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March 21, 2012 Bringing History to Life With Dramatic Play - Reenacting Ellis Island By Alycia Zimmerman
Grades 3–5

    Dramatic play is a standard part of the early childhood curriculum. By the upper elementary grades however, “playing house” is a distant memory, and make-believe games are relegated to recess. Dramatic play isn’t just for kindergarten though! Content-heavy dramatic play is a wonderful way to help older students synthesize subject area lessons. This week, I will share how dramatic play took center stage during my Ellis Island Immigration Unit.


    What is Dramatic Play?

    Dramatic play is the teacher-talk for what most kids simply know as “make-believe” or “pretend.” In a theatrical setting, dramatic play is often called improvisation. Dramatic play is generally an unscripted and unrehearsed activity during which participants assume “pretend” personas and spontaneously invent dialogue and characterizations for their roles.

    Early childhood teachers know the many benefits of allowing children time to engage in dramatic play, and many pre-K and kindergarten classrooms feature dramatic play centers. To see a kindergarten post office in action, check out Allie Magnuson’s blog post on dramatic play.


    Dramatic Play in Third Grade?

    Dramatic play in the upper elementary classroom looks very different, of course, than in kindergarten. Dramatic play helps older students fully synthesize their content learning in a fun, child-centered way. Dramatic play works in most content areas – I’ve had my students “perform” photosynthesis, with students taking on the roles of carbohydrates, water, carbon dioxide, etc. However, dramatic play particularly lends itself to history – just think of the many adult reenactors who enjoy make-believe Civil War battles or Medieval jousts.

    Upper elementary students also still love make-believe! After introducing dramatic play during lessons about Ellis Island, my students begged for more “dramatic plays” in other subject areas. On their own initiative, they began acting out scenes from their books and other history scenarios. The students particularly enjoyed planning for dramatic play scenes – inventing props from basic classroom materials, transforming tables, chairs, and bookcases into elaborate scenery, and assigning carefully planned roles to participants.


    Dramatic Play – Why Bother?

    Back when I was in fourth grade, my teacher Mrs. Risi had us build an enormous model Dutch house as part of our New Amsterdam unit of study. I still remember drawing pretend Delft blue tiles to line the mantelpiece, and I’ll never forget the purpose of the half-doorway in our cardboard house: Our house was far too dark with the door fully closed, but we certainly didn’t want to let the pigs, in this case played by two rambunctious boys, into our home either. This is the type of learning that sticks – over two decades later, I still feel like quite an expert on Dutch colonial life thanks to some very intensive dramatic play in fourth grade!

    History-based dramatic play gives a purpose to students’ research; students will need to apply the many details they’ve learned during a social studies unit to create a rich dramatic play experience. Dramatic play also helps students use their imaginations to “walk in another’s shoes,” allowing students to build their own insights about life long ago.

    While watching my students engage in dramatic play, I’m able to assess their grasp of the content without a pencil and paper test. I quickly jot notes about which students look appropriately bedraggled while in pretend “steerage class,” and which students seem to have confused steerage with first class. Perhaps most important, dramatic play provides the important link between cognitive, emotional, and creative development that creates deep and lasting content area understandings.


    Exploring Ellis Island Through Dramatic Play

    As part of the third grade social studies curriculum at my school, my students learn about immigration of both long ago and today. This is a particularly relevant unit since many of my students’ parents are immigrants, or they are immigrants themselves. While learning about the history of immigration to the United States, we have focused on immigration through Ellis Island and immigration narratives from the turn of the last century. There is a wealth of resources to explore with my students on this topic, some of which I’ve included at the bottom of this blog post.

    I divided our Ellis Island study into smaller groups of lessons, and my students learned about each topic through whole class read-alouds, small group research, and independent projects. At the end of each mini-module, we held a dramatic play session to synthesize what my students’ learned during those lessons. I divided the unit into the following modules:

    • Life in the “old country” and causes for immigration
    • The journey
    • The Ellis Island experience
    • Starting a new life in the United States


    Reenacting the Journey

    Let me describe for you one of our dramatic play scenarios when my entire class explored the journey to Ellis Island. To prepare for the dramatic play, we held several class discussions beforehand. My students brainstormed the roles for the “play,” and we created a list of props they wanted. I gave my students some time in class to prepare their props, and some students brought in props from home as well. The students each packed a shoebox “steamer trunk” with paper cut outs of their most precious possesions.

    My students compared their shoebox trunks with the collection of real baggage at Ellis Island.

    A few days later, most of the students lined up in the hallway to board the ship to America (i.e. enter our classroom,) while other students playing the role of the crew checked off the students’ names on their manifests. Of course, the first class passengers got to cut the line, and were welcomed aboard with small cups of lemonade. (We picked the first class passengers from a hat to keep things fair.)

    First class passengers were given full roam of our classroom, while steerage passengers had to make their way under the classroom tables. Onboard inspectors checked each of the steerage passengers to make sure they were healthy – the shipping company wouldn’t want to incur the cost of returning sick passengers to their ports of origin.

    The students fully embraced their roles, and the shouts of “Land-Ho!” and “I see Lady Liberty” were exultant from some of the steerage passengers who were getting bored sitting under the classroom tables.

    After I announced, “Cut! Scene over!” in my best directorial voice, we all gathered on the rug for the students to share their individual experiences during the dramatic play. Since all of the students were playing their parts at the same time, the first class passengers may have missed some of the action in steerage, (particularly, one girl’s lament about “weevily hardtack,”) and the captain was so busy positioning a giant homemade poster of the Statue of Liberty that he missed a lot of the goings-on aboard his own ship.


    On-Site Dramatic Play – Reenactment at Ellis Island

    Teaching in New York City, I am lucky that I could actually bring my students to the Ellis Island Immigration Museum at the culmination of our Ellis Island unit. Without some preparatory work, the museum could be boring to third graders. However, given that my students were already experts about Ellis Island prior to our visit, every nook and cranny within the museum was fortunately significant.

    This stairway may not look like much, but it is actually the infamous "Stairway of Separation" at Ellis Island! My students were so excited to walk down the three sets of stairs, pretending that one door led to deportment, one to further detainment, and one to freedom and a new life!

    Before our visit, I told my students that we were going to get to do some site-specific dramatic play while at Ellis Island. We packed props to support our dramatic play into our backpacks – health inspection forms and chalk to mark students’ coats, disembarkation tickets for each student and chaperone, and reading tests for the literacy inspection.


    We bring a pretend medical inspection board to reenact the nervewracking inspection experience. Assuming the role of an inspector, I question a student about her employment in her old country, and then I change her name - she suddenly became Catherine Clark!

    Not to worry if an actual field trip to Ellis Island isn’t possible with your class. On March 29, 2012 Scholastic is hosting a Live Virtual Field Trip and Webcast on their website. Sign up now for this great opportunity to virtually visit Ellis Island with your students! Then reenact some Ellis Island scenes in your own classroom to really bring the experience to life!

    My students crowded around a statue of Annie Moore, the first immigrant to pass through Ellis Island. My students were excited because we had previously read about Annie in the book Dreaming of America.


    Additional Resources

    I’ve used Scholastic’s Immigration Collection for years with my students. They have compiled a wonderful collection of multimedia resources that are all appropriate for upper elementary students. They are going to be updating this section of the website over the coming months, and I can’t wait to see how they improve upon this already amazing resource. I’ve created a webquest research activity to go along with the Interactive Tour of Ellis Island on Scholastic’s website. My students love exploring Ellis Island at their own pace while answering the questions on the research guide.

    If a field trip to Ellis Island isn’t possible for your class, the National Parks Service loans out a travelling artifact kit, their “Park in a Pack” full of materials from the Ellis Island Museum.

    For more creative lesson ideas about Ellis Island, check out Jennifer and Jenifer’s blog post about how they are preparing for the Ellis Island Webcast in their classroom.

    A class photo on the upper floor of Ellis Island.


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