Sunday, March 14, 2010

Second Grade Immigration Journals

As a second grade teacher, I enjoy incorporating bookbinding into my language arts curriculum as often as possible. One of our capstone projects comes during the Coming to America unit. Students study the lives and perspectives of immigrants; mostly we focus on historical immigration. We read many wonderful children's books about the topic. Many of these use excellent descriptive language. Students also work with the drama teacher to present a play inspired by many of our literature selections.

We dress the children up in all kinds of old clothes and fabric, and take their photo. From there, they imagine themselves as an immigrant character from long ago. Many children base the character on their own ancestor. Others are creative in their selection. Then, we set up two simulations for the children. One is a passport simulation in which they stand in a long line upon their arrival to school to be questioned by "inspectors at the passport office" (teachers). Their photo is attached to the passport. Finally, students experience an Ellis Island simulation, where we take them on a walk in areas of our campus where they have rarely been. We take them in the attic and through a fire escape, down in the basement of another building. We use chalk to draw a boat on the sport court and have them cram together. This year, they even had some water splashed on them. Once we leave the boat, students spot the Statue of Liberty (a teacher wrapped in green fabric holding a green binder and a foam crown). They gather around her and sing, "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free..." Then, we lead them to the inspection station. Many children comment that while they know this is pretend, they truly feel like an immigrant.

During the last few weeks of the unit, the teachers create fabric journals for each student in the class. In some years, students select fabric from the mountain we have collected over the years. One remnant in particular, a red floral print on heavy canvas, was left over from a colleagues curtains several decades ago. There was so much, she made overalls for each of her own four kids. The scraps were turned into immigration journals - we used the final piece last year. This year, we involved grandparents and families by asking students to write letters, asking for some fabric that can be used. One child brought in pieces of her great grandmother's wedding dress and veil. Another child brought in a handkerchief embroidered an ancestor. My colleagues and I cover book board and use binder rings to secure the pages together. These rings also give us the flexibility to take pages out or to add more depending on the circumstances.

Students then imagine a historical fiction story of an immigrant character from 100 years ago. The expound about learning of their journey, leaving their homeland, life on the boat, and entering an immigration inspection station (usually Ellis Island). Finally, they write a paragraph or two about their first night or week living in America. Because we spend so much time leading up to this moment, the children often find inspiration from the books we read.

I am always completely amazed at the effort and quality of work that comes through on this project! Even the emerging writers really put forth their best, and often do better on this assignment than on others. Some of the stories read as though they are actual stories from long ago While each one follows the sequence and includes historical information that we outline in class, each one has unique and interesting characteristics that set it apart from the others. I think these stories are so great because they can truly connect to this handmade journal, a book that features fabric that they have selected and come to feel an attachment to. Also, the immaginative experiences really enhance their thinking!

Here are some of the books we enjoy in class:
* Coming to America by Betsy Maestro
* Watch the Stars Come Out by Riki Levinson
* How Many Days to America?: A Thanksgiving Story by Eve Bunting
* When Jessie Came Across the Sea by Amy Hest
* The Memory Coat by Elvira Woodruff
* If Your Name Was Changed at Ellis Island by Ellen Levine
* Hannah's Journal by Marissa Moss
* The Keeping Quilt by Patricia Polacco


  1. Wow! An amazing project to be involved in, either as a teacher, parent or a child. This is the kind of thing I remember from school - a big project that got me really involved. It must be very special for your kids and help them to see their place in the world, also give them an interest in the past and how it applies to them and their families.
    Incorporating such things as drama, story telling and book binding can only enhance the specialness and give them something to remember and to keep for their whole lives.
    Fabulous Stephen!

  2. What a great project to work on with the kids! I know as a parent, these are the things about school that make such an impression. They will treasure these books!