We just returned from an awesome trip to New York City. It was made possible by a conference my spouse attended for work, allowing us to stay in Manhattan. While we only had two full days, we made the most of the time, with one of the crowning achievements being our Thursday spent looking at immigration. It was a full day, no doubt, but a really unique experience in a city that has so much to offer in that vein. I was able to cheat a little, drawing on my experience as a program instructor for the Close Up Foundation’s New York Programs, but the process is certainly replicable!
Select your theme
Photograph of immigrants arriving in New York City (Ellis Island)
New York City has a long history, so if this city is your destination you’ve a lot of potential subjects from which to choose: architecture, finance, immigration, urban studies, terrorism, drama, etc., etc. For your trip you might select the subject because of the city, or the city because of the subject. We knew we were going to New York City, so I chose the subjects, in particular Thursday, accordingly. Given enough planning a trip to another city or to the closest city can be rich with multi-disciplined projects. For example, in wrapping up the trip, we are going to look at the science of building skyscrapers (Manhattan), compare the early art styles of Western Civilization (the Metropolitan Museum of Art) and a themed summary of our “immigration day”–that’s science, math, art, and history.
So, select your themes. Then do your homework. If you search for books of walking tours of New York City on Amazon.com you’ll get 153 results–and, that is without the tours provided in association with the local historical societies, museums, community organizations, tourism bureaus and websites. My decision to focus on immigration for one day of education vacation was simple: 1) it is a huge element of New York City’s identity, 2) it includes places and sites that are signature destinations for visitors to the city, and 3) it was accessible, working well with our hotel’s location and public transportation.
In New York City, immigration is hugely representative of the city. Other cities might different themes. Consider the following:
- Washington, DC – U.S. government, civil involvement and responsibility, founding principles
- Pittsburgh, PA – second industrial revolution, American industry barons, workers movements and unions, philanthropy
- Chicago, IL – development of frontier America, American urban development, western industry, environment changes
- Atlanta, GA – Civil Rights movement, Old South vs. New South, urban community-building, urban image-building, representative government
- New Orleans, LA – city planning and design, transitioning identities, Civil Rights, Hurricane Katrina as a case study for government involvement, crisis management, recovery
- San Francisco, CA – Spanish colonization, gold rush in building the American West, Chinese in America, Japanese Interment, HIV/AIDs (carefully!!), 1960s and hippie movement
These cities feed these themes well. Obviously, I chose major cities, but similar focuses and opportunities exist for smaller cities or larger towns (including many in your own town or city!!), such as Williamsburg VA, Gettysburg PA, Taos NM, and Colorado Springs CO. But, the advantage of your theme should be in your ability to focus on its applicability in the city, ability to stick to your time allowance, affordability, and inclusion of sites that most people would want to see when visiting the city.
We took the ferry to Liberty Island and Ellis Island from Battery Park (NYC)
As time allowance goes, check with public transportation if you are not busing. If you are busing take some time to look at local traffic sites and get a sense for how long you will actually be commuting–check the tourism board, too, because they are there to serve you. The occasional long ride is ok, but build some of your program into it. Just because students are on the charter bus does not mean they have to be checked out or on down time, but having said that, they will occasionally need a chance for a mental break. Families have the advantage, here. Public transportation and walking are great ways to get in touch with the city you are visiting, giving you constant contact with place you are visiting, but also offering an opportunity to relax and (hopefully) get off your feet. It does require you to do some planning in advance to be confident. (The smart phones and apps have some limitations, so have a back up!)
Make sure you can adjust to the weather and the conditions you face. Encourage students to carry a backpack or shoulder bag with another layer, a snack and a water bottle, in addition to cameras and wallets. Make the decision in advance: if it rains are you packing it in? If not, how will you deal with the rain? I had papers that were part of my immigration tour, so I knew I would need to balance the use of that with rain cover if the weather turned foul (as it turned out, raining was minimal, but cold and wind were a little more intense and challenged the learning experience).
Most of us do not walk anymore (unless we live in a city already or have a regular exercise program), so the necessary walking involved in an educational tour of a city or a section of a city is sometimes a challenge to everyone involved. If possible, you may want to add a bit of walking into your preparation–maybe there is an opportunity to compare the city you are visiting with a nearby city or home town, that will get you walking in advance of the trip.
Preparing the student(s)
Statue of Frederic Auguste Bartholdi who designed the Statue of Liberty and imbued her with symbols
For our immigration tour, my daughter looked at National Park Service documents, printouts and worksheets, including a history of the Statue of Liberty, her symbolism, and the immigration test. (In history, we are covering Western Civilization, so we were focused on a handful of exhibits in the Metropolitan Museum of Art–part of her work along the way has included Art History readings, so she was able to make comparisons and identify different features in the art we viewed.) I also gave her a values matrix, where I asked her to rate what features were important considerations for accepting immigrants and then apply those to possible cases to evaluate the intended or unintended outcomes of her policies–in the wrap up she will be asked to consider how the country regarded those values over time for immigration.
The student(s) should not be thrown into the content without some prior experience. The visit should take the student to the next step, not serve as an introduction. So, it is important not to neglect preparation. By the same token, the visit should not serve as the end of the learning experience–it is a portion of the overall whole. I know of a teacher who sent his students to investigate New Deal architecture in their home city; had he simply sent them out, even with a “script” of sorts, the experience would not represent a genuine learning experience, just an oddball field trip. Success requires preparation and reflection, or, even better, preparation, project, and reflection.
Our Immigration Thursday in NYC
A mural of the Jewish immigrant experience in the Lower East Side (building rumored to be scheduled for demolition)
We began our day by heading to Battery Park, taking the ferry to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island–we paid for the audio tours and they were a pretty big hit! The ferries leave at regular intervals so it is easy to adjust to one’s schedule. (The ferries and each island also had food options for either snacks or meals.)
From there we picked up a city bus–the driver was really helpful and gracious to us–and headed in the direction of the Tenement Museum and New York City’s Lower East Side. We probably had the time to visit the museum, but this trip it was not in our shoe-string budget, so we walked past it and headed over to the walking tour I had planned which included a number of immigrant-rich sites looking at the history of Jewish immigration. From there we walked to Little Italy. While Chinatown is not technically in this area, it has effectively overlapped into other neighborhoods, so we saw quite a bit of Chinatown; this demonstrates the shift from Italian immigrants to a newer wave of Chinese immigrants. While these neighborhoods have history associated with specific ethnic groups, the natural diaspora of immigrants a few generations removed from their old country tends to lead immigrant neighborhoods to evolve and change. We concluded our evening at the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA)–which has free admission on Thursdays (for the time being, at least).
This was a lot to cover! It is a bit exhausting, but the beauty is that we covered sites and neighborhoods that are popular sites and asked penetrating questions about immigration policy. Each site fed the next and asked questions about what it means to be an immigrant and how we should handle immigration. This creates a bonded chain that links preparation to reflection. It’s a great way to learn.
Sign for a beauty parlor near Little Italy and Chinatown