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Immigrant Stories Live on Through Second Graders' Ancestor Dolls
Posted 06/08/2017 05:14PM

If you've been a second grader at Rowland Hall, or had a child or grandchild in second grade at Rowland Hall, chances are you remember the ancestor dolls project. It's been a staple of the springtime curriculum for at least 15 years, and while the core aspects of the project remain the same, the ancestor stories reflect historical changes and evolving global patterns. Second-grade Teacher Katie Schwab noted that this year, more students' ancestors immigrated directly to the western part of the United States, whereas in the past, most made a stop at Ellis Island first. One thing that hasn't changed? The ancestor dolls project teaches young students about the immigrant experience. "It moves them one step closer to appreciating and having compassion for those that are different from us," Ms. Schwab said.

Here's how it works: Second graders are given a questionnaire that they fill out, often with the help of their parents, to guide them in choosing one of their ancestors as a subject for the project. If they choose someone who is still living, they may interview them directly, but often it involves other family members relaying stories of relatives who have passed away. The students learn where their ancestors were born; when, why, and how they immigrated to the United States; and what aspects of the transition were the most challenging. Prior to this research, students have been reading books about the immigrant experience, told from a child's perspective—one example is Molly's Pilgrim—so they have some familiarity with the topics.

After the research is complete, students prepare a narrative about their ancestors' experiences, which they use to give oral presentations to the class. And of course, when they give their presentations, the ancestor dolls themselves are the stars. Ranging from clothespin-sized figurines to plush creations that resemble stuffed toys, the dolls are made to look like recreations of the featured immigrants. Second graders describe the process of making a doll as fun, but also stressful, and one of Ms. Schwab's students said, "If your doll is absolutely perfect, Katie will suspect your parents made it." They added that having a picture of the ancestor to use as a model can be helpful, especially if the person is no longer alive.

Sitting in on the students' oral presentations, and seeing their ancestor dolls, you can feel the enthusiasm these children have for the project. Second-grader Henry D'Amico happily shared the story of his great, great, great grandfather, James Ivers, who moved to the United States from Canada in 1863. He made the journey in part because he was the second son and his older brother would inherit the family farm, so he needed to go elsewhere to find work. Henry's doll looked remarkably like a picture of Mr. Ivers' dressed as a legislator, with a long felt robe and head made out of clay.

Representing a dramatically different experience, Emma Barkes is an immigrant herself, as her family moved from England when Emma was almost four years old. She chose her mother, Helen, as the subject for her ancestor doll project, and shared that the biggest challenges her mother experienced were making new friends and learning to drive on the other side of the road. The body of Emma's ancestor doll was plush—stuffed with soft batting, she explained—and Emma hugged it close during her presentation, much like you would expect a young girl to hug her mother in real life.

While the students presented their ancestor stories and showed off the dolls they have created, their classmates soaked it all in. They were each responsible for keeping track of the name, country of origin, and reason for moving for each ancestor story. Then they traced the journeys out on a map of the world, noting who came the farthest, and any relevant patterns.

The ancestor dolls project achieves multiple curricular goals, ranging from foundational researching and writing to practicing public speaking. It is connected to several other second-grade projects, such as the memento stories students write earlier in the year, when they find an item from home and share its history (which in Henry D'Amico's case, was a mining lamp that belonged to his ancestor James Ivers). The students also participate in a book drive each spring, collecting items for the Sunnyvale Neighborhood Center. A representative from the center came to speak to the second graders this spring about the refugees who benefit from these donated books, and the students made connections between the stories of immigrants they've read about, their ancestors' journeys, and the modern-day experiences of people who come to this country.

Ms. Schwab is rightly proud of the way the ancestor dolls project opens up her students' eyes. "When I first introduce the idea that they all have ancestors that came to America long ago, they don't believe me," she said. "'We've always lived here' or 'We came from Sandy, Park City, or St. George' is a typical assumption." By the time the presentations have concluded, students have gained insight into their personal history, as well as a greater appreciation for what their peers' families have experienced. Ms. Schwab said that over the years, she has been most surprised by "the students' ability to truly understand and empathize with the struggles and sacrifices families make and have made to come to America for better lives." That's a lesson worth learning not just in second grade, but at any age.

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