HM - May 2017 - Backstory: Child Labor

Classroom Applications

Child Labor
Teacher Resource Set


Do your students know that in America’s past, children and adolescents worked to support their families and not for their own spending money? Do they realize that birth certificates began as part of the effort to regulate the employment of children? In the “How Old Are You” segment of BackStory’s “A History of Manufacturing in Five Objects,” the American History Guys examine the use of child labor in American factories in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

In the two lessons that follow, students are asked to explore the efforts to regulate child labor in the United States. To engage student interest in this study, the lesson focuses on Mary Harris, also known as “Mother Jones.” Known by some in her day as “The most dangerous woman in America,” Mother Jones was fond of saying, “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.” And fight she did. She fought for the rights of workers to unionize for the purpose of improving their wages and working conditions. She traveled the country leading strikes and confronting government officials and corporate leaders such as John D. Rockefeller. She was frequently arrested, jailed, and put on trial. She testified before Congressional committees and met presidents such as Calvin Coolidge. When asked by one Congressional committee to state her residence, she replied, “My address is like my shoes; it travels with me wherever I go.” A widow with no living children, she spent her life living with the workers she supported. She is buried in the only union owned cemetery in America, that of the United Mine Workers in Mount Olive, Illinois.

In 1903 Mother Jones tried to get the support of President Theodore Roosevelt for the regulation of child labor by the federal government. She led a march of nearly two hundred workers, including dozens of children, from Philadelphia to Oyster Bay, New York, the summer home of President Roosevelt on Long Island. Along the way she spoke to crowds in a constant effort to get public attention for the issue of child labor.

Also at the forefront of this effort were some of the “Muckrakers” of the Progressive Era. These journalists wrote to expose what they considered to be the bad effects of industrialization on America, including the problem of child labor. Some members of Congress were persuaded, but many were not. Most regarded the regulation of labor as one of those duties reserved to the states by the 10th
Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Many states had laws regulating child labor, but these laws were rarely enforced.
Providing for the “general welfare” of children proved complicated. In addition to not being able to determine the actual age of a child, the Constitution was interpreted so as to prevent federal regulation of child labor. Many children, whose age could not be determined, were glad they were employed and could help to support the family. Furthermore, parents wanted and often needed to have their children employed, as demonstrated in the U. S. Supreme Court case, Hammer v. Dagenhart.

The Fight Over Child Labor

Thus, a cause that would appear to be a “no-brainer” in the 21st Century, was anything but in the early 20th. This is a good opportunity for students to understand the complexity of historical issues. It is also an excellent opportunity for them to acquire History’s Habit of Mind: to grasp the significance of the past in shaping the present. In this lesson they can also develop an understanding of the impact
made by individuals, groups, and institutions in effecting change. There are a number of important habits that students can gain from these lessons. An additional one might be Mother Jones’s attitude toward life:

“Die when I may, I want it said of me by those who know me best that I always plucked a thistle and
planted a flower where I thought a flower would grow.”

-- Mary Jones in the Federation of Labor News, 1930

Note to Teachers

The materials that follow comprise a lesson in questioning and a lesson on writing. First, the lesson asks students to answer, then create questions at each level of Bloom’s Taxonomy. The objective here is to teach students to develop sophisticated inquiry skills and to foster a curiosity about people and issues. Information needed for writing and answering these questions is provided through both primary and secondary sources. Students will be practicing the Habit of Mind: interrogating text and posing questions about the past that foster informed discussion, reasoned debate, and evidence-based interpretation. The suggestion in this lesson is for students to use the questions they create as part of a role-play of a “Meet the Press” episode on the regulation of child labor. However, this work could be used for a Socratic Seminar or a number of other discussion strategies that capitalize on questioning to develop higher order thinking skills.
The second part of this lesson is structured to entice students to gain information from both primary and secondary sources in order to make an evidence-based argument about a historical topic. They will need to distinguish between fact and opinion or, as History’s Habits of Mind term it, discern differences between evidence and assertion. The summative assessment for this lesson involves students in a structured reading and writing assignment to instruct them in critical reading and writing with evidence to support a position.

Procedures: Part 1—Interrogating Texts and Posing Questions
Step 1: Listen to the BackStory “A History of Manufacturing in Five Objects” segment, “How Old Are You?”
As students listen, ask them to answer these questions:

Why were children employed in factories?
Why did parents allow their children to be employed?
Why did children like being part of the work force?
Why did reformers seek to regulate child labor?

Step 2: Project one of these images of the March of the Mill Children as you share introductory
information about Mother Jones.
Image 1 Image 2

Step 3: View a short video, “Mother Jones and the March of the Mill Children: Democracy and Child Labor” by Saidee Oberlander.

Step 4: Read about Philadelphian Mill Children’s 1903 March.
As students read, ask them to answer the questions provided for an “interview” with Mary Harris (Handout 1). Explain to them the structure of the graphic organizer for the questions, designed to provide various kinds of thinking. Advise them that they will be
asked to replicate this kind of questioning in another part of this lesson.

Step 5: Distribute and read aloud the letter of Mother Jones to President Theodore Roosevelt (Source 1), then give students time to answer the relevant questions on their graphic organizer, “Questions for Mother Jones” (Handout 1).

Step 6: Read “Senators Opposed to Prohibition of Child Labor” (Sources 2, 3, 4).
Focus students’ attention on the question: What additional challenges did reformers face in trying to get federal regulation of child labor?
Direct students to create questions to be used to interview these Senators using the “Questions for Senators Opposing” organizer provided (Handout 2).

Step 7: Explain to students that not all Senators opposed regulation. In this step, ask students to read and create questions for Senator Beveridge (Source 5 and Handout 3).
Explain who Muckrakers were and that Charlotte Gilman and John Spargo are examples of Muckrakers who worked to expose the evils of child labor. Have students read these two selections (Sources 6 and 7) and create interview questions for Gilman and Spargo
(Handout 3).

Step 8: Role Play a version of “Meet the Press.” Choose students to play the roles of Mother Jones, Senators Proctor, Hardwick, Scott, and Beveridge, Charlotte Gilman, and John Spargo.
The remaining members of the class will ask the questions that they have prepared.

Step 1: Students have already gathered considerable evidence for the writing assignment that
follows. Distribute Handout 4, Writing Like a Historian.

a. Have students review the documents used in Part 1: Mother Jones’s Letter to T.
Roosevelt, Senators in Opposition, Senator and Muckrakers in Support (Sources 1-7),
and fill in the appropriate boxes in Handout 4.
b. Have students read and fill in a document analysis form for “The Wail of the Children”
(Source 8) and the Keating-Owen Child Labor Act (Source 9).
You may chose to have students use Source 9 or to read from the Our Documents site.
c. Have students read a summary of Hammer v. Dagenhart and highlight the main ideas,
then fill in the graphic organizer. A summary can also be found at Oyez.
d. Answer the questions following the “Notes to Myself” portion of Handout 4.

Step 2: Discuss the questions posed about the documents. Focus on fact v. opinion and veracity of

Step 3: Model the creation of a thesis statement from the question and guide students through
collecting useful quotations from the readings.

Step 4: Assign a five-paragraph essay answering the question and using evidence provided in the
sources in this lesson to support the student’s thesis.



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Standards and Citations