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What was Behind the Golden Door?

Janine Werner
OverviewProcedure for teachersStudent Resources and Materials
Grade Level
Time Alloment
 Four 45-minute class periods


The United States is known around the world as a haven for people who have left their homelands in search of a better life. The great majority of people living in America are either immigrants themselves, or descended from immigrants. Droves of men, women, and children took whatever belongings they had and escaped the poverty, religious persecution, and political upheaval in their native countries. Between 1892 (when Ellis Island first opened) and 1924 (when the federal government imposed restrictions on immigration), approximately 16 million immigrants were processed through Ellis Island. When Ellis Island closed in 1954, 40 million immigrants had passed though its doors.

Through activities presented in this lesson, students will become familiar with the challenges faced by new immigrants when they arrived at Ellis Island. Students will adopt the persona of an immigrant child to understand the reasons underlying why families left their homelands, and empathize with the emotional plight of immigrants. After examining Web sites and video clips, groups of four or five students will create one scrap book, chronicling the journey of immigrant children and their family's arrival at Ellis Island.

Subject Matter

History, Social Studies

Learning Activities

Students will be able to:
  • Explain the reasons why people immigrated to the United States at the beginning of the 20th century;
  • Identify countries of origin on a map.
  • Describe the challenges faced by immigrants on Ellis Island.
  • Identify the many checkpoints immigrants had to pass on Ellis Island.
  • Empathize with the plight of immigrant children;
  • Demonstrate new knowledge through creative composition.

From the United States History Standards, available online at

Standard 4E:
Explain why important buildings, statues, and monuments are associated with state and national history, such as the White House, Lincoln Memorial, Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, Angel Island, Mt. Rushmore, and veterans memorials. [Obtain historical data]

Standard 5A:
Draw upon data from charts, historical maps, nonfiction and fiction accounts, and interviews in order to describe "through their eyes" the experience of immigrant groups. Include information such as where they came from and why they left, travel experiences, ports of entry and immigration screening, and the opportunities and obstacles they encountered when they arrived in America. [Appreciate historical perspectives]

From the New York State Learning Standards for Social Studies, available online at

Describe historic events through the eyes and experiences of those who were there.

Media Components


Insert New York: The Power and the People, Episode 4

Web Sites

Map of Pre-World War I Europe
This Web site contains a map of Europe circa 1900.

NARA: Photos of Immigrants
This Web site, a product of the National Archives and Records Administration, contains authentic photographs of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island.

KLSD: Immigration Project
This Web site, created by the Ketonah-Lewisboro School District, contains photographs of immigrants within a student-generated project on immigration.

Photographic Services of NYPL
This Web site, provided by the New York Public Library, provides photographic services covering a wealth of topics in a variety of forms.

W.W. Norton Publications: Chalk Markings
This Web site, a product of W.W. Norton Publishers, provides images contained in its publication, including the text from which this photo comes, Inventing America: A History of the United States.

W.W. Norton Publications: Ellis Island
This Web site, a product of W.W. Norton Publishers, provides images contained in its publication, including the text from which this photo comes, Inventing America: A History of the United States.

Scholastic Interactive Journey
This interactive Web site, created by Scholastic, provides an interactive tour of Ellis Island, which contains audio and video components. Requires Real One Player, available to download at

Clip Art
The following Web sites provide clip art and images that students can print for inclusion in their scrapbooks

The following Web sites provide authentic photographs and prints that students can print for inclusion in their scrapbooks. Be sure to have students cite the Web sites they utilize with any photographs they use.


For each student:

  • Printer
  • Headphones (one pair per student)
  • Pull-down world map or overhead with transparency of world map
  • Subject notebook for each student with a page entitled "Ellis Island Vocabulary"
  • Multi-colored construction paper, enough for each group's scrapbook
  • Glue sticks (at least one for each group of four to five students)
  • Safety scissors (at least one for each group of four to five students)
  • Staplers (a few to circulate around room)
  • Assorted markers and colored pencils for each group of four to five students
  • Immigrant Profile Sheet
  • Immigrant Experience worksheet