Students in public history class offer walk-through for kids, adults
Between 1910 and 1940, some 1 million immigrants were processed through Angel Island, sometimes called “the Ellis Island of the West.”
On Friday, however, a century later, another 60 kids and adults got to have “The Angel Island Experience” as they simulated getting off the boat, docking their bags, having their photos taken, being sent to quarantine, going to the hospital and staying in a “dormitory” at the former immigration processing center in San Francisco Bay. In all, school and community members got to walk through eight recreated processing “stations” during the two-hour event at Guzman Lecture Hall on the campus of Dominican University in San Rafael.
“I hope that (my students) understand that history is extremely fluid, flexible and moving,” said teacher Nina Watson, who accompanied her fourth- and fifth-grade students from Ross Valley Charter school in Fairfax through the Angel Island event put on by Jordan Lieser’s public history class at Dominican. “They’re getting a human experience of history — the most important experience.”
Watson said the event was right in line with her class’s studies, which include the history of immigration in California, the border between U.S. and Mexico, the meaning of citizenship and related topics.
“It’s a great way to let history come to the people,” said Lieser, who has led previous student public history simulations at Marin Headlands in 2016 and at Marin Civic Center in San Rafael this past spring. “A lot of times, when you learn history, it’s just sort of an academic thing — you might learn it in a classroom or read an article online. But here you have an opportunity to feel what it’s like, to empathize with the people who walked through Angel Island.”
Before Friday’s event, Lieser’s class members did extensive research at the National Archives’ Bay Area office, preparing oral histories of about 50 immigrants whose stories were in the files, creating a website, a video, a podcast and an Angel Island activity guide. Their work is available to the public atangelisland18.wixsite.com
“I wrote a lot of papers in history, and it was always like, you get this book in class, you’ve got to read it, take the information and you write a paper on it,” said Alexandra “Lexi” Schumacher, 22, a 2018 Dominican graduate in history and communications who is now helping out as an intern with Lieser’s undergraduate class. “Then this (public history) class came up, and it was like, I can use my communications skills — Illustrator, Photoshop, making videos — I could take what could be a paper and make it into something that people could see, watch, hear, listen to — which can be a lot easier for a lot of people.”
Schumacher, who was an undergraduate in Lieser’s class when she helped produce the Marin Headlands public history event in 2016, discovered in the New York Times’ archives that the Army Relief Society used to stage boxing matches on Alcatraz Island to raise money for orphans and widows of war as part of Fleet Week activities.
“There’s a human desire to feel what it was like, to know our personal histories, to know our community’s history,” said Lieser, who said his class takes inspiration from the idea of “place-based learning” he studied during a fellowship at the Bill Lane Center at Stanford University. “It’s part of who we are, part of our identity.”