Back-to-School with 8th-graders: A Unit on Triangle Fire

Resources for teaching about the event that put a fire alarm in your classroom

triangle firei photo
Taken on March 25, 1911 | The New York World, Mar. 26, 1911

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 of New 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.

dvd power and people

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.

flesh

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.

 

Better the second time around: Whippersnappers

We’re jumping into year two of this 7th-grade PBL project

landscape-tree-nature-forest-path-grass-1417370-pxhere.com
Photo: Jigar Gamit on Pxhere

We’re doing it again! My seventh-graders will again this upcoming school year be writing the content for a newsletter for kids called Whippersnappers. It’s an activity my students produce in partnership with the White River Valley Historical Society, a regional organization based in Forsyth, Mo.

Last year, the idea for a unique PBL project resulted at the end of the summer when I placed a call to the WRVHS’s director, Leslie Wyman. I simply asked if the society had any writing or research-related needs that my seventh-graders could help with. She replied that, yes, as a matter of fact, their children’s newsletter could use some revamping and some “new blood.”

And just like that, this unique project was born.

My students were so excited when they learned about the project last fall. Many of them jumped right into our brainstorming sessions where we came up with article ideas. They also enjoyed and listened carefully when Wyman visited one day to get the ball rolling. They especially loved taking field trips to the society’s two local museums.

FullSizeRender (18)
My students listen to WRVHS Director Leslie Wyman explain how to research for their Whippersnapper stories.

The best moment of all? When Wyman hand-delivered the first issue. They loved seeing their names or their classmates’ names in print. It was a good feeling. We produced a total of four issues and I plan to continue the program this fall with my new seventh-graders. They know all about the project (since most are subscribers) and most seem interested in picking up the baton and running with the second year.

I was just at school yesterday morning unpacking boxes that held the items I requisitioned last spring. Inside one package was a clear plexiglass brochure holder that I’ll mount near the door to my room. Here is where I’ll post extra copies of the newsletter. The cardboard sign that our graphic design students created last year looks a little tired; my new holder should work perfectly.

As I begin to plan for fall, I have a few things to do to get ready for Whippersnappers year 2:

  • I’ll have to dig out the “story starter” page that I created with my students last year to help them begin to assemble ideas and notes for their stories.
  • I’ll also have to remember to schedule a day to show them how to access historical articles on the WRVHS’s website. These were our main sources of information for our stories last year, and I’m not entirely happy with that. I would prefer there be a wider mix of sources–other online articles and databases, in-person interviews, books–for students to use.
  • Fine-tune more research methods. Privacy and safety concerns are my main concerns when determining other research sources. In order to learn more about that, I may need to meet with Wyman before school starts to see what alternative ways we can develop for kids to safely and privately find information.
  • One idea: Private Facebook group where students anonymously interact with researchers at the WRVHS? That’s one idea Wyman and I have bantered about, but haven’t acted upon yet. This fall may be the time to pursue that idea.
FullSizeRender (6)
The first issue of Whippersnappers, Oct. 2017

Another goal for this upcoming school year: boosting the circulation of the Whippersnappers.

  • Could it be promoted to other area schools?
  • Could it be promoted to area readers through libraries?
  • Could we secure corporate support? The WRVHS utilizes grant money to print and mail the Whippersnappers right now. Is there a local company who would like to work with us? So many questions!

Regardless, I’m excited to start another year of Whippersnappers. I think it’s so important for students to write for a real-world publication. When I was a seventh-grader, I would have loved to see my name in print like my students do.

FullSizeRender (5)
The second issue of Whippersnappers, Dec. 2017

It’s my sincere hope that my students will see that they have the ability to be real-world writers, especially since they already are… thanks to the Whippersnappers and the WRVHS.


Thanks for reading! Follow my blog to hear how the second year of the Whippersnappers goes. I’ll be posting about it this fall. If you have any unique PBL projects, I’d love to hear about them. Feel free to leave a comment!