I started this Triangle Fire bulletin board in May. I’m not usually that organized.
At the end of the school year last May, my seventh-graders started our Triangle Fire unit, a study of the 1911 tragedy in New York City that killed 146 young, mostly female immigrants. The fire had unknown origins, but rickety fire escapes, locked doors, and empty water buckets resulted in the worst workplace disaster by fire in our nation’s history until 9/11. The owners of the factory were eventually exonerated.
The positive of this horrible tragedy? The New York Factory Investigating Committee, which was established to enforce regulations throughout the metropolis.
We study this unit at the beginning of my students’ eighth-grade year and then transition into a study of 9/11… its own workplace fire tragedy. Even though the catalyst for 9/11 was terrorism, it’s arguable that some lives that were lost could have been saved if Triangle Fire-era building codes had not been relaxed during the planning stages and design of the towers.
Last spring, my seventh-graders (now my incoming eighth-graders) watched portions of New York: The Documentary that dealt with the era of first wave immigration, the early 1900s. Watching this doc set the stage for the study we will continue in a couple of weeks.
As we watched the documentary in May, I asked the students to choose one word to summarize the excerpt we viewed. While we discussed their words, and as students defended their word choices, it occurred to me that I should keep track of these words for fall. I quickly started jotting the words down on a sheet of notebook paper.
Hallelujah! For once, I had my act together!
In addition, I knew I had some previously printed photos of New York immigrants, which were primarily of Eastern and Southern European descent. I had printed and saved these photos from the DAR American History essay contest of 2015.
I also knew I had a packet of postcards that my daughter had purchased for me when she toured Ellis Island a few years ago with a group from college.
I compiled the list of words, the printed photos, and the postcards and placed them in a folder and left it on top of the pile of binders and books in my closet over the summer. I wanted to leave it someplace where I would easily find it this week, which I did (score!).
I also had made a mental note in May to order some kind of New York City street map poster. I found this subway map that looks vintage, but actually shows the current layout of today. This poster was purchased for around $6 on Amazon. I love it!
So over the past few days, I assembled all these pieces together and designed the board as I went, adding in some black paper positioned diagonally as a background. Just this morning, I decided to photocopy the front and back covers of two texts that we use during the unit, as well as an article, and a poster of pre-9/11 NYC that I already owned. I arranged all the pieces together and then encircled the board with white lights.
I think it turned out pretty good. It’s a lot to look at, a lot to take in. That’s probably my only concern, but overall, I think it tells a story AND builds on my students’ knowledge from May.
I also like using the very last days of the school year to build prior knowledge for fall. It sends the message to students that even though school’s almost out for the summer, they’re still going to learn and I’m still going to “always be planning.”
It saves so much time during the hectic days before school begins to know how I’ll decorate the first thing students see when they enter my classroom.
Thanks for reading! Follow my blog for more articles about teaching middle school ELA.
Triangle Fire forms the first literature unit for my 8th-graders’ human rights dissertations
This week I’ve been writing about the unit on the Triangle Waist Co. fire that my 8th-graders start the year with. For them, the last few weeks of seventh grade was an introduction, a sort of “paving the way” for the more in-depth reading and studying that we will begin in just two short weeks. Check out my Monday post on the Triangle Fire resources that I use and some of the activities that we do. Check out my post from yesterday that discussed how I connect Triangle Fire to another horrific disaster, the 9/11 attacks.
Today, I’m going to write about how the Triangle Fire study forms the first section of a project that I call the 8th-grade human rights dissertation. Human rights education is vitally important in my view.
If students don’t know what human rights are, how will they know when those rights are being violated?
There are many materials available to use in teaching human rights. Since I began this project, I used materials produced by an organization known as Youth for Human Rights International. However, since I learned last year that YHRI is a front organization for the Church of Scientology International, I have decided not to use them anymore.
The human rights dissertation is a project that I have done with my 8th-graders for three years now. The first year was a complete trial-by-fire and I hesitate to even let it count since we literally ran out of time toward the end of the project. The second year was a success. Students completed the dissertations in the way I foresaw the project culminating. This past school year was again a successful year, and I would say an even more successful year than the first because I modified and/or improved the project in several ways, which I will discuss later.
The human rights dissertation is actually an expanded five-paragraph essay. Throughout the year, as we read and study these texts, students determine three human rights that each text supports or are revealed in the text that need protection or upholding.
It’s really up to the student to determine how they wish to discuss the rights; as the year progresses I am aware of the direction that they are taking with respect to the human rights and the literature we read. The founding document that we study even before we write the Triangle Fire section of the dissertation is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 1948 document drafted by a United Nations committee led by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, in response to the atrocities of World War II.
There are six sections to this project:
Students write this usually after all their second drafts have been finalized, usually in mid-February. This introduces the entire scope of the paper. We spend a lot of time honing these sections and massaging them into being revelatory personal statements.
an explanation of human rights
-Students usually write their first draft for this section in September.
a section that connects the Triangle Fire to three human rights
-Students usually write their first draft for this section in October.
a section that connects “Inside Out and Back Again to three human rights
-Students usually write their first draft for this section in November.
a section that connects Frederick Douglass’ Narrative to three human rights
-Students usually write their first draft for this section in late January/early February.
Students usually write their first draft for this section in February
First drafts and second drafts are assigned as homework. I have very detailed take-home packets that provide students what they need to know for their drafts. First drafts can be any length, but second drafts will have a two- to three-page length requirement.
Second drafts for each portion are written throughout the year, i.e. they are not written immediately after their first drafts. I believe in taking a break from a piece of writing so the second draft will be a homework assignment a month or two after the first draft is written. This also gives students time to get that first draft written if they failed to do it on time initially.
Students keep paper copies of their first drafts, which have my notes and revision suggestions, in the file cabinet in the classroom. They also have digital copies in Google Drive.
As students turn in their drafts, I put a sticker on a large chart on the wall. At any moment, students and I can see their progress.
After we write our second drafts, students must pay special attention to connecting their “essays within the essay.” They complete several rounds of revision as they attempt to make their individual sections blend from one to the next. This gets interesting and students know by this time that this is a needed task.
I’ve even had students, before we get to this point of the project, ask me in class, “Mrs. Yung, how are we gonna make this flow? It can’t just sound like individual papers.” And then to myself, I think, “Hallelujah! They figured it out on their own!”
It’s so wonderful to know that they have learned how important it is to make our ideas connect smoothly in our writing.
This paper gives me the opportunity to reinforce the concept of what I call “interpretation,” the explanation that is needed when quoting from a source or text. This is a skill we practice all year, but the human rights dissertation is the project where this skill really shines. I require at a minimum that each quote from each text be followed by four to six sentences of explanatory exposition that reveals how the quote supports the point they are making.
My go-to piece of advice for students is to make their first or second sentence after a quote begins with “In other words,…”
Last minute additions to the paper include a comprehensive Works Cited page and a title page. The details for these items are included on a final to-do list that students use as they go through the project. The title for these papers is “Humanity Revealed: Understanding Human Rights Through Literature;” however, students may use another title if they wish.
This sheet also has several editing and revision requirements listed, as well as an approximate timeline. We devote about three to four weeks to revising and finalizing these papers in class. Lastly, I provide them with a heavy-duty Avery Flexi-View report cover.
The human rights dissertation is really my “piece de resistance” of my language arts classes. By the time students finish theirs, they’ve been my students for three years, and I’ve learned so much about their abilities, their interests, their personalities, and their goals for the future.
I truly enjoy watching students wrap up their dissertations and they are always excited to see their accomplishment. Many of them will end up with a paper that is fifteen or more pages long. Some even really go “all out” and see just how much they can write. It’s always a discussion to see who has the longest paper! (And yes, I make a point to tell them that more doesn’t mean better, but for middle schoolers to be excited about writing “just one more page,” who am I to shut that down?!)
As this project kicks off in the fall, I will be posting about it and providing news and photos about any changes that I decide to make this year. One change I may make is to allow students the choice to add a World War II text to their paper. This change is discussed in this post I recently wrote called “How to Forget the Holocaust.” I plan to eventually add the handouts, timelines, and editing checklists to my future TpT store.
Thanks for reading! Follow my blog to find out more about this project and to receive updates about changes I make to it this year! Do you do a similar project with your students or do you have any suggestions for me? Feel free to leave a comment!
In doing so, Stein draws upon memory and the human tendency to forget the lessons we learn as we progress (or fail to progress).
Stein specifically focuses on building code changes instituted following Triangle Fire that were later modified (and by modified, I mean relaxed) during the preliminary planning for the building of the World Trade Center towers in the late 1960s.
Here is an important passage from Stein that shows how he draws connections between the two tragedies:
Now imagine this: “Roughly sixty years have gone by (since the Triangle fire), and there have been no major building disasters since 2001. The building industry argues, with decades of recent history to back it up, that buildings are excessively safe and that the number of tragedies in which the excess safety has mattered has proved to be low, and perhaps zero. Spirited dissent from the few remaining old fogies who have personal recollections of 2001 sounds as antiquated as memories of Pearl Harbor do to most of us alive today. It has not happened in so long, it probably will not happen again. That, more or less, is what happened in New York in 1968. Fifty-seven years after the Triangle Waist Company fire, in which 146 people trapped in the upper floors of an unsafe building burned, jumped, or fell from a collapsed fire escape to their deaths, New York City relaxed its safety rules for high-rise buildings. Technology had changed. Firefighting skills had improved. High-rise fires could be restricted to a few stories, and in most cases people could move a floor or two away from the danger and wait safely for emergency responders to complete their jobs.”
This powerful paragraph powerfully engages my students and shows them how studying something buried in the past like Triangle Fire can indeed have ramifications upon contemporary times. This book review is an incredibly important part of my Triangle Fire and 9/11 unit. I am so grateful I stumbled upon it while researching online.
Another important passage: “The towers, like many lesser high-rises, were built under the assumption that there would never be an occasion in which all occupants would need to vacate at once.”
When I read the following paragraph, I am amazed at the leniencies given to the WTC developers.
And still another: “The Empire State Building, completed in 1931 under the more demanding standards required by an earlier code, has nine stairwells at its broad base and six that run the entire height of the building, one of which serves as an air-locked fire tower that is supposed to be more impervious to smoke. Each of the 1,350-foot tall World Trade Center towers, with slightly greater height, nearly double the rentable square footage, and the capacity for about 33% more occupants, had only three stairwells throughout-the same number as would have been required for a seventy-five-foot building-and no fire tower. All three of these stairwells were bunched together in the least rentable space in the core of the building. Two of the three stairwells in each building went only as far down as the mezzanine, a feature that one fire chief had described as ‘a major building design flaw”‘ in a report commissioned after the 1993 bombing.”
As we make connections between Triangle Fire and the World Trade Center attacks, I make it clear to students that I do not intend to place fault on the WTC engineers and architects for any part of the 9/11 atrocity. After all, Stein’s review and this World Trade Center evacuation study notes that 87 percent of the people in the towers evacuated safely within two hours. The remaining 13 percent, however, causes me to grieve when I know that it’s possible that some shortcuts (and other factors out of the control of builders) may have contributed in some way to their inability to escape. See the evacuation study for more on this.
It’s important that we link events from the distant past to those of the present, relatively speaking. History won’t be boring if we show how it affects students’ lives today and then ask students to reflect upon those effects through writing.
Thanks for reading! Tune in tomorrow when I discuss an assignment about Triangle Fire that finds its way into a culminating project known as the 8th-grade human rights dissertation.
Resources for teaching about the event that put a fire alarm in your classroom
On August 15, my 8th-graders will pick up where we left off in May—with a prelude to our study of the 1911 Triangle Waist Co. factory fire and its societal effects.
During the last few days of school, we watched a portion ofNew York City: The Documentary. It’s usually available at no charge if you have an Amazon Prime account. It is an excellent film that fills eight DVDs, and is directed by Ric Burns, the brother of award-winning documentarian Ken Burns. Interspersing historical photography with contemporary interview clips, including one of Donald Trump commenting on New York City architecture and geology, the film discusses the first wave of immigration of the early 1900s and its effects on our nation’s cultural heritage and economic strength.
The film helps students build the prior knowledge they will need to study the Triangle Fire tragedy next month when school starts. This disaster, noted as being the worst workplace fire in our nation’s history prior to 9/11, resulted in the death of 114 mostly female immigrant workers of Eastern European descent.
This website adds to what students learn in the film with an extensive selection of files. Check out this website from Cornell University to see profiles of survivors, obituaries of those who perished, timelines, newspaper accounts and other historical artifacts to complement the film, and the books that are discussed later in this post. This site is a a true treasure trove.
We will begin reading portions of Flesh and Blood So Cheap by Albert Marrin immediately when school starts. I read part of this text aloud and then I assign a chapter or two to students to read in groups at the four tables spread throughout my classroom. At the tables, students read the text jigsaw style, answering questions regarding their respective chapters. After reading their chapter, each student reports back to their “home” group to brief their group members on the particular chapters they read.
Doing this jigsaw activity is a good way for students to capture the gist of the chapters within the book. Working in groups is beneficial and helps students understand the big picture of what I would like students to learn about this time in history: our national response to this disaster and how our society ultimately learned from its failure.
Our reading activities for Triangle Fire are interspersed with text-based questions that students answer in writing. The style and format of these short text-based question activities are a mainstay of my teaching. I was inspired to create these prompts by this article about New Dorp High School in The Atlantic magazine.
These exercises are a prompt of sorts with some student choice built in. And while I realize the prompts are very formulaic, I’m okay with that, since I believe students need guidance in using the specific tools writers use to express their ideas clearly.
Note: I’ll be writing a post next week with more details about these text-based question exercises, so follow my blog to get a notification if you’re interested in learning more.
Additional short readings are introduced as well in the Triangle Fire unit. We read from a pivotal text, called Triangle: The Fire that Changed America, written by David Von Drehle. It’s a fascinating book with exciting narrative passages that perfectly illustrate how writers blend narrative into a nonfiction text. Von Drehle’s book explores the causes of the disaster and the outcomes of it. One chief result from the Triangle Fire are the better working conditions that came out of the Factory Investigating Commission, which was established in the fire’s aftermath.
Those better working conditions are something all students can relate to: fire drills. In fact, at the beginning of the unit, I ask students:
Why do we have fire drills?
When did these fire drills start?
Who decided that fire drills are necessary?
These discussions about the positives that came out of the tragedy are important. In fact, focusing on the good that resulted from such a horrifying tragic event —where scores of women jumped to their deaths to escape the factory flames— is about the only way I can see to present this topic. (After all, I’m not out to depress anyone or to add to anyone’s anxiety.)
I must focus on the positive take-away from Triangle Fire: to show students that we can learn from our mistakes. We can take the horrible events of life and turn them around for good. Yes, so many precious lives were lost… but ultimately not in vain.
Triangle Fire resulted in those red fire alarms that are placed in every classroom.
Triangle Fire resulted in outward hinged doors in places of business.
Triangle Fire resulted in fire drills, sprinklers, and other precautions that businesses and public spaces are required to provide for workers and the public.
Learning about Triangle Fire, reflecting, and writing about it will give my students greater understanding of the forces that have shaped our society. It will also make them more empathetic and well-rounded with their world knowledge. We complete the following writing activities to gain a better understanding of Triangle Fire:
Text-based question prompts
Student’s choice of an essay that may be either
informational (as in writing a survivor profile)
argumentative essay (arguing any number of topics, such as the justice in the final acquittal of the negligent factory owners)
or narrative (as in writing a letter written by a survivor or surviving family member)
An essay that discusses three human rights found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that were not protected and/or were violated in the time leading up to the Triangle Fire.
So this is where I will begin the new school year with my eighth-graders. While Triangle Fire is a devastating subject to teach, it is also inspiring and ultimately a testament to the resilience and innovation of our great nation.
Thanks for reading! Click like if this resonated with you. Feel free to leave a comment or questions and to follow my blog!
In tomorrow’s post, I’ll be writing about how I connect Triangle Fire to the events of Sept. 11, 2001. In the meantime, read my post of 9/11 resources. Also this week, I’ll be sharing about the human rights dissertation that eighth-graders complete in the spring. The last essay bulleted above provides one part of this dissertation.