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Lesson Plans
Fire in the Sky:
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire Causes and Consequences
OverviewProcedure for teachersStudent Resources and Materials


Prep for Teachers

Prior to the teaching, bookmark all of the Web sites used in the lesson. Load any plug-ins necessary to run the Web sites. Cue the videotape to the appropriate starting point. Prepare the hands-on element of the lesson by copying and cutting the paper squares for the assembly line activity.

Introductory Activities: Setting the Stage


The following activities will prepare your students for a lesson on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, and provide them with a strong sense of context for the historical event.

Step 1:


Establishing a Personal Connection to History

Explain to your students that you will be examining a historic event that took place in the year 1911. How many years ago is 1911? Ask your students to figure it out (89 years).

Tell your students that, although 89 years may seem like a long time ago, it really isn't in the grand scheme of things. Ask them to look at the progression of history in another way.

Ask your students to determine the year of their birth by subtracting their age from the current year (many students may know their birth year off the top of their head). What year is it? (Assuming you are working with middle-school students, their answer will be somewhere around 1987).

Ask your students for a sampling of their parents' ages. Come up with an average age for your students' parents. . .either you can come up with a quick mental average, or you can come up with a true average as a class. How many years older than your students is the average parent? What year was the average parent of your students born? (Probably sometime between the mid-1950s and the mid-1960s)

Ask your students if anyone happens to know the ages of their grandparents? Come up with an average age for your students' grandparents. . .either you can come up with a quick mental average, or you can come up with a true average as a class. How many years older than your students was the average grandparent? What year was the average grandparent of your students born? (Probably some time between the early 1930s and the late 1940's).

Ask your students how many years were between the average grandparents' birth and the year 1911. Can your students assume that their grandparents knew somebody who was alive in the year 1911? Why? Do your students think there are people still alive who remember the year 1911? Why or why not? Do your students know anyone who was alive in 1911? (Anyone over the age of 94, assuming that they are in good health, can probably remember 1911).

You can then tell your students that, in the grand scheme of things, 1911 isn't that far away. . .they may know someone (or most certainly know someone who knew someone) who was alive in 1911.

Step 2:

Establishing a Industrial Context for History

Ask your students if they have any ideas how life in 1911 was different than life in 2000. What do your students think household technology was like in the year 1911? Brainstorm and get some ideas.

Ask your students to log on to the Technology at Home Web Site. Go the Household Technology Activity (www.pbs.org/wgbh/aso/tryit/tech/). In this site, they can examine the development of technology throughout the course of the 20th century.

Provide your students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, by asking them to examine and record the household technology available in the year of their birth, in the year of the class's average parent's birth, and in the year of the class's average grandparent's birth.

After your students have examined and recorded the information, ask them
a) What technology and products were available to at the time of the average grandparent's birth?
b) What technology and products were available at the time of the average parent's birth?
c) What technology and products were available at the time of the student's birth? How did the technology change over the years?

Ask your class to brainstorm a list of household technology that they believe would have been available to people living in the year 1911. Ask your students to provide you with "generic" items rather than specific (i.e., "soda pop" rather than "Coca-Cola"). Write their list of possibilities on the board, dividing the list into three columns.

Divide the class into three groups. Instruct one group of students log on to the National Inventors Hall of Fame Index of Inventions (www.invent.org/book/book-index.html). Instruct the second group of students log on to the About.Com: Historical Inventions site (http://inventors.about.com/science/inventors/library/bl/bl12.htm). Instruct the third group of students to log on to The Lemelson-MIT Program's Invention Dimension site (http://web.mit.edu/invent/www/iarchive.html).

Assign one column of the list of products on the board to each group. Provide a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, and ask each group to research and record the dates of invention for the items listed in their column.

After each group has researched and recorded the dates for their assigned column, discuss the various invention dates for the items on your list. How accurate was your list? Are there any surprises?

Step 3:

Establishing a Social/Political Context for History

Now that you have established the "proximity" of the year 1911, and developed a basic understanding of the technology available in 1911, ask your students for their ideas on what they think was happening in the United States at that time. Depending on your students' prior knowledge, you will get answers ranging from the sinking of the Titanic to the Civil War.

1911 is towards the end of what historians now call "The Progressive Era." In 1911, the United States was riding out the tail-end of The Industrial Revolution. More and more people were moving away from the country and into the cities to take advantage of job opportunities available at that time. Industry was flourishing in 1911; there was a great deal of faith in technology and progress (the Titanic didn't sink until 1912). Also at this point, the U.S. was in the midst of great tide of immigration from southern and eastern Europe.

Ask your students to log on the List of Illustrations for Jacob Riis' How The Other Half Lives (http://www.cis.yale.edu/amstud/inforev/riis/illustrations.html). Provide a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, and ask your students to examine the photographs on the site and record their thoughts on what they see. Are the people in the photographs happy or sad? Rich or poor? Clean or dirty? What similarities are there between the photographs?

After your students have examined the photographs, discuss their reactions. What did they find in the pictures?

Explain that the photographs are taken from a book titled How the Other Half Lives, by Jacob Riis. Riis documented the lives of immigrants on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the early part of the twentieth century.

Ask your students if they have any guesses what the life of a person their own age would have been like in 1911? If your students do not do so, point out that many of them would have not been in school, but rather, they would have been working.

Explain to your students that the event you will be examining took place on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the year 1911, in a factory where many young people—mostly in their teens—were employed.

End of Class One

Learning Activities

Step 1:

Explain to your students that you will now be examining a historical event that took place in a garment factory on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the year 1911. You will be exploring this event through the use of video.

Insert NEW YORK A DOCUMENTARY FILM into your VCR.

Provide your students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, asking them to raise their hands when they can name three of the conditions workers faced in factories and sweatshops during the early 20th Century. START the tape when the screen is filled with black-and-white film footage of people sitting at two long rows of sewing machines, and a woman's voice is saying, "You might be working a sixteen to twenty hour day. . ." PLAY the tape until you hear the male narrator say, "to keep out union organizers, and keep the women focused on their jobs." PAUSE the tape.

Check for comprehension, and ask your students to list some of the conditions that workers faced in garment factories.

Remind your students that the video said that "foremen set brutal quotas." Ask your students if they can define what a quota is.

Remind your students that the video also mentioned that the doors were locked "to keep out union organizers." Ask your students if they can define what a union is.

Step 2:

Provide your students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, and ask them to raise their hand when they hear what the typical working hours were in a garment factory. PLAY the tape, until the screen is filled with a picture of a young woman, and a female voice is says, "The hissing of the machines, the yelling of the foremen, made life unbearable." STOP the tape.

Ask your students what problems there might be if people are working under the conditions they have just seen described. What potential dangers would there be?

FAST FORWARD the tape until the screen is filled with a still image of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, and the male narrator is saying, "Late on the afternoon of Saturday, March 25, 1911, the 500 employees of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company were racing to fill their quotas."

Step 3:

Provide your students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, asking them to raise their hands when they discover the reason why the fire in the factory spread so quickly.

PLAY the tape, until the screen is filled with an image of sewing machines and flames, and a female voice says, ". . .some were screaming, some were beating the door with their fists, some were trying to tear it open." PAUSE the tape.

Ask students for the reason why the fire spread through the factory so quickly. Ask students to predict what might have happened as a result of the fire. How do they think the workers might have escaped?

FAST FORWARD the tape to the still black and white image of a man with a mustache and a policemen, where the narrator is saying, "By now, dozens of women at a time were standing at the eighth and ninth floor windows, all but engulfed by the inferno."

Step 4:

Provide your students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, asking them to determine what had happened the year before the Triangle Fire. PLAY the tape, until the image of two dead young women fills the screen, and a male voice is saying, ". . . and these dead bodies were the answer."

Ask your students what the garment workers did the year before the fire. Ask them what their feelings and thoughts are now that they know what happened at the Triangle Factory.

In all, 146 people--most of them teenage girls--died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. Factory workers died as a result of being burned to death, of smoke inhalation, or because they jumped from the eighth and ninth floor windows.

After the fire, the two owners of the Triangle Factory were put on trial for charges of manslaughter. However, they were both acquitted. . .because they had not broken any laws governing workplace conditions.

As the result of the outrage of concerned citizens, and a four-year long government investigation, laws were put into place to improve factory conditions and safety measures.

Culminating Activities

In order to help students understand the restrictive and dangerous environment that garment workers endured, try this "Assembly Line" activity with your students.

Step 1. Divide your students into groups of five. Provide each group of students with an envelope containing the pieces of five cut-up paper squares (use the patterns attached to this lesson to cut up your paper squares). Ask the students to pass the envelope around their group, with each person removing one piece each time the envelope comes to them. Continue passing the envelope around the group and removing pieces until there are no pieces left in the envelope.

Step 2. Remind your students that the workers in the Triangle Company were assembling shirtwaists, a blouse type garment that was made assembly-line style. Ask your students to remind you of some of the conditions the garment workers in the Triangle Factory had to endure (i.e., no talking, no going to the bathroom, no humming, working from sunrise to sunset, etc.). What do they think the problems would be with this type of environment? Would it aid in production, or be counter-productive?

Step 3.
Ask each group of students to assemble five perfect squares from the pieces they took out of the envelope, fitting them together jigsaw-puzzle style. However, instruct students that they cannot talk, whisper, grunt, groan, or make any noises whatsoever during the assembly process. They also may not get up from their seats, or look at what the other groups are doing.

Step 4
. While the students are assembling the squares, put yourself in the role of the foreman in a turn-of-the century sweatshop. If any student talks, moves, or otherwise breaks the rules, remove them from their group and let the group continue to work on assembly.

Step 5.
Give the groups anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes to complete the assembly of the five perfect squares (some groups may not be able to complete the task in the time allotted). After completing the activity, ask your students how the activity made them feel. Challenged? Threatened? Excited? What?

Ask the students who were removed from the "assembly line" how they felt when they were taken out of the group.

Ask your students what parallels can be drawn between the activity and the plight of the workers in the Triangle Factory. How did the activity deepen their understanding of working conditions? What changes do they think have been made governing workplace safety since the Triangle Fire? Ask your students to support their answers with examples.

End of Class Two

Cross-Curricilar Extensions

SOCIAL STUDIES/LANGUAGE ARTS/TECHNOLOGY
Visit Cornell's excellent Web site on The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire (http://www.ilr.cornell.edu/trianglefire/cover.html), and listen to one of the oral histories of a Triangle survivor.

Conduct interviews with older relatives or friends about their first job work experience. What year was it? What was their job? How much were they paid? How long did they stay with the job?

Record and transcribe the interview. Develop a class oral history web site based on the transcripts of the interviews.

VISUAL ART
Shirtwaists, the garments produced in the Triangle Factory, were made popular and immortalized by artist Charles Dana Gibson. Research the life and art of Charles Dana Gibson, or investigate clothing and fashion trends during the first two decades of the 20th century.

DRAMA
Complete further research on the Triangle Factory Fire. Who were the key individuals? Who were the survivors? What was the outcome of the trial held following the fire?

Assign students to research individuals involved with the fire. Assign students to play the roles of judge, lawyers, jury, witnesses, etc. Improvise a mock trial, in which witnesses to the fire testify as to their experiences. As an alternate activity, have students write and perform excerpts from a trial transcript, or diary entries from fire survivors.

SOCIAL STUDIES/SCIENCE
What other large-scale catastrophic fires have occurred in the 20th century? Research disasters such as the Chicago Iroquois Theater Fire of 1903, the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906, the Hartford Circus Fire of 1944, and Boston's Coconut Grove Fire in 1942. What were the causes and consequences of each fire?

What fire-retardant materials are used in building construction today? What makes a substance "fireproof"? What happens when you try to burn fireproof materials? Conduct research and supervised lab work to find the answers to these questions.

Community Connections

  • Contact a local fire station and arrange for a visit to discuss fire safety and fire regulations. As an alternative activity, conduct an online interview with an area firefighter.
  • Contact OSHA (the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration) and arrange for an OSHA representative to visit your classroom to discuss workplace safety, Federal workplace regulations, and alternatives for workers in dangerous work situations. As an alternative activity, conduct an online interview with an OSHA representative.
  • Research and develop fire safety workshops, and share them with other students in your school or students at an elementary school in your district.
  • Contact UNITE, the Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees (www.uniteunion.org) and conduct an online or in-person interview regarding sweatshop practices in the United States and abroad.
  • Research the unions represented in your community. What trades do they represent? How long have they been present in the community? What services do they provide to their members?