Bret Harte newcomer student Tuba explores the Angel Island Immigration Center barracks.



Two students rushed across the room in the Angel Island Immigration Station to ask Ranger Casey Lee some urgent questions: “Did people die here? Are there ghosts?”


The answer: yes, a few people died in the barracks (where the students were), but most died in the hospital on the other side of the grounds (still being restored). As for ghosts, well, the students would have to draw their own conclusions.


In fact, the trip to Angel Island was designed to inspire the 38 students attending—all of them newcomer students from Bret Harte Middle School—to draw their own conclusions about and make connections between their classroom studies, their own immigration experiences, and the new culture and place where they live.


So Close, Yet So Far

Despite being under ten miles away, Angel Island was new to most of the students. Every student on the trip had been in the US for less than a year, and many are refugees.


Made possible by an Ed Fund A to Z Fund mini-grant and led by English teacher Keith Brown and a team of school staff and volunteers, the field trip serves as a memorable experience at the heart of a larger cross-curricular project put together by the teaching team.


For example, in English class, students studied poetry written by Angel Island immigrants and read the book “Seedfolks,” about an immigrant community who builds a community garden. That reading will inform their work in biology class, studying botany and planting their own gardens. In history class, they’ll learn about the history of immigration in California, including experiences at Angel Island. In math class, statistics will be taught through study of immigration trends.


As it turned out, the day more than lived up to teachers’ expectations of being memorable!


Students braved the rain to document the ferry ride to Angel Island.


Rain-proof Joy

The morning was cold and rainy, but that didn’t stop students from heading outside onto the deck of the ferry the moment teachers gave the okay. Out on the water, seeing the Bay Area from a new perspective, they took selfies with everything: Alcatraz, seagulls, the city, each other.


Still, some aspects of the trip were more welcome than others. “Mr. Brown, I’m tired,” many said after climbing the steep stairs from the ferry dock to the island’s main road. Yet while the hike may have made some students short of breath, you wouldn’t know it from their exuberant talking, joking, and laughter.


There was one thing that caused them to fall silent, though: a pair of deer picking their way through the trees. They hushed each other down the line and grouped along the side of the road to take photos.


Ranger Casey had told them upon arrival about the local wildlife, pointing out that the deer of Angel Island had inspired Tyrus Wong, the Disney artist who created Bambi and was a detainee on Angel Island when he was not much younger than they are now.


Shared Immigration Experience

In the weeks prior to the field trip, students learned about the history of Angel Island’s immigration station. They learned about the discrimination and racial segregation that took place there, with Chinese immigrants held in separate quarters from white European immigrants.


Chinese immigrants were also often detained for indefinite lengths of time. Many of them carved poetry on the walls to process their emotions and experience, and the Chinese characters are still visible throughout the barracks. Multimedia displays immersed students in the world of early-20th-century immigrants and gave more insight to the carvings.


Before the trip, students read some of the poems in class and reflected on their own feelings about immigration. They discussed some questions they had in advance, but many questions came up spontaneously on site, as with the pair of students whose question about ghosts was prompted by some admittedly spooky bathrooms.


Adventure Outside Classroom Enhances Learning in It

“Taking learning outside the classroom expands students’ horizons,” explained English teacher Keith Brown. “They see aspects of history and parts of a new culture they might not otherwise see in their neighborhood back in Oakland, where they spend much of their time with people who share the culture and language of their country of origin.”


One special part of California culture students got to experience during the trip: having fun and laughing on the beach with friends. The sun even came out, though a bone-chilling wind continued to blow (typical Northern California).


Teachers joined in with searching for seashells and interesting stones. From somewhere, a soccer ball emerged, and was kicked out to sea, returning on the waves only to be kicked back out again. Students held hands and dared each other to wade into the water, jumping back and shrieking when the waves rolled in bigger than expected.



Ranger Casey answering students’ questions about detainees’ experience on Angel Island.

Create Opportunity from A to Z


Do you think more Oakland students should have access to extraordinary learning experiences like this Angel Island field trip? Show your support for equitable, excellent public education: make a gift to our A to Z Fund here.


You’ll join hundreds of community members who are choosing to invest in our educators’ best ideas for getting students inspired and engaged in the classroom and community. Thank you!