Work, Workers &
the U.S. Labor Movement
Unit Plan for 5th grade Social Studies
Emma Rose Roderick
see Emma Rose Roderick's essay about the construction of this unit plan (available
on this website): Freire,
Ayers & an Economics Lesson for Fifth-Graders.
to get students thinking critically about work in today's society.
the word "Work" on a large piece of paper, and draw a circle around
it. Explain that the class is going to create a concept web together about what
do you think of when you see the word "work"?
makes something work and not play?
kinds of work do people in our society do?
kind of work do your parents do?
types of work are paid and what are not (ie childcare, housework, etc.)?
type of work is valued and what is not?
work do you do everyday?
you get paid for this work?
work do you not do? Is school a form of work?
do some jobs pay more than others?
something have to be not fun in order to be work?
do people choose the jobs they choose?
it always a matter of choice?
that over the next few weeks, the class will be investigating various issues relating
to work and workers. Have the class journal for a few minutes about what the biggest
questions they have surrounding work are, and how they hope to answer them during
the unit. Try to get each student to share at least one of their questions.
to expand students' understanding of work to include workplaces and the issues
which surround them.
that while yesterday the class talked about work, today you will be talking about
do people work?
makes some places to work more fun/harder/easier than others?
kinds of conditions would you like to have at your workplace?
controls the workplace?
happens when conflicts arise?
Have students write a brief essay (1-2 pages) about what is most important
for them to have and not have in their workplace. They can use examples from parents,
relatives, and friends to generate ideas. Ask them to write about how they would
deal with conflicts in the workplace and how they would go about making sure that
their rights were being respected.
that for today, you are going to pretend your class is a factory making X (have
the students decide what you want to be making). Set up an assembly line for the
production of this object. Act as the manager and periodically put new demands
on the students (Go faster! Switch seats! You're doing it wrong! Etc). Have the
students use the ideas they wrote about in their papers to improve conditions
in the workplace. See what works and what doesn't. Afterwards, discuss their tactics
and the barriers they came up against.
to get students thinking about the various ways in which workers respond to conflicts
with students to come up with a definition of "union." Discuss unions
in the context of students' experience as assembly line workers during the previous
lesson. Talk about a few concrete gains unions have won, which many now take for
granted: the weekend, the 8- hour day, etc.
Si, Se Puede, an illustrated book about a strike by janitors in Los Angeles
that was led by the Service Employees International Union. Discuss the issues
the book raises. Discuss the role of unions in today's workforce. (The book can
be ordered through: www.cincopuntos.com/products_detail.sstg?id=75.)
to learn skills in interviewing and data collection. To make connections between
the theoretical and the practical. To use the students' immediate surroundings
when talking about issues that affect the world.
that tomorrow, the class will be interviewing the various people who work to make
the school run. Divide the class up into teams: some will interview teachers,
others will interview administrators, janitors, cafeteria workers, etc.
a class, brainstorm a list of questions to ask these workers. Talk about open-ended
questions vs yes-no questions. Sample questions might include: What
do you like most about your job? Least? How did you choose the job you have? What
conflicts have come up in your workplace and how have you dealt with them?
each student to come up with a list of questions individually, although they may
use the sample ones to get them started.
interviews and how they are conducted. Ask the students to think about how they
themselves would most like to be interviewed. Have students role-play an interview
or two (with each other, taking turns) and come back together to debrief from
that students have the day to set up appointments with the people they will be
interviewing. Hand out interview permission forms that designate various time
slots, and ask them to bring them back filled out the next morning. Interviews
may happen during the school day or over the phone.
to read about some current labor struggles and examine the media's portrayal of
some students who have already conducted their interviews to talk about it with
the class. What went well? What was hard? Invite students who haven't yet conducted
interviews to ask questions.
in several newspapers from the last few weeks. Have the students go through the
newspapers and find articles relating to struggles in the workplace. Cut these
articles out and paste them on the wall. Read a few of the articles together.
Talk about how the media portrays the workplace struggles, and how that compares
to students' findings in the interviews. Briefly discuss major contributors to
mainstream media and why it might be hard to get an accurate picture of workplace
have the students type up their interviews and put them into whatever format they
to begin to synthesize students' findings in interviews and create a class anthology.
the common themes that came up in interviews. Talk about what the class would
like to do with the interviews, and design a creative way to collect the interviews
in a format that other people can read. Have everyone draw a picture or design
a visual page (using photographs, collage, etc) to go along with their interview.
to learn about current, nearby labor struggles and how students can act to change
working conditions nearby.
a lot of room for variation in this lesson. If there is currently a strike going
on nearby, that's easy--talk about the strike, find out what the issues are and
what the workers are asking for. You might go on a field trip to interview the
workers on the picket line.
there isn't something that high-profile happening, you still might be able to
find a contract battle, organizing campaign, or other work-related issue nearby
that the students can learn about. Have students discuss and journal some ways
in which the class can help workers improve conditions.
to discuss how students want to respond to current nearby labor campaigns or issues.
Design a plan for doing so. Have students take on different roles. This will be
an ongoing project that will not end when the unit does.
to get students thinking not only about labor struggles nearby, but about the
connections to the larger world--issues of globalization and sweatshops.
students look at the tags on their shirts, and put pushpins on a map showing where
everyone's clothes come from.
a brief movie from the National Labor Committee--perhaps Mickey Mouse Goes to
Haiti. (See www.nlcnet.org.) Discuss the phenomenon
of moving production overseas for cheaper labor conditions, and the "race
to the bottom" concept.
students read--or, if possible, hear themselves--testimony about working conditions
from workers overseas. If possible, bring in a student from a nearby university
working on an anti-sweatshop campaign. You may be able to locate nearby activists
through the group United Students Against Sweatshops (www.studentsagainstsweatshops.org).
Talk briefly about the role students have played in the anti-sweatshop movement.
welcome your thoughts and suggestions about these activities! Please email us
Rose Roderick is a workers' rights activist and a student at Smith College.