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The Library of Congress > Teachers > Classroom Materials > Collection Connections > The Life of a City

[Detail] Interior N.Y. subway, 14th St. to 42nd St. 1905.

Literature Comparison

Students can compare life in New York City as captured in the films, to life in New York City portrayed in works of fiction and nonfiction. Students might study nonfiction accounts written at the turn-of-the-century (see Lincoln Steffen's McClure's Essays or The Shame of the Cities). Or, students might read more recent fiction that uses early twentieth century New York as an historical backdrop (see E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime, Caleb Carr's The Alienist, or Jack Finney's Time and Again).

Creative Writing

After viewing one or several of the short films, students can write descriptions, news stories, and personal letters about the content of the film. Students can adopt different points of view for their writing, either as a participant in the scene or an outside observer. For example, students can assume the role of someone in the films and then write dialogues, monologues, and poetry from that person's point of view. Using that point of view, students might also write journal entries, character sketches, and personal anecdotes.

Speaking Skills

Because the films in the collection are silent, they present a good opportunity for students to build their speaking skills. Students can develop a script for a film, and then either read it aloud or record it to play along with the film. Students might assume the role of documentary narrator for a film or create imagined conversations between characters.


The films lend themselves to the common literary theme of "growth and change" in an urban environment. The short films can help students understand how changes in the physical environment influence social change. The film of newly-arrived immigrants illustrates another common literary theme -- "self-reliance." Students might answer questions such as,

  • What strengths must someone have to step onto the shores of a strange, new land?
  • What questions might the new immigrants want to ask?
  • What conditions will the immigrants find when they enter the city?
  • What might the immigrants find unsettling or comforting in their new country?