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Historical Fiction Fifth-Grade Project

by Michele Norfleet, studioD

Immersing students in history helps the stories of the past come alive. As you begin a unit on immigration in fifth-grade social studies, including literature and role-playing in your instruction gives students a better understanding of this time in our country’s history. Reading the historical fiction novel "Letters From Rifka" by Karen Hesse, the story of a young girl and her family who immigrate to America in 1919, helps students develop a better understanding of the hardships faced by immigrants at Ellis Island.

Read the novel "Letters From Rifka" by Karen Hesse. Read the novel aloud to students in class paired with discussion, or assign the book for individual reading. Read this novel simultaneously with your fifth-grade social studies unit on immigration in the early 20th century.

Watch a video on immigration depicting real scenes from Ellis Island. Videos are available online or at most school libraries or resource centers.

Plan a day to reenact immigrant processing at Ellis Island. Invite teachers, parents and community members to role-play the processing officers at Ellis Island.

Set up your processing stations around the classroom, in the hallways or multi-purpose room.

Assign a role to each fifth grader. Give students each a card describing their characters. Include identifying information, such as name, age, country of origin, employment, health conditions, family members and reason for immigrating to the United States.

Instruct students to come to school on the assigned day, in costume, to be processed at Ellis Island. Students should wear appropriate clothing for their character and for the era, as much as possible. Instruct students to memorize their identifying information.

Begin the processing procedure. Enter the processing center. Proceed to an available inspector. Answer interview questions. The inspector then determines if you are allowed to enter the United States, must stay at Ellis Island or must return to your country of origin.

Return to the classroom. Discuss the processing experience with students. Relate the immigration experience to the novel, "Letters From Rifka."

Items you will need
  •  “Letters From Rifka” by Karen Hesse (enough copies for your entire class)
  •  Video of processing at Ellis Island
  •  Tables and chairs for processing officers
  •  Paper and pencils for processing officers
  •  Note cards with identifying information for new immigrants (one per student)


  • Have extra clothing and props available for students who may come to school unprepared on "Immigration Day."

About the Author

Michele Norfleet is a freelance writer who writes on travel, home and garden and education topics. She has coauthored a handbook for teachers on school-wide discipline and has contributed tips for special-needs students in the basal curriculum for RCL Benziger. Norfleet holds a master's degree from Southern Illinois University and has experience as a special-needs teacher and speech pathologist.

Photo Credits

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