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Lesson Plans
Coney Island:
The Great Escape
OverviewProcedure for teachersStudent Resources and Materials

Prep for Teachers

Prior to teaching, bookmark all of the Web sites used in the lesson and create a Microsoft Word document with all of the Web sites as hyperlinks for students to access the sites. Make sure that your computer has the necessary media players to play the video clips, which are Shockwave, Real Video, and QuickTime. Cue the American Experience: Coney Island video to the first frame of the film, where you see an old, dilapidated roller coaster and you hear silence.

When using media, provide students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, a specific task to complete and/or information to identify during or after viewing of video segments, Web sites, or other multimedia elements.

Introductory Activities

The 1910s and 1920s - What On Earth Were They Like?

Step 1: Assessing Students' Point of View

Explain to your students that the focus of the lesson will be on examining Coney Island. INSERT the American Experience: Coney Island video into your VCR. Provide the students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION by asking them to, individually, write five descriptive words in the space marked #1 on their Response Sheet that express what they think about the Coney Island of today, as seen in the video. PLAY the tape, starting at the first frame of the film, where you see an old, dilapidated roller coaster and you hear silence. STOP the tape with the shot that pans up the old parachute drop (which looks a little bit like the Eiffel Tower) and again, there is silence. When the students have finished recording their descriptive words, ask them to share with the group their impressions of Coney Island. Record the words on your chalkboard. Based on what they saw in the video, do they like Coney Island? Would they want to go there for a vacation? What happens at Coney Island? (Most students will probably respond negatively to the video segment, and some of the words that you may hear are "dirty," "filthy," "depressing," or "scary.")

Step 2: Assessing Students' Prior Knowledge through Brainstorming

Explain to your students that you will be looking at what Coney Island used to be, but it is first necessary to get a picture of what life was like in the first twenty years of the twentieth century. As a large group, ask them to contribute information (events, products, music, movies, etc.) they already know about New York City, the United States, and the world during that time period. On the chalkboard or on poster paper, write down each idea that is offered, even if you know it is incorrect. (You will most likely get responses like flappers, World War I, Model T, F. Scott Fitzgerald, factories, poverty, immigrants, etc.)

Once the students have exhausted their wealth of knowledge about the beginning of the twentieth century, go through the list and first try to eliminate the items that are not correct. Ask students to locate the items that may not be from the early 1900s, and explain why those things are not appropriate for a discussion about that era. Once the list contains only those things that are related to the time period, briefly discuss each item, placing emphasis on how these things are related to the social and living conditions of people.

In the early part of the twentieth century, the following events were occurring in the United States:

NAACP was founded: Women's groups started to heavily protest for child labor laws, access to birth control, and the right to vote: Government imposed immigrations quotas and barred Japanese immigrants from the country: 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire: Invention of the Model T: Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire: Women gained suffrage: Ku Klux Klan began a revival of violence against African-Americans in the North, South, and Midwest: Assembly-line method of production was created: Prohibition began
In the early part of the twentieth century, the following events were occurring in the world:
Boxer Rebellion in China: England acquired South Africa: Oil discovered in the Persian Gulf region: Chinese revolution occurred and formation of Republic: World War I: Bolshevik Revolution in Russia: Balfour Declaration signed and Zionism going strong: Mussolini introduced fascism to Italy: Sinn Fein Rebellion and Civil War in Ireland

Step 3: Adding Visual Images to Understand the City

Once the students have established a context for the early 1900s, instruct them to go to the Web sites detailing the lives of three families -- the Confinos, the Rogarshevskys, and the Baldizzis - who all lived at 97 Orchard Street in New York City. Provide students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION by asking them to read the stories on each site and write down three observational sentences about each of the stories and the pictures that they saw (they will end up with 3 groups of sentence triads). Within each triad, one sentence should be related to each of the following topics: 1) people's jobs and social status, 2) living environment, and 3) time period and dress.

This activity is intended to help students gain an understanding of family and home life during this time period. There are many similarities and differences between the way people lived in the past and the way they live today. The immigrants' occupations, family histories, and ethnic backgrounds may be different from the students' histories; however, some of their experiences, such as change in social status, illness, death of family members, and low-paying employment, may be similar to what some students may have experienced. Lead the students in a discussion about these similarities and differences. What parallels can they draw between the immigrants' lives and their own lives?

After examining the family histories, students should be instructed to go to the hyperlink for the Baldizzi Family Apartment 360 panoramic view at Provide students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION by asking them to record four observational sentences about what they see in the apartment, focusing on the atmosphere, appliances, furniture, and clothing. Explain to the students that this is an example of a tenement apartment of a working-class family. Not everyone in New York City lived like this - some people were very wealthy and lived very comfortably, while others were even more impoverished.

After students have "toured" the apartment and recorded their observations, ask them to share their observations with the group. What conclusions can they draw about the immigrants' society based on their observations? What were people's lives like? What were their living conditions like? What was the social climate like? Who lived in New York City at this time? How is it similar to life today? How does the Baldizzi apartment compare to students' own homes? How is it different from how we live now? Students will most likely find the way that the three families lived to be very different from their own everyday lives. At the same time, though, some may be able to identify with the three families, especially if their family immigrated to this country, or if they live in tenement buildings themselves.

Learning Activities

Step 1

The Introductory Activities were aimed at getting the students to try to understand life from the perspective of working-class families in the first twenty years of the 1900s. Most of these people lived hard, stressful lives that were focused on working and upward mobility. Like all people, though, these families needed time to escape from their hectic lives and enjoy themselves. One of the most popular vacation destinations for them was Coney Island because it was a place full of excitement, fun, and freedom. Explain to the students that they are going to view a brief segment of video that includes footage about Coney Island in the early part of the 20th century. They will be exploring the past of Coney Island through the use of video and Web sites.

Insert The American Experience: Coney Island into your VCR. Provide the students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, asking them to write four observational sentences about the people, the place, the dress, and the mood of the video segment. START the tape when you see the frame of mechanical horses in the starting gate and you hear the man say "The young men like it 'cause it gives them a chance to hug the girls." PLAY the tape until you see the close-up of the young girl's face as she stands in the ocean, and you hear the woman say, "The most good for the greatest number -- tolerance, freedom." STOP the tape.

CHECK for comprehension by asking the students to share their observations with you. What did they observe about the architecture, clothing, and atmosphere? What are the similarities and differences between what Coney Island was like then and what it is like now? What similarities and differences can they see between life in the early 1900s and life now?

Step 2

Have your students log onto the Greetings from Coney Island Web site at and go to the page with the article "Coney Island for Battered Souls," a primary source document that was written by Bruce Bliven. Provide students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION by instructing them to read the article, and asking them to list and define four new vocabulary words and write a one-paragraph summary of the article. The paragraph should focus on the environment of the city and the escape that Coney Island provided patrons.

Bliven's article was originally published in THE NEW REPUBLIC on November 23rd, 1921, and it uses very descriptive language to create a vivid image of Coney Island. It examines the role that the parks played in the life of the patrons, and it is sometimes critical and cynical. It presents the people as working class individuals trying to escape their drab, depressing worlds through mindless amusements. It also sets the historical scene by discussing some of the political and social situations of the period.

Once the students have finished reading the article, have them break into small groups of three or four people to discuss it. What was the article about? What was its tone? When was it written? What does it tell us about the people of the time? How do the historical events that were discussed earlier in the lesson tie in to what the article is trying to say? What does it say about Coney Island and its importance to those people?

Step 3

Once the students have completed their small group discussions, have them log on to The American Experience: Coney Island Web site and have them go to the page with access to the video footage at Provide the students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION by asking them to view the different video available. Instruct them to choose one of the people that they see in any of the pieces and write a 2-3 paragraph mini-biography about their life, using the information they have gathered over the course of the lesson. The biography must include where they live, what they do for a living, what their family is like, what they are doing while at Coney Island, and why they are there.

After the students have completed their mini-biographies, have some students share their work with the class. What are a few similarities between these creative works? What are some differences?

While times and places may change, people are fundamentally the same. Do any of the characters that were created bear any resemblance to the students themselves? What are the similarities? What are the differences? Why do these similarities and differences exist?

Culminating Activitie

Step 1

Just like the people of the 1910s and 1920s, people today need recreational time. However, because technology and the world have changed so drastically, this recreational time is handled differently than it was in the past. Have students log onto the Nova Web site Household Technology Activity at Provide students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, instructing them to record 10 technological changes that occur in the house between 1900 and 1998. When that task is completed, ask the students about their observations. Based on their observations, what changes do they think occurred in technology, family, the job market, the economy, transportation, and the ecosystem during the time period? How do they think these technological changes, such as faster trains, television, and air-conditioning, affected all aspects of people's everyday lives? Specifically, how have these changes affected family, home, and leisure time?

How do they think these changes in technology and society affected Coney Island? How can these ideas explain the decline of the park? Is there any chance for a revival of Coney Island? Why or why not?

Step 2

Have students take a personal inventory of what they do in their free time. Where do they go? Who do they spend time with? What are they doing during their "working" hours? How much free time do they have? Do their families go on vacation together? If so, where do they go? How are their activities different from that of the Confinos, Rogarshevskys, Baldizzis, and the original characters they created? Why do these differences exist? Discuss these inventories in the large group. What can these inventories tell us about the society we live in today?

Cross-Curricular Activities

Compare and contrast highway and subway maps of New York City from different parts of the 20th century. After examining these maps, "invent" a new mode of transportation for the future, and create new maps of this transportation system.

Transportation and expansion played a major role in the development of BOTH the borough of Brooklyn and Coney Island. Ironically, these same advancements led, at least partially, to the decline of Coney Island. What were these advancements? How did transportation grow, both in terms of kinds of transportation and accessibility? Why did these things affect the crowds at Coney Island? It is often said that the world is becoming smaller and smaller. How did these changes contribute to our "shrinking" world? How do you think our society will change as there are new technological developments in the transportation industry?


Create a diagram of the water and land conditions of Coney Island over the past 80 years.

Coney Island is a beach resort, and clean water and land are important to its success. Have students research to find the ecological conditions of the beachfront area in the 1920s through until modern day. How have conditions changed? Have there been any major events that have impacted the ecology of the Coney Island area? If so, what were they? How did they affect the environment?

Make a display of pictures of changing fashion over the years.

Many of the images that we have of the heyday of Coney Island come from archival photos and film. When viewing those images, it is clear that fashion has changed dramatically since the 1920s, especially when it comes to bathing suits and leisure-time clothing. How does fashion reflect the values of the society? What can you learn about a society based on popular fashions?

Create a series of maps of the boroughs of New York and plot the areas where different ethnic groups lived over the past 80 years.

Coney Island was a haven for people from all classes and ethnic backgrounds. What different groups of people were living in New York in the 1920s? Where did people come from? Why did they move to the United States? Over time, what other groups immigrated to this country? How have these neighborhoods changed?

Community Conections

  • If possible, visit Coney Island! How do the impressions you got from the video clips measure up to seeing the real thing? Can you find any remnants of the Coney Island of the early 1900s?

  • Contact the Brooklyn Historical Society to learn more about the history of Coney Island, and how it relates to the growth of the rest of the borough. Much like Coney Island, the borough of Brooklyn has also changed dramatically. What was Brooklyn like in the early twentieth century? What is it like now?

  • Contact manufacturers of amusement park rides. How have roller coasters, Ferris wheels, and other amusement rides changed since 1900? How have advancements in technology changed the way that rides are created, designed, and manufactured? How have these advancements affected safety regulations?

  • As an extension of the Science Cross-Curricular Extension, contact the Department of Environmental Protection and get information on water safety levels. Gather water samples and check the water at home and at school. Share your findings with your school officials and the water department in your area.