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Place-Based Learning

A Place-Based Study of the Industrial Revolution for Elementary Students

Doing a deep dive into the industrial revolution allows students to understand the history of their city and of child labor.

December 1, 2022
© Edutopia / RobinOlimb / iStockphoto

My elementary school sits at the top of the hill above the Black River, in one of many New England towns built along a river’s rapids that fueled the mills and factories at the turn of the 19th century. As my class studies the industrial revolution, we focus in particular on the topic of child labor. The child labor that was utilized during the industrial revolution hooks students like no other unit I’ve taught.

Lewis Hine, a New York City schoolteacher turned reformer, traveled the country in the early 1900s, documenting child laborers in every industry for the National Child Labor Committee. As students study Hine’s photographs of children their own age who are tired, dirty, and should have been in school, they become fascinated by the topic of child labor and outraged that it still occurs in the United States today. Here are some ways you can incorporate studies of the industrial revolution and the history of child labor into your classroom.

Connections to different subjects

ELA: The novel Counting on Grace, by Elizabeth Winthrop, perfectly captures the industrial revolution for my students. Set in a Vermont mill town in 1910, the book discusses education, the dangers of the mill, and exploitation of immigrant workers. There are many books that involve child labor in other industries that may be more closely tied to your region.

Depending on the age level of your students, you can research what kinds of industries were prominent in your area to help you choose a historical fiction novel or curate a picture book collection. To start building a literature collection, try this list of 25 books about women and the labor movement, as well as books tagged “child labor” on LibraryThing. There are also a number of titles on Epic.

Science: In science we investigate the transition from water wheels to steam engines and how rotational rate increased production, leading to factories and an increased need for coal. We read about coal mining and where coal comes from in Digging a Hole to Heaven and The Coal Thief. We also look at innovations during this time and study biographies of engineers, such as Wood, Wire, Wings, Marvelous Mattie, and Mr. Ferris and His Wheel.

Independent research: My students then choose an industry to research, taking on an identity with the help of a portaportal (guest password: erounds). We use the website The Lewis Hine Project, where historian Joe Manning traces the lives of the kids in the photographs, tracking down their living relatives when he can. Students get inspired with names, nationalities, and background stories that bring the photographs to life. They then choose from a variety of RAFT prompts—short for Role of the writer, Audience, Format, and Topic—to demonstrate their learning. I’ve found that RAFTs are a great way to direct student learning while offering choice and creativity.

Exploring your community

Springtime weather is perfect to get students outside exploring their community for historical artifacts from the industrial revolution. While I didn’t find any evidence of child labor in the many factories in our town, I did find a great local website with photographs of the Slack Shoddy Mill that used to operate in our town (a mill used for processing recycled wool), and I take students down to the site to compare views of the river and where buildings used to stand.

Some of the mill’s buildings are now used to generate hydroelectricity, and I contacted the company to schedule a tour for my class. Students put in earplugs and watched as the river’s energy transferred into the giant humming generators. There are even large circular stains on the old wooden floors where the vats of shoddy used to sit. What kinds of old industry sites, abandoned water wheels, or museums can you find for your students to visit?

Child Labor Today

Students are shocked to learn that child labor is still legal in the agricultural sector in the United States because of a loophole in the 1938 law that otherwise banned child labor. United States tobacco farms employ immigrant child laborers to pick and hang tobacco, which is still dangerous work, according to the Human Rights Watch documentary Made in the USA.

The international World Day Against Child Labor occurs in mid-June, and students can create signs, write chants, and stage protests against child labor. In the past, my students have also written opinion letters to Congress, which is still debating whether to amend the 1938 law.

Whether your area’s industry historically focused on factories, mines, canneries, or street work, there are connections in your community to the boom of the industrial revolution. This topic provides plenty of opportunities to engage students in an exploration of literature, science, and their country.

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  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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