In this lesson students will hear the story Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909. The book is about Clara Lemlich, a Ukrainian immigrant and garment worker in NYC who helped organize a massive general strike to protest the conditions in her industry. Students will learn about Lemlich’s life and what led her to become an organizer of workers across the city, and write their own speeches protesting the conditions in which she worked. Through her story of persistence and solidarity in the face of constant repression, students will explore a model for coming together in order to promote social change.
Common Core Learning Standards:
Write opinion pieces in which they introduce the topic or book they are writing about, state an opinion, supply reasons that support the opinion, use linking words (e.g., because, and, also) to connect opinion and reasons, and provide a concluding statement or section.
Participate in shared research and writing projects (e.g., read a number of books on a single topic to produce a report; record science observations).
Social Justice/Anti-Bias Standard:
(From the Teaching Tolerance Anti-Bias Framework)
I know when people are treated unfairly.
I know about the actions of people and groups who have worked throughout history to bring more justice and fairness to the world.
I will speak up or do something if people are being unfair, even if my friends do not.
Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909, by Michelle Markel
Immigration, tenement, rights, union, strike, wages, walkout, salaries
I can write a speech naming how the treatment of workers is unfair, and make demands for change.
What would it feel like if you had to work a dangerous job instead of going to school? What if people said that because you were a young girl or boy there was nothing you could do to change it?
“Today we’re going to learn about a young woman named Clara Lemlich. She moved to New York around 100 years ago, at a time when young women who were new to this country had to take dangerous jobs in factories where they made clothes. As we listen to the story, think about the kinds of unfairness that Clara faced in her new life her in America, and the ways she fought back to make things better. While this story takes place in the past, it is also important to know that many young people are still forced to work in dangerous and unjust conditions. We will talk about the ways that Clara’s story can inspire to make change today, too.”
Read Aloud Brave Girl. As you read, you might ask:
- How would it feel to work at a job like Clara’s?
- What are some of the “brave” things that Clara does? What other words would you use to describe her?
- Why do you think some of the men say she isn’t “tough enough” to strike? How would that feel if you were Clara?
- What do you think it means when Clara says she has “no further patience” for talk?
After reading, you might ask:
- What parts of Clara’s job do you think were unfair? What kinds of things did she do to resist them?
- What changes happened because of the strikes led by Clara and her fellow garment workers?
- What does this book remind you of? Can you think of any other stories where people had to be brave to show that something wasn’t right?
Return to the pages describing conditions in the factories:
From dawn to dusk, she’s locked up in a factory. Rows and rows of young women bend over their tables, stitching collars, sleeves, and cuffs as fast as they can. “Hurry up, hurry up,” the bosses yell. Ratatatat, hisses Clara’s machine. The sunless room is stuffy from all the bodies crammed inside. There are two filthy toilets, one sink, and three towels for three hundred girls to share.
Clara learns the rules. If you’re a few minutes late, you lose a half day’s pay. If you prick your finger and bleed on the cloth, you’re fined. If it happens a second time, you’re fired.
Discuss with students how conditions like this would feel. Have them sketch or journal about what they picture. Share sketches and ideas afterward as a group.
Review Clara’s short speech at Cooper Union:
“I have listened to all the speakers. I would not have further patience for talk, as I am one of those who feels and suffers from the things pictured. I move that we go on a general strike!”
Ask students to write a short speech that they would deliver to protest conditions like Clara’s. Prompt: What would you say to your bosses if you were forced to work this job? What would you demand to make a change?
Anticipated misconceptions or questions (If kids say…):
“This only happened a long time ago, right?” Create a timeline placing the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike alongside other labor movements in the U.S., up to actions happening today.
“I wouldn’t care if I didn’t go to school. I’d rather have a job where I got paid!” Return to the conditions of the work, and ask how it would feel if you wanted to go to school and didn’t have a choice. Remind students of the idea that school was only open to certain groups at the time, and ask how it might feel to be part of a group (like women and immigrants) who didn’t have the same access.
“I’m glad that women today aren’t treated unfairly anymore.” Ask if they can think of a time when they heard someone say certain things or activities were “for boys” or “for girls.” Reflect on how it felt to be told what you had to like or do. Look into stories that impact women in the workforce today (e.g. pay differentials, maternity/health policies, etc.).
“I don’t know what to write!” Ask, “Can you think of a time you felt strongly that something wasn’t right or fair? What did you do or say? What is something you could say now?’
Ideas for Modifications/Differentiation
- Create a graphic organizer for students to list working conditions that should change, or their demands to factory management.
- Record a transcript of the speech and sections of Brave Girl for students to listen to as they plan
- Provide sentence starters for their speeches, for example:
- It is unfair that…
- Workers shouldn’t have to…
- I demand that…
In pairs or as a whole class have students share their speeches.
Read articles about a labor movement that is active today, like the national Fight for Fifteen movement to raise the minimum wage. Make signs or write letters to raise awareness in the school community, or to lawmakers in support of local legislation.
Author page: http://www.michellemarkel.com/