, they didn’t need my assistance for long. They quickly began to collaborate with each other, and each one emerged as a leader in their own way. Beyond the educational knowledge gained, I saw individual growth in the areas of problem solving, critical reasoning, attention to detail, and teamwork.
The end result was truly remarkable, and my students' faces were positively glowing. In addition, word got around about our masterpiece, and soon visitors of all grade levels were popping in to see my students' creation. What surprised me most was that instead of giving them my teacher-created assessment, they independently critiqued themselves based on how they incorporated the elements of what we had learned and on how they would do it differently next time. In addition, each wrote an in-depth essay on what the Statue of Liberty means to them. What more could I ask for?