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Lesson Plan Child Labor and the Building of America

Students are immersed in primary source materials that relate to child labor in America from 1880-1920 to gain a personal perspective of how work affected children in the United States within a rapidly growing industrial society. This project is student-driven. Students engage in visual and information literacy exercises to gain expertise in analyzing historical data. Most importantly, students emerge from this experience with a very personal sense that children significantly and heroically affected the building of America.


Students will:

  • gain expertise in analyzing historical data through exercises in visual and information literacy; and
  • gain a personal perspective on work in an emerging industrial society and its effect on children in the United States.

Time Required

One semester

Lesson Preparation



Lesson Procedure

Week One

Introduce the project focus by posing the essential question which frames the investigation:

How did work affect children in the United States within a rapidly growing industrial society between 1880 and 1920?

Tell students that this project is now their job. Their task will be to search and define the work children did and locations of the occupations. The tools they are to use to complete the task are primary sources. Student teams will be creating their own primary sources in the form of a Team Journal throughout the project.

Form student teams. Assign no more than three students to a team. Have them determine specific cooperative team roles according to your classroom policy.

Week Two

  1. Restate the essential question:How did work affect children in the United States within a rapidly growing industrial society between 1880 and 1920?
  2. Acquaint students with the Library's online resources. If time permits, direct them to search for specific types of items:
    • Photos and Prints - Find a photo of a city you know.
    • Maps - Find a map of the same city.
    • Written Materials - Find a document on early labor unions written prior to 1938.
    • Sound Recordings -Find a song or music recording of your choice.
  3. Demonstrate the identification, analysis and evaluation of selected primary sources from the Library's collections. Photographs from Detroit Publishing Company or from the National Child Labor Committee collection provide good examples of detail-rich images.
  4. Analyze one child labor photograph as a whole class activity, recording thoughts on the Primary Source Analysis Tool. Before the students begin, select questions from the teacher's guide Analyzing Photographs and Prints to focus and prompt analysis and discussion. Allow open discussion.
  5. Distribute additional Primary Source Analysis Tools to all teams. Teams should analyze at least three child labor photographs from the Library's collections. This activity will serve to stimulate discovery-based discussion within teams and also introduce basic search strategies using the Library's collections.
  6. Each team attempts to identify a trade description for as many occupations as they can within the time the teacher allows. Teams reconvene to help each other compare their occupation lists. Do not expect students to find all occupations. Some examples are:
  7. Provide feedback to help students build a portfolio of useful sources.
    • Teams should designate one student as record keeper.
    • The team record keeper should record the sources.
  8. At this point, facilitate the exchange of ideas between individuals and among different teams about:
    • what types of jobs children did during early industrialization;
    • why industrialization occurred in certain areas of the United States;
    • why children worked at the jobs they did;
    • how childrens' roles within a family structure might have been influenced by the work they did;
    • team problem-solving at different stages of project development.

Week Three

Students conduct a team investigation of the major reforms in child labor during industrialization using acquired investigative skills. Teachers should encourage investigation of print as well as online primary sources.

  1. State laws (by 1914 most northern states banned child labor):
    Each team member investigates a different northern state's position on child labor prior to 1914 and after 1914 and reports back to share with their team.
  2. Other Reforms:
    After an investigation of northern states' positions on child labor, teams may choose to investigate one additional reform per student and then share what they know.
    • Keating-Owen Act of 1916
    • Hammer v. Dagenhart (1918)
    • Fair Labor Standards Act, 1938

Important: Allow teams to create systems for investigation. They should log all sources in journals, and include brief summaries of discussions.

Week Four

Students begin to map how they will construct relationships between the sources. Based on their reading and study, students develop questions that they want to research further. Then they develop possible search terms. For example, if the topic is breaker boys, related terms might include Pennsylvania, child labor, industrialization, mining, and Louis Hine.

Week Five

  1. Students develop a preliminary bibliography for their research, using proper bibliographic format, and begin to plan how they would like to demonstrate their knowledge about the essential question:
    • How did work affect children in the United States within a rapidly growing industrial society between 1880 and 1920?
  2. Ask teams: "How will you show me what you know?" Teacher offers teams several alternatives for assessment including, but not limited to:
    • Write and perform a play illustrating a child laborer's life during early industrialization in America.
    • Create a poster that is a biographical timeline for children laboring in the time of early industrialization, including the major child labor reforms. The poster should illustrate how each labor reform might have affected wages, work hours, and working conditions for the child laborer.
    • Conduct and record, or enact mock interviews, with a child laborer and a union boss.
    • Write and share a fictional account in first person of the trials and tribulations of a child laboring in either a glass factory or the depths of a coal mine.

Lesson Evaluation

Evaluation of this project is interactive and should be designed to suit the learners', not the teacher's pace. Teams are assessed when they are ready. Evaluations may take as long as necessary.

Products that may be assessed are up to individual teachers' discretion. When we assign value to student work, we produce an impact: what gets measured, gets noticed; what gets inspected gets respected. For this reason individual teachers are encouraged to devise their own assessment criteria using any or all activities included within this project.


Martha Williams & Kelly Killen