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New York City
September 2001

SI Educators Discover the Familiar at Ellis Island
By Kahdeidra Martin and Katarzyna Kozanecka

Some 30 Staten Island school officials became threads in our nation’s fabric recently by exploring the Ellis Island Tapestry, an interactive curriculum that teaches history and social studies through drama. Led by Kathleen Gaffney, co-founder and president of Artsgenesis, Inc. who designed the Tapestry, participants used their imaginations to leap back in time, becoming the daughters, husbands and disabled grandmothers of families who migrated to the United States on the busiest day in Ellis Island history: April 17, 1907. On this day, 11,745 people were processed for citizenship.

From those first refugees who fled religious hegemony in England to children of Sierra Leone, spared only their lives amidst the war and famine infecting their paradise, the continuous migration to America—North, South and Caribbean—is perhaps the largest of the modern world.

“Migration has always been part of the history of the world,” said Gaffney to participants of the District 31 Principal’s Leadership Institute, “yet it is [driven by] the individual choice of people who said, ‘This isn’t good enough; I am going here.’” At this professional development workshop, Gaffney and Christopher Eaves, an artist and educational designer for Artsgenesis, trained school officials to “stimulate the multiple intelligences” in their students by using arts-integrated curriculum. Moreover, officials experienced the Tapestry for themselves.

First, the school officials were randomly divided into families. Next, each group explored the Ellis Island Museum in order to create their own family history. As the curriculum draws from several primary documents, officials were told to choose a surname from the Great Wall of Honor on the first floor of the museum. Next, each person chose their gender, age, and ethnicity as well as an occupation and a reason for immigrating to the United States. To gain the most from the experience, Gaffney encouraged principals to become someone of a completely different background. She said, “ When you take the journey in the shoes of someone different than yourself, you will awaken to things that [had previously been] invisible to you.”

When the identification process was completed, Gaffney and Eaves acted as immigration officers who decided the fates of each family. Some members were admitted, others were sent to the hospital, and still others were deported.

The Tapestry offers students a subjective account of history that will accelerate learning. The curriculum’s success lies in its loose framework and simple ideology. Primarily, the flexible structure offers enough guidance without stifling teachers’ own creative juices. Schools can opt to have a professional artist administer the Tapestry. However, the goal of the workshop is to encourage teachers to lead the workshop in the classroom or at a visit to the museum. Dorothy Ambrosino, principal of PS 21, appreciates the structure the Tapestry lends to a trip to the Ellis Island museum because students are given a concrete but creative task to complete. According to Julie Sherwood, principal of PS 23, “It teaches team-building and social skills.” Indeed, the dramatic workshop has several advantages. Through role-play, students will make personal investments that ignite specific emotions of hope and fear, excitement and grief.

“When a human being learns something new, a new synapse grows in the brain,” Gaffney said, “In the presence of strong emotions, such as those unleashed by the arts, the synapse that grows is larger.” Moreover, people learn better with an arts-integrated task because they use multiple senses. Thus, musical, dramatic and visual arts serve as catalysts for imparting various types of knowledge and uncovering talents that a child may never had known existed. Gaffney said, “The kids that are avoided, pestered, or persecuted will get involved. The dynamics of your classroom will change incredibly.”

Augusta Mitchell, who played a duplicitous sister-in-law and is principal of P.S. 29, said she “will definitely use the model” in her school because “It’s marvelous, and it’s do-able.” Peering at the photo of a seated Mr. Charles Petunia before he left the British West Indies in 1918, she smiled and said, “He looks familiar.”


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