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.

 

My closet can wait

I’m ready to take full advantage of the final two weeks of summer

IMG_6941 (1)
“I pulled the door open and perused the possessions of my teaching life.”

Two days ago, I drove to school and made my first entrance into the 2018-2019 year. Three eighth-grade girls were there waving at me from the front door as I loaded up my arms with bags from the back seat of my car. The girls were there for basketball practice, which would start in about an hour. Guess they’re excited for things to get rolling, I thought.

As I approached the front door, the girls made a tunnel with their arms. I jogged below their waving hands and we all cheered. It was a reverse, of sorts, of the final day of the school year two months earlier.

That’s when the teachers and staff at my small, rural middle school had formed a tunnel, like we always do, at the front door and cheered and showered the kids with hand sparkles as they made that final trip of the year to the waiting bus.

It was a fun and final moment… the culmination of nine months of planning, teaching, listening, cheering, testing, playing, working, and encouraging. Passing back through the girls’ tunnel into the school yesterday was a reminder that another fun and productive nine months is about to begin.

kari-shea-413916-unsplash
Photo by Kari Shea on Unsplash

Once inside, I caught up on summer news with the girls and then made my way down the hall to my classroom. Two other teachers were there, I noticed. One nearly had her room prepared; the other, I learned later, was just getting started.

I dug the key to my room from the zippered pouch inside my purse, and unlocked my room… the first of hundreds of times I will do this over the next several months, I thought.

I clicked on the lights. Every piece of furniture had been moved to one side of the room by the maintenance staff to make room for floor waxing. Chairs were stacked on tables. Desks were stacked on other desks. My kidney bean table– that I used to abhor, but now love, and I’ll tell you why later—was wedged behind the chipped, decrepit black bookshelves left by a teacher who had moved away two years earlier.

Boxes of items I requisitioned last spring were angled on top of the second-hand coffee table that normally holds bins of headphones and clipboards. Floor lamps teetered awkwardly between desks. A giant black trash bag hovered under a table, stuffed with the silk and plastic English ivy I will later use to dress up the bookshelves.

The room echoed as I strode across the tile. I set down my bags, opened a few of the boxes, and looked over at my closet. The right-hand door bulged open a half-inch and I remembered being unable to close it fully on the last day of school. It seemed only moments had passed since that final day when I had tried to rearrange the things inside so the door would fully close.  I had eventually given up; the prospect of two months of summer freedom enticed me to just walk away.

I pulled the door open and perused the possessions  of my teaching life— books, binders, trinkets from students, folders, a milk crate, rolled up posters, a skein of red yarn, hand sanitizer, Lysol wipes, my golden “good luck” cat that waves from my desk during the year, DVDs, a glue gun, leftover soda from club meetings.

I snapped the picture you see above and decided to leave.  For while I’m excited for the school year to start, I’m also ready to take full advantage of the final two weeks of summer. I still have blog posts to write, a book or two I want to read, a short story I want to hash out, a daytrip to take with my daughter, and a guitar to strum around on.

denisse-leon-676742-unsplash
Photo by Denisse Leon on Unsplash

I read somewhere recently that the end of July is the Sunday night of every teacher’s weekend during the school year, when we maximize those last lingering moments of “me” time. It’s time to do just that, I said to myself. I  pressed against the door and closed it.

My closet can wait.


Thanks for reading! Leave a comment if you have the same thoughts about the last days of summer. Follow my blog for more writing about teaching middle school ELA, including that post about why I love my heavy, awkward kidney bean table.