Past to Present: How Triangle Fire Connects to 9/11

History won’t be boring if we show how it affects students’ lives today

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Photo: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

 

Reading and writing about the Triangle Waist Co. factory fire allows middle school language arts students to make connections between events from more than one hundred years ago to more recent events. This is the unit my 8th-graders will be starting the new school year with next month. Read here for how we start building knowledge for this unit in May and then continue it during the first days of school.

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Find this on Amazon.com.

These connections to present-day events are made explicitly when we read a book review written by Gregory Stein entitled, “Doomed to Re-Repeat History: The Triangle Fire, the World Trade Center Attack, and the Importance of Strong Building Codes.”

This review analyzes the book Triangle: The Fire that Changed America by David Von Drehle and a book called 102 Minutes: The Untold Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers.  

In doing so, Stein draws upon memory and the human tendency to forget the lessons we learn as we progress (or fail to progress).

 

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Photo: Pixabay

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.

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Photo: Unsplash

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.

 

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

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.
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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.

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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!

Dear Teachers: Share your work with the world.

Let others know what you’re doing in your classroom.

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A card I received back from the director of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage in Washington, DC. 

A colleague of mine, Dr. Keri Franklin, founding director of the Ozarks Writing Project, a site of the National Writing Project, and also director of assessment at Missouri State University, recommended that I send some issues of my seventh-graders’ Whippersnappers newsletter,  to the director of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage in Washington, DC. My students create this newsletter in partnership with the White River Valley Historical Society, a local research organization. It might be a good idea, Franklin suggested, to let the Smithsonian know about the history-based writing that my students are involved in.

So, the week after school ended (Does school ever really end???), I wrote a letter, enclosed it with some newsletter copies, and sent the package off to the center mentioned above.

Yesterday, I received a nice, handwritten note from the director, Dr. Michael Atwood Mason, thanking me for letting him know about my class’ activities.

I plan to display the card from the Smithsonian in my classroom in the fall. My students will be impressed that their words are reaching out even further than they ever expected with this project.

That short note got me thinking about how I’m thankful that my colleague gave me this suggestion to reach out. I think that often as teachers we become so involved in the cocoon of our classes that we forget that people out in “the real world” want and need to know what we’re doing inside the schools. It’s easy to become isolated in our work… with our main contacts on a daily basis being our students, administrators, other teachers, and parents.

This experience has reminded me to make the effort to branch out a little and communicate with those beyond the walls of my classroom. Not only does it give me a boost in the everyday routine when I hear back from a contact I’ve made, but it also reminds me to be open to the possibilities and future opportunities that may occur as a result of my sharing.


Thanks for reading! Have you shared any of your classroom activities with those outside of academia? Share your experiences in the comments below and follow my blog for more writing about my “brave and true” ELA classroom experiences.

Writing Contest #10: Holocaust Museum & Learning Center’s Student Writing Contest

Our kids need this contest.

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Here’s a winning art entry from last year’s Holocaust Museum & Learning Center’s Student Art & Writing Contest. No student name provided. Darn.

I’ve discovered another writing contest: Holocaust Museum & Learning Center’s Student Art & Writing Contest. I stumbled upon this contest as I was researching for a recent post on Medium.com about the lack of Holocaust literature in Expeditionary Learning’s curriculum. I have reblogged that post here.

According to the St. Louis-based museum’s website, “The Art & Writing Contest is a wonderful opportunity for young people who have visited the Museum or studied the Holocaust in their classrooms to respond creatively to what they have learned.” The contest is considered an “important outreach program” that is “dedicated to the memory of the 1.5 million children who perished during the Holocaust.”

Age: There are two divisions for both the art and writing portions of the contest. Students may enter one entry in each category.  Division 1 includes grades 6-8; Division 2 includes grades 9-12.

Topic:  Students are asked to write about the difficult and inspiring lessons of the Holocaust. Topics may include: acts of courage and heroism; resistance and rescue; indifference and its consequences; persecution, intolerance and injustice; preserving humanity in situations of great adversity; history and lessons of the Holocaust.

Skills Addressed:  Students must exhibit Research, Creativity, and original and accurate Interpretation of Sources. Judges are looking for: content, originality, and quality of expression and accuracy.

Mentor Texts: I have emailed the organizers to find out how files of past winners can be shared for student review. When I find this information, I will update this post. Check back soon!

However, there are some excellent links on the sidebar of this page that provide a Holocaust timeline, nearly forty Holocaust-related terms, common questions, and recommended readings (a solid list plus links to useful websites). Click on Classroom Activities to see a list of documentaries the museum recommends students see before visiting the museum. These would also provide prior knowledge before writing an essay or narrative.

Length: Entries may not exceed 1,000 words. Works must be double-spaced. Use paper clips, not staples.

Deadline: Per the contest contact person, there is no firm date set for the 2019 contest, but it will be in mid-April. I would suggest that you check back with the website in February or make a call then to confirm the exact dates.

Prizes:  There are cash prizes and certificates awarded. The organizers also display winning entries in the museum theater. Last year, first through third place in the middle school division won $300, $200, and $100 respectively. Two honorable mentions were awarded $25 each.

How to enter: Submit three copies of your paper-clipped entry. Do not exceed 1,000 words. Mail entries to: Holocaust Museum and Learning Center, 12 Millstone Campus Drive, St. Louis, MO 63146.

For more information: Here’s a phone number for the museum is (314) 442-3711. A contact name for Dan Reich is posted on the website also with this email address: DReich@JFedSTL.org. A phone number for Mr. Reich is also posted: 314-442-3714.

I’m excited to have a Holocaust-themed essay contest.  Writing about this time in history will be a plus for my students’ banks of knowledge about world history. Many students are not learning about the Holocaust today. See this post for more on that issue, including an important new study released in March.


Thanks for reading! Follow my blog to receive those updates on this post, which will include the new deadlines and/or timeframe for the next contest, and also whether or not there will be past winning entries to use as mentor texts with your kids. Have a great day!

How to forget the Holocaust

Remove it from the curriculum

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Concentration camps, including Auschwitz, posted these words: Work sets you free. | Photo: Pixabay

Are we forgetting the Holocaust?

I asked myself this question recently as I perused an English Language Arts curriculum map for grades 6-8 and found that out of dozens of texts the curriculum uses over the three years, only one text addressed or had any connection to World War II:  Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. However, this book, while an excellent and necessary text, does not focus on the Holocaust; instead, it depicts Japan’s brutal treatment of American POWs during wartime.

The curriculum map I browsed through recently is commonly known to teachers as Engage New York. It is more accurately called EL Education, formerly known as Expeditionary Learning, an open educational resource that can be accessed at no cost online.  It is a rigorous Common Core curriculum that “supports teachers in making the transition to Common Core instruction,” according to this informational brochure.

I’m afraid the omission of Holocaust literature from this curriculum means we are forgetting one of history’s most horrific sins.

In March, research firm Schoen Consulting revealed the results of a “Holocaust Knowledge and Awareness Study” commissioned by The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, New York, NY. Major findings of the survey revealed:

  • Seven out of ten Americans say fewer people seem to care about the Holocaust than they used to
  • Nearly 31 percent of all Americans and 41 percent of Millennials believe that substantially fewer than six million Jews were killed (two million or fewer) during the Holocaust
  • 45 percent of all Americans and 49 percent of Millennials cannot name a single concentration camp or ghetto of the 40,000 that existed

In fairness, the Engage New York middle school ELA curriculum does list other grievous events in world history. The curriculum contains a diverse range of texts. For example, A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park chronicles the life of Salva Dut, a “lost boy” refugee fleeing the war in South Sudan. Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai tells the story of Ha, a ten-year-old girl Vietnamese girl forced to flee the violence of her home country to find refuge in the United States. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass recounts the hardships and dehumanization of the slavery system of the American South.

And yes, perhaps placing emphasis on these other events adds greater relevancy to classroom discussions of oppression. Students can, after all, livestream discussions with  Salva  Dut. Also, some middle schoolers have grandparents and great-grandparents who may have fought in Vietnam. The effects of American slavery are still reverberating in our current racial divisions and controversies. In contrast, very few Holocaust survivors are alive today. I’m sure that in the minds of many kids, the Holocaust is ancient history.

However, studying the Holocaust is necessary. And I’m glad there is at least one Holocaust-oriented text in Engage New York’s ELA & Literacy Curriculum for grades 9-12: Wiesel’s Nobel lecture, “Hope, Despair and Memory.”

Without doubt, the inhumane intention, shocking magnitude, and cold machinations of Nazi Germany reveal humanity’s darkest side. We must learn from the Holocaust to prevent its reoccurrence. As Wiesel wrote in his lecture, “Remembering is a noble and necessary act. The call of memory, the call to memory, reaches us from the very dawn of history…It is incumbent upon us to remember the good we have received, and the evil we have suffered.”

Here’s another major finding from the “Holocaust Knowledge and Awareness Study”: a majority (58 percent) believe something like the Holocaust could happen again. I fear that if students don’t read about the Holocaust, it will be forgotten, and could likely reoccur.


And, in case you’re wondering why an English teacher is teaching history, it’s really a very common approach educators take to teach literacy skills. It’s necessary to provide a context within which language arts skills—reading, writing, speaking and listening— can be taught. Comma worksheets don’t engage students; real-world events do.

Thanks for reading! If this post made you think, please click “like.”  Feel free to leave a comment with your thoughts about the need for Holocaust literature in our schools. Which Holocaust texts have you read or taught in your classes?

Five Reasons I Teach Cursive

Beyond giving students a competitive edge, here are some other impossible-to-ignore reasons.

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Two days ago, my post focused on this reason to teach cursive: to make sure that kids in public school are competitive with kids in private schools and around the world, where cursive writing is taught and practiced regularly.

I discuss this very practical reason with my students and it seems to really sink in… that learning cursive isn’t just something I think they should do, or their parents feel nostalgic about, but that it’s something that their peers are learning, so why shouldn’t they have the same opportunity?

Today, I’ve gathered some other more commonly cited reasons to teach cursive. These reasons, while solid, are often-discussed in academic circles. It’s easy to find several articles online that tout and support these reasons. I’ve included a few of these well-known reasons below to build my case for teaching and practicing cursive writing in public schools. Even though cursive writing is no longer in the standards for Missouri, I believe it should still be part of our school day.

1. Cursive writing activates the brain. “Brain scans reveal neural circuitry lighting up when young children first print letters and then read them. The same effect is not apparent when the letters are typed or traced,” writes Tom Berger, executive editor at Edutopia.org. While addressing handwriting in general, this idea can transfer to cursive writing specifically. Berger writes that cursive, and other forms of handwriting, commands specific patterns in the way our brains work.

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Photo by Lesly Juarez on Unsplash

In addition, students take better notes when they write by hand. The benefits of manual note-taking are compounded when students use cursive, according to Cursive Logic, a provider of cursive curriculum, including some cool freebies you can download. Students who take notes by hand actually digest the content and reframe it in their own words—a process that increases both understanding and recall.

Here’s one last note from Campaign for Cursive, a volunteer organization that advocates cursive: “(Cursive writing) unlocks potential for abstract thinking, allows the human brain to compartmentalize, and expands memory capacity.” Obviously, cursive has a definite connection to critical thinking, which was my school district’s central focus last year.

2. I’ve noticed that kids definitely struggle when they work with their hands these days. If cutting with scissors is a challenge for some, imagine how they may feel when I ask them to write in cursive!  Practicing cursive writing improves hand-eye coordination, fine motor skills, and memory functions, writes Berger.  It’s more than just about writing a fancy script; writing in cursive will hone their fine motor skills outside the classroom.

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Photo: Pixabay

3. In my own opinion, cursive writing is a connection to our past. If kids expose themselves to cursive writing, they’ll be able to read letters and documents written long ago. True, cursive may not be a requirement for living in the 21st century, but it can still have important functions.  Read this post about how I have connected with my own ancestors through cursive correspondence.

4. I’ve heard numerous students comment that they enjoy seeing their cursive writing improve over the school year. It’s nice to hear them notice their own progress. When students see their cursive writing improve, they experience a pride of workmanship. Like with any skill, practice makes perfect.

5. As kids grow into young adults, cursive can help. Writing in cursive is considered an important rite of passage by many students. It’s a signal that one is maturing and growing in intellect. Removing cursive writing from the standards unfairly denies this gift to students. Why not allow kids this opportunity?


Thanks for reading! How do you feel about cursive writing? Do your students practice it? Is it required?  Feel free to leave a comment to share your experience and follow my blog to stay in touch.