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Lesson Plan Child Labor in America

Children have always worked, often exploited and under less than healthy conditions. Industrialization, the Great Depression and the vast influx of poor immigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries, made it easy to justify the work of young children. To gain a true understanding of child labor, both as an historical and social issue, students should examine the worlds of real working children. This unit asks students to critically examine, respond to and report on photographs as historical evidence. Students will discover the work of reformer/photographer Lewis Hine, whose photographs give the issue of child labor a dramatic personal relevance and illustrate the impact of photojournalism in the course of American history.


Students will:

  • develop an understanding of the importance of historical inquiry;
  • recognize the factors which contributed to the Industrial Revolution in the United States;
  • evaluate primary source materials as artifacts for greater understanding of the past;
  • function as historians by formulating their own questions from encounters with primary source documents and images;
  • identify the problems confronted by people in the past, analyze how decisions for action were made and propose alternative solutions;
  • understand that political, economic, and social history are connected; and
  • recognize the impact of citizen action on public policy.

Time Required

Two to three weeks

Lesson Preparation



Lesson Procedure

In order to establish background, students will be introduced to the causes and effects of the Industrial Revolution. Students will then critically analyze primary source materials with the help of organizers and teacher-guided questions, developing additional questions to support their own inquiry. Students will then react to their encounter with these materials by selecting among a menu of projects, with each student assuming the role of an early 20th century journalist.

Activity One: Introduction and Background (1 - 2 class periods)

  • Discuss or review the causes and effects of the Industrial Revolution. This can be done using a variety of methods depending on your time needs. An encyclopedia or textbook section would offer basic introduction. Consider the possibility of class field trips to a local museum or role play to highlight the effects of industrialization.

Activity Two: Primary Source Analysis - Documents (1 - 2 class periods)

  • Start with an open-ended question such as "How do we discover our history? How do we learn about our family's past?" Discuss the role of oral or written histories. Read definitions of primary and secondary sources in Using Primary Sources and discuss with students as necessary
  • Access Lewis Hine's Report on Child Labor in the Cotton Mills of Mississippi, 1911.
  • Have students respond to the report. Possible questions to discuss include:
    • Why did Hine make "quiet visits?"
    • Why did he visit during "working hours", "noon-hours" and "around homes?"
    • What kind of information would Hine collect from the children?
    • Why did Hine keep such accurate records?
    • Why did Mr. Mitchell move to Meridian, Mississippi?
    • Why is the statement "miles from any railroad" important?
    • How would you describe the Mitchell household?
    • Do you think the Mitchell story is typical? Why or Why not?
  • Discuss answers.

Activity Three: Primary Source Analysis - Photographs (1 - 2 class periods)

  • Pass around several personal snapshots, and discuss what can be learned from examining a photograph.
  • Distribute or project the image of Coal Breaker Boys from Detroit Publishing Company on a large screen. Feel free to use any other appropriate image.
  • Brainstorm observations.
  • Students analyze the photograph, recording their 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.
  • Discuss the experience of investigating the photographs.
  • Solicit any additional questions relating to the photograph. You may want to ask:
    • How are photographs used by historians?
    • What other types of primary sources do you know about?
    • What is the importance of using primary sources in understanding history?
    • What if no one took photographs of these children?

Activity Four: Guided Practice (2 - 3 class periods) (May be adapted for lab or classroom)

  • Gather the class back as a large group. Solicit observations and discuss the images with students. Compare student findings, attempt to draw consensus, some teacher guidance may be needed. (It may be helpful to project each image on a large screen to prompt discussion.)

Activity Five: Student Project (4 - 6 class periods)

  • Form small research groups, approximately four or five students per group.
  • Distribute a copy of the simulated Confidential Memo from the editor of The New York Examiner to each research team. Please understand that this memo is a prompt for this activity; it is NOT a primary source.
  • Acting as journalists, students will select tasks. Each group should have at least one of the following:

1. Historian
Historians will create a graphic and visually appealing timeline. The purpose of the timeline is to present readers with an overview of the issue of child labor as it relates to industrialization, immigration and economic cycles. Background should reach back to 18th century Europe and conclude with the Great Depression.

2. Editor
Student will choose a persona (a parent, factory owner/employer, reformer or politician) and write an editorial aimed at persuading readers to take some form of action relating to changing child labor conditions or defending the conditions which make it necessary for children to work. Work should display an emotional involvement in the issue and definite point of view.

3. Photojournalist
Photojournalism is an important part of telling a news story. Often photographs present accounts far more powerfully than text. Your task is to locate compelling photographs which deal with the issue of child labor and present these photographs with original captions.

4. News Reporter
The task of the news staff is to present readers with accounts of children at work as news stories. Your work is not editorial. Rather, you should present the facts, represent opinions only as quotes, and attempt to present balanced news stories.

5. Other tasks to reflect student talents or interests, such as poet, political cartoonist, etc.

  • Groups will select a presentation format from among the following options:
    • Traditional print newspaper (a cut and paste activity on large paper)
    • Newspaper story boards on trifold cardboard displays
    • Desktop published newsletter
    • Multimedia presentation or Web site
  • Reminder: though our own communication technology has improved dramatically since the turn of the century, remind students to try to convey a sense for the period through their product (e.g. old-fashioned fonts and images).


  1. Children continue to work in our own country and around the world and modern-day social reformers are still concerned. Research and respond to the current issue of child labor.
    • Using the simulated Modern Memo prompt, create a newspaper activity which deals with the issue in today's world, mirroring the activity presented above.
    • On a map of the world, label areas where children are working and describe the working conditions.
    • Write a letter to a policy maker or editor expressing your opinions, based on your research.
  2. Search for and select a photograph that you find especially moving from the Library of Congress digital collections. Write a poem expressing the feelings of the child/children in the photograph.
  3. Consider a field trip to a museum which focuses on the work of children.
  4. Write a letter from the perspective of a working child. Imagine yourself writing to a friend. Describe a typical day working at a mill, factory, cannery, a mine or a farm.
  5. Read a work of fiction to get a greater understanding of the life of a child during the Industrial Revolution. (e.g. Katherine Paterson's Lyddie or Dicken's Oliver Twist or Hard Times)
  6. Compare a photograph of children working from the early 20th century with a photograph of children working toward the end of the 21st century.
  7. Create a simulation of a town meeting in which the issue of child labor is discussed. Participants may play the roles of: parents, employers, children, mayor, social reformers, journalists.
  8. For high school, examine issues relating to child labor in the United States. Research the issues and consider whether students who work in malls or fast food restaurants are exploited in any ways. For class discussion or debate:
    • Should there be stiffer legislation?
    • Should there be more careful monitoring of children's work by parents and teachers?
    • What should the rules be regarding the hours and responsibilities of young workers?
    • Should there be rules be regarding interference with school work?

Lesson Evaluation

Participation in discussion and completion of projects according to criteria specified by the teacher or generated in conjunction with the class.


Joyce Kasman Valenza and Carl Atkinson