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Independence Middle School eighth-graders simulate entering Ellis Island as immigrants

Wednesday, March 21, 2001

By Mary Niederberger, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

On most weekdays, Billy Wasko, Ben Petchel, Alex Brown and Nicole Hisiro are normal eighth-graders at Independence Middle School in Bethel Park.

But one day last month, the four were immigrants from France, arriving at Ellis Island in 1914 after World War I broke out in their homeland.

There were other groups of immigrants that day as well. One was a family fleeing Italy and the Fascist rule of Benito Mussolini, another was leaving Cuba to protest the rise of new dictator Fidel Castro.

Much like the immigrants of decades earlier, the student immigrants arrived with their most important possessions, carefully selected, in one suitcase. They were herded as a group — 450 in all — into the school gym, which served as their version of Ellis Island.

They were met by stern-looking immigration officials, who looked a lot like their teachers, dressed in black suits. From there, they were divided by nationality and sent for simulated medical exams and tests to see if they could read and write.

Those who passed the tests were sent in smaller groups for immigration processing, where officials, who were really foreign language teachers, gave them instructions in foreign tongues so they could see how difficult it was for the real immigrants who came to America.

Finally, student immigrants were sent along for the rest of their make-believe journey to Pittsburgh. There, the immigrants would get jobs in steel mills, glass factories or slaughterhouses or set up their own restaurants or tailor shops.

The academic exercise that allowed the eighth-graders to experience a piece of history was the kickoff to the Pittsburgh Unit — an interdisciplinary effort that teaches the history of Pittsburgh through the eyes of immigrants.

Created by teachers, it encompasses almost every subject the students have and has been offered at Independence Middle School for the past seven years. The unit received an Award of Merit last fall from the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation.

The lessons last most of a nine-week grading period. For the kickoff day and on days when students give dramatic presentations of their experiences, many come dressed in costume. Teachers also dress to fit their roles as immigration officials wearing black suits and doctors giving physicals in white coats.

While the unit’s lessons appear most heavily in social studies and reading, the Pittsburgh theme is carried into almost every class — even math and art, which are tied together in a lesson.

In that application, students received a tiny block of paper that holds part of a larger scene of Pittsburgh. As a math exercise, they have to practice proportions to get their block reproduced in the correct proportions on a larger piece of paper, math teacher Wayne Paul said.

Each block is colored and then connected to the others, as in a puzzle, to create a large Pittsburgh scene such as a skyline of the city.

Another art exercise requires students, while on a walking tour of Mount Washington, to locate and identify various forms of architecture photographed by the art teacher and handed out before the walk.

As a home economics lesson, the students create a cookbook of ethnic family recipes and hold a Pittsburgh food fair where they eat locally produced products such as chipped ham, ketchup, pickles and Klondike ice cream bars.

In language arts, teacher Gloria Feather teaches a segment on recognizing “Pittsburghese.”

By the end of the nine-week period, students working in groups complete a research paper that details some aspect of the region’s history such as the steel industry, higher education, the rivers, or art and architecture.

The papers, which are researched from the archives at the Heinz Regional History Center as well as the school’s computer lab and library, are presented for parents at an exposition night.

“I think it’s a lot more work than anything we’ve done so far this year,” said Brenna Brucker, 13. “But it does make learning fun.”

The unit also helps connect students to their grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ generations, teacher Marcy Rosen said. “It really helps them reconnect with the past. Often they go to their parents or grandparents and ask questions.”

That’s exactly what Jordan Panico, 14, did. Both of his grandmothers were immigrants — one from Poland, the other from Italy — who came through Ellis Island.

“I’ve been talking to my grandmothers a lot about this. They like answering my questions,” he said.

This article appeared in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. © Pittsburgh Post Gazette

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