Authentic Assessment in Social Studies: A Guide to Keeping it Real, by David Sherrin

Authentic Assessment in Social Studies: A Guide to Keeping it Real, by David Sherrin

Providing opportunities for authentic assessment is not just about putting on an “innovation” badge; instead, it is a teaching and learning strategy grounded in educational theory and research that will lead to deeper learning and a fairer and more democratic educational system. In fact, traditional assessments are some of the primary causes of academic anxiety for students. Many students find some pleasure in the day-to-day of school, but dread the test-taking experience.

This book is partly a call to social studies educators to allow our next generation of artists, singers, poets, activists, web designers, museum curators, historians, and non-profit leaders to make their arguments in social studies classes using a wide and rich array of mediums: the same mediums through which people actually produce history (and political action) in our world. It is also a guide to how to successfully do so in your classroom. For some of our students, this may take the form of traditional writing, for others it may be painting, and for others it may be dance, video, discussion, podcast, poetry, narrative perspective pieces, or even civic action.

David Sherrin teaches Social Studies at Scarsdale High School in Westchester. He formally taught at Harvest Collegiate in New York City. This book shows teachers how to move beyond tests and essay writing to implement authentic assessments in middle or high school social studies classroom. It explains the value of authentic assessments and offers practical ways to get started and dive deeper in your practice. Real-life stories of classroom successes and failures illustrate points throughout the book. The chapters cover a range of categories, including different types of written, creative, and civic action assessments. The book includes planning charts and rubrics showing how to use, grade, and give feedback on assessments so they truly aid student learning and progress; specific examples, useful tips, and ready-to-go instructions that you can use immediately with your class; and open-ended assessments encourage scaffolding or adaptation for individual or group work to fit your classroom needs.

Whether you are a first-year social studies teacher curious about how to move beyond multiple choice tests to assess learning, or you have long used authentic assessments and are looking to take your practice to the next level, this book has thoughtful insight on steps you can take to deepen and enrich teaching and learning in your classroom by incorporating authentic assessments.” ― Randi Weingarten, President, American Federation of Teachers

“A real page-turner, this engaging book illustrates the wonderfully varied ways students can express themselves in social studies class. David Sherrin presents a wide range of projects to embed in the curriculum, drawing from his own content knowledge of history and other social sciences as well as his deep pedagogical knowledge honed by teaching in a uniquely diverse set of schools. Teachers will find a text that is thought provoking and practical thanks to ample assignment descriptions, rubrics, and discussions of classroom practice.” ― Shira Eve Epstein, Associate Professor of Curriculum and Instruction, The City College of New York (CUNY)

Educated for Freedom: The Incredible Story of Two Fugitive Schoolboys Who Grew Up to Change a Nation, by Anna Mae Duane

Educated for Freedom: The Incredible Story of Two Fugitive Schoolboys Who Grew Up to Change a Nation, by Anna Mae Duane

Anna Mae Duane, the author of Educated for Freedom, is Associate Professor of English and director of the American Studies Program at the University of Connecticut. According to the book blurb, “In the 1820s, few Americans could imagine a viable future for black children. Even abolitionists saw just two options for African American youth: permanent subjection or exile. Educated for Freedom tells the story of James McCune Smith and Henry Highland Garnet, two black children who came of age and into freedom as their country struggled to grow from a slave nation into a free country. Smith and Garnet met as schoolboys at the Mulberry Street New York African Free School, an educational experiment created by founding fathers who believed in freedom’s power to transform the country. Smith and Garnet’s achievements were near-miraculous in a nation that refused to acknowledge black talent or potential. The sons of enslaved mothers, these schoolboy friends would go on to travel the world, meet Revolutionary War heroes, publish in medical journals, address Congress, and speak before cheering crowds of thousands. The lessons they took from their days at the New York African Free School #2 shed light on how antebellum Americans viewed black children as symbols of America’s possible future. The story of their lives, their work, and their friendship testifies to the imagination and activism of the free black community that shaped the national journey toward freedom.”

Duane argues, “The questions that plagued Smith and Garnet remain relevant today. The notion that somehow Black bodies are doomed – stuck on a historical wheel that keeps returning them to the same place – has powerful resonance in the twenty-first century, as the country continues to reenact bitter divisions over the role of race in remembering our history and imagining our future” (10).

According to Karen Ordahl Kupperman, Professor Emerita, New York University, “Duane unravels the story of two boys enrolled in New York’s African Free School” who “as accomplished adults . . . confronted the reality that America offered African Americans.” Derrick Spires believes the book “will become indispensible for those invested in deep and complex understandings of black life and letter in the long nineteenth century.” James Brewer Stewart, founder of Historians Against Slavery, calls the book a “methodological tour de force.”

The Kidnapping Club: Wall Street, Slavery, and Resistance on the Eve of the Civil War by Jonathan Daniel Wells

The Kidnapping Club: Wall Street, Slavery, and Resistance on the Eve of the Civil War by Jonathan Daniel Wells

In The Kidnapping Club, Jonathan Daniel Wells, a social, cultural, and intellectual historian and a Professor of History in the Departments of Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan, tells the story of the powerful network of judges, lawyers, and police officers who circumvented anti-slavery laws by sanctioning the kidnapping of free and fugitive African Americans. Nicknamed “The New York Kidnapping Club,” the group had the tacit support of institutions from Wall Street to Tammany Hall whose wealth depended on the Southern slave and cotton trade. But a small cohort of abolitionists, including Black journalist David Ruggles, organized tirelessly for the rights of Black New Yorkers, often risking their lives in the process. Taking readers into the bustling streets and ports of America’s great Northern metropolis, The Kidnapping Club is a dramatic account of the ties between slavery and capitalism, the deeply corrupt roots of policing, and the strength of Black activism.

“With New York City as its backdrop, The Kidnapping Club offers an important and compelling narrative that explores the long struggle for Black freedom and equality. Jonathan Daniel Wells offers a rich and timely account that uncovers a history of racial violence and terror in nineteenth-century Gotham. To no surprise, law enforcement, politicians, and bankers thwarted Black freedom time and time again. But the power and fortitude of Black New Yorkers pressed white citizens to remember and uphold the ideals of a new nation. The Kidnapping Club is a must read for those who want to understand current debates about the intersection of Black lives and structural oppression.”― Erica Armstrong Dunbar, author of Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge

“Jonathan Daniel Wells’ The Kidnapping Club is a necessary story of black agency and resistance. Bringing to life the competing strains of humanism and oppression that echo our present-day struggles, Wells paints a portrait of New York that reveals the best of American principles in the bodies of black resistors while showing us the economic complexity and complicity of America’s greatest city. It is a brilliant history perfectly suited for our times.”― Michael Eric Dyson, author of Tears We Cannot Stop and What Truth Sounds Like

The Kidnapping Club maps and specifies both the top-side financial connections between the capitalists of the North and the slavers of the South and the underbelly of police corruption, violence, and kidnapping that knit together. And it manages to combine acute historical analysis with literary drama and a persistent, gentle humanity. You should read it.”― Walter Johnson, author of The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States

“Nineteenth-century New York City was a battleground for African Americans, who most whites assumed to be undeserving of freedom. Jonathan Wells’ The Kidnapping Club brings to life the struggles in the courts and on the streets between those who sought to send blacks to slavery in the south; those who benefited from southern slavery; and the small group of interracial activists who fought against slavery and would eventually prevail in claiming freedom for all regardless of race. From politicians and jurists to newspaper owners, and from bankers to ministers to common laborers, everyone had a stake in the central question of the moment: the legality and morality of slavery and the status of people of African descent in the nation. Wells’ gripping narrative brings to life the real-life impact of these questions on every New Yorker, and how the struggle over racial equality affected every sector of life in antebellum New York City.” ― Leslie M. Harris, author of In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City, 1626-1863.

Where We Started by Arthur Dobrin

Where We Started by Arthur Dobrin

Where We Started is a historical look at the United States from 1740-1864 that brings the past and its inhabitants alive and makes possible a very different understanding of the history of the United States, enslavement, and the struggle for freedom. Arthur Dobrin is an American author, Professor Emeritus of Management, Entrepreneurship, and General Business at Hofstra University and Leader Emeritus of the Ethical Humanist Society of Long Island. Dr. Arthur Dobrin served two years in the Peace Corps with his wife, Lyn, in Kenya. He has maintained his interest in Kenya since, having returned with his family and having led educational safaris to Kenya for Adelphi University School of Social Work.

“In Where we Started, Dobrin creates a world that leaves the reader enough space to make moral judgments themselves, while at the same time showing how perspective changes the weight of all these considerations. The novel reads like parables, strewn together and buoyed by historical context.”  – Christian Hayden, African American activist.

“The novel is a narrative on the development of American society, taking a realistic view of the social interactions between the Old and New World, and between the societal facets that coalesced to produce what we call Americans. This work does not shy away from some very sensitive and difficult narratives, and ones that require discourse today more than ever.” – Clifford J Pereira, Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

“I was touched by the individual events and stories. This book is very clearly in line with the telling of racial history in the USA country. No one would read this book and not be more aware of the ways in which it tells the sad story of race in the USA.” – Don Johnson, retired minister.

“Many historical novels are accurate in detail but not in the deeper reality of a period. Dobrin’s great accomplishment is that he places the reader in each period, as the people of the period would likely have experienced it.” – Dr. Michael S. Franch, President of Baltimore City Historical Society.

All Children Are All Our Children, by Doug Selwyn

All Children Are All Our Children by Doug Selwyn

Review by Peter Lang, 2018

What would schools and communities look like if the health and well-being of all our children were our highest priorities? More important than test scores, profits, or real estate values? What actions would we take if we wanted to guarantee that all our children were growing up with what they needed to be healthy, happy, and successful—and not just some of them? The United States was once among the healthiest countries in the world. As of now, it is ranked no better than twenty-ninth. Those who bear the brunt of our worsening health are the poor, people of color, and, most of all, our children. All Children Are All Our Children situates our ongoing health crisis within the larger picture of inequality and the complex interplay of systems in the U.S. based on class, privilege, racism, sexism, and the ongoing tension between the ideals of democracy and the realities of corporate capitalism. Public education is caught in the middle of those tensions. All Children Are All Our Children begins by defining what we mean by health, looking at the many factors that support or undermine it and then identifies steps that can be taken locally in our schools and in our communities that can support the health and well-being of our young people and their families, even as we work towards necessary change at the state and national policy level.

“Accessibly written with sharp-as-nails political analysis, in All Children Are All Our Children, long-time teacher and education activist Doug Selwyn indicts the inhumanity of corporate education reform while righteously arguing that healthy schools start with healthy communities and healthy kids. If you are interested in understanding how to really fix our schools, read this book.” – Wayne Au, Professor, School of Educational Studies, University of Washington Bothell, editor & author at Rethinking Schools

“In All Children are All of Our Children, Doug Selwyn asks us “What would it look like if we decided that the health and well-being of our children was our number one priority?” The answer is our schools and education system, indeed our entire society, would be transformed. In the tradition of John Holt and Herbert Kohl, Selwyn draws on his five decades of teaching experience, conversations with students, parents, health care professionals, social workers, educators and a deep dive into the research literature as he constructs a devastating portrait of the well-being of American children. But this book is not about despair, rather Selwyn fashions hope for children, schools and society with the message that the only education for social change is action to bring about that change and he offers us a multiple pathways to follow as we, step-by-step, transform ourselves and our society into one that makes the health and well-being of all children our first priority.” – E. Wayne Ross, Professor of Education, University of British Columbia

Dr. Selwyn takes a wide-angle view of the US educational system, allowing the reader to see how many variables in our imperfect society impact our students’ education, health, and happiness. He poses the uncomfortable question of whether we truly care for all our children and pushes us to reflect on our own compliance, lack of action, and even ignorance of the big picture. As a former student of Dr. Selwyn and now a classroom teacher, I am familiar with that nudge into the uncomfortable which inevitably pushes me to action.  His conclusion is a hopeful one: if our communities have the power to erode our educational system, those same communities have the assets to work together and begin the difficult and necessary work of change. – Diane Dame, Teacher, Saranac (NY) School District.

Supporting Civics Education With Student Activism by Pablo A. Muriel and Alan J. Singer

Supporting Civics Education with Student Activism: Citizens for a Democratic Society by Pablo A. Muriel and Alan J. Singer

This book empowers teachers to support student activists. The authors examine arguments for promoting student activism, explore state and national curriculum standards, suggest activist projects, and report examples of student individual and group activism. By offering suggestions for engaging students as activists across the K-12 curriculum and by including the stories of student activists who became lifetime activists, the book demonstrates how activism can serve to bolster democracy and be a component of rich, experiential learning. Including interviews with student and teacher activists, this volume highlights issues such as racial and immigrant justice, anti-gun violence, and climate change.

Support Civic Education with Student Activism: Citizens for a Democratic Society is an exemplary contribution to civics by showing how students can take part in democracy with social activism unafraid of expressing views and showing up personally when confronted by political and social issues, a noted contribution for the usually dull and legalistic way social studies and civics are taught. Filled with excellent examples of participatory democracy in action by students and their teachers.” – Jack Zevin, Professor Emeritus, Macaulay Honors College/CUNY, and Co-Director, The Taft Institute for Government

“Every social studies teacher should read this book. It is about how students became involved in their democracy and made critical changes in their communities. Pablo Murial and Alan Singer taught students the tools of activism and leadership. Students believed in social justice; their actions come from the heart.  Get to know the stories of the students and their teachers. This is an extraordinary book.” – Valerie Pang, Professor, School of Teacher Education, San Diego State University

“In today’s challenging times, social studies teachers are more important than ever in developing student civic literacy. A core component of this effort is in promoting student activism, so they can both exercise and benefit from such practices.  Pablo Muriel and Alan Singer, in their book Supporting Civics Education with Student Activism: Citizens for a Democratic Society, provide a template for teachers to help students become the type of citizens we profoundly need today.” – Mark Pearcy, Assistant Professor, Rider University, College of Education and Human Services, Executive Editor, Teaching Social Studies

“This is the book social studies educators K-12 across the nation need today. As an advocate for civic education, I find this book practical, informative, and most importantly, empowering for young people. It takes you on a journey of the authors’ own self-discovery as activists and their experiences as teachers encouraging student voice in and outside the classroom. A true guide for any educator who supports students as change agents.” – April Francis-Taylor, Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Eastern Suffolk BOCES and member of the NYSED Civic Readiness Task Force.

The City, by Deborah Stevenson

The City, by Deborah Stevenson

Review by Thomas Hansen

Deborah Stevenson presents here an in-depth philosophical and sociological portrait of global cities and their changing nature.  As many cities change—from Chicago to Mumbai—millions of people are impacted by the altered spaces, increased costs, morphing purposes, and altered neighborhoods that are part of the transformed blocks and buildings we call cities.

Stevenson presents mesmerizing images of how cities change, the difference between daylight and nighttime commerce, and the role of the city in providing a playground for alternative and anonymous persons.  One interesting note is that many people fill up the cities at night, coming to town to drink and carouse and then abandoning the cities once again in the wee hours.  The city has many roles and many functions indeed.

Currently, most people live in cities, and therefore they work, eat, shop, travel within a space apart from rural areas where most of the food is produced on this planet.  This disconnect is something very important to consider.  The author is informed and shares information from others who can help describe the city and explain it.

            The author gives us a great deal to think about and draws on experts in other fields who contribute to the study of urban spaces.  Part of the “Key Concepts” series from this publisher—there are about three dozen titles currently—this book draws upon a variety of schools, fields, and frameworks (p. 3).  Stevenson makes good use of all the fields and how they connect to sociology.  Stevenson also gives alternative views of urban sociology a chance (pp. 12-14) and incorporates other perspectives as she profiles the city.  

            Among other interesting concepts the author presents here is the notion of the “Trojan Horse of gentrification (p. 46).”  Certainly in many cities there are many cases of upheaval when neighborhoods change.  I think personally of Chicago and how families are in shock as their spaces are destroyed, rearranged, removed, refashioned, and otherwise conquered by others.

            I think of a friend who said recently, “Look what they did to my room!”  He was referring to a small basement space in a one-bedroom apartment which through gut rehabbing had been turned into a two-bedroom condominium.  His room had disappeared—had turned into part of a new living room.  It is radical change—and the huge impact of the city upon its people—that needs to be studied and recorded in books such as these.   

            The text has several uses for educators.  For example, social studies teachers can use it as background reading for recent historical information about immigration, movements toward cities, and the changing face of the metropolis.  In addition, there are implications for its use in a variety of advanced high school courses as a resource for students doing projects on spaces, the environment, financial investments, banking, and global issues, patterns, and problems.

            The book could also be used in various college courses as recommended or additional reading for giving students more information on “spaces” and also for talking about the “progress” of gentrification.  The disconnect between dwelling in the city and producing food in the country, the policies generated in the city far from the fields of food production, the loss of intimate spaces within cities, and the anonymous and entertaining aspects of the city at night are all interesting themes to explore in student reports and in further expert research. All of the above positive things being said, the book is theoretical in tone and sometimes dense reading.  The difficulty level should be considered if it is to be used in classes for students in high school or for lower undergraduate courses.

Great American City: Chicago & the Enduring Neighborhood Effect by Robert Sampson

Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect, by Robert Sampson

Review by Thomas Hansen

This book explains in very technical ways why, and how, neighborhoods matter.  Using questions over time, this compilation of studies looks at a wide variety of what makes neighborhoods safe, effective, and secure.  Sampson presents here some interesting questions to pose citizens throughout the City and then provides technical explanations and presentations of the results.

The book comprises several studies that look at a variety of questions.  For example, Sampson wants to know whether a given neighborhood is safe and what that means.  Is there a great deal of crime?  Suicide?  Poverty?  Loss of jobs?  What is the family structure like in that neighborhood?  Do students succeed in school?  Is there purpose within the family?  Hopelessness?  Support from parents or other adults?  From members of the church?

Another emphasis of the book is how neighborhoods differ.  If X exists in a given neighborhood, does that mean Y also exists?  What about a neighborhood bounded by another one with rampant Z?  If someone finds a letter on the ground, will they place it in a mailbox?  If someone sees a crime, will they report it?  What influences school completion?  A lack of violence in the neighborhood?  Parents with gainful employment?  Being in a neighborhood near another one with elevated school completion rates?

This is an in-depth study of neighborhoods.  Readers with a good deal of background in statistics and quantitative research will have no problem dealing with the variety of data and presentation of the data here.  Readers without such background can still get a lot of information from this book—just not on the level at which the book is constructed.

I recommend the book, especially for teachers, researchers, and policymakers who need very clear and very detailed information on the topics presented in the book.  The book will fit into advanced sociology courses about Chicago, into courses on how to show the results of a grouping of related studies, and into discussions on policies and governance. 

Although the text fits into graduate and advanced undergraduate levels more easily because of the level of background knowledge, information on statistics, and familiarity with social sciences required, it can also be important for teachers of advanced high school students.

Related to the Common Core Standards, the book dovetails into units on grades 11-12 technical readings and units including perspectives to explore and argue.  It is also a fine reference work for grades 11-12 honors students and AP students writing research papers on topics and conclusions supported by the advanced data and presentations provided here.  

American Dialogue: The Founders and Us by Joseph J. Ellis

American Dialogue: The Founders and Us by Joseph J. Ellis.

Review by James J. Carpenter

            While ordering lunch at a deli in South Carolina, the young cashier noticed I had a book with me. “Whatcha readin’?” he asked. “A book on American history” I responded. He then went on to lament how history is being deemphasized in school and to question how were we to avoid repeating the errors of the past if we don’t know what they were. The book I had that day was American Dialogue by Joseph J. Ellis.  Ironically, Ellis’ book deals in part with the very issue the young man raised; namely, what we can learn from the “ongoing conversation between past and present” (p. 4). I must confess I am a fan of Ellis’ writing and have read several of his books on early American history. The sub-title to his latest work, The Founders and Us, especially piqued my interest. Was this another attempt at deciphering the intent of the founders as it pertains to current issues or was it something else?  As I read each chapter, I discovered this work was significantly more and I saw important connections for classroom teachers.

            Following a preface, Ellis divides four chapters into two parts each: Then and Now. Each chapter focuses on what he identifies as four enduring issues that are more salient and challenging in the first quarter of the twenty-first century. Ellis establishes the historical foundation for each subject and then examines the complexity of each in the context of a divisive political climate complicated by domestic and international obstacles. Acknowledging that a true conversation with the founders is obviously impossible, he attempts to connect their concerns regarding these controversial topics with those of modern America. Hence, his use of the term dialogue in his title. The four areas he identifies are race, equality, law, and foreign policy. In each case, Ellis chooses one member of the founding generation as the central figure with whom to engage in his “dialogue”: For race, it is Thomas Jefferson; for equality he chooses John Adams; James Madison is his focus for law; and for our diplomatic relations abroad he uses George Washington. In the Now portions of each chapter, Ellis situates each current issue “as recent entries in long-standing patterns” (p. 8). His choice of both issues and founders reflect, he argues, “what is still an ongoing argument about our destiny as a people and a nation” (p. 7). Ellis’ final chapter is an epilogue he uses to discuss the successes and failures of early American leadership because he believes “the founders managed to maximize the creative possibilities of their time more fully than any subsequent generation of political leaders in American history” (p. 228).

            His discussion of each issue is both insightful and challenging. For example, choosing Jefferson for his chapter on race is perfect given Jefferson’s conflicted and apparent hypocritical relationship with slavery and African Americans. Ellis argues that Jefferson’s criticism of slavery “operated at an elevated region of his mind, which never descended to the ground that he walked and that his slaves at Monticello worked” (p. 22). He was incapable, according to Ellis, of imagining a biracial society, let alone a multiracial one. In the modern context, this darker element of Jefferson’s legacy is reflected in a more subtle version of racism fueled “by white assumptions of black inferiority” (p. 58). The resurgence of more strident voices on this issue only complicate the fulfillment of the democratic ideal of racial equality as implied, if not expressed, by Jefferson’s words in the Declaration of Independence. In examining equality, Ellis compares the views of John Adams with those same famous words: “all men are created equal.” He portrays Adams as more of a realist or even a cynic who “insisted that inequality was the natural condition of mankind.” Not only did Adams mean differences in physical and mental attributes, he also believed distinctions based on money and social class “always were and always would be a permanent fixture in all societies on earth, including the aspiring republic called the United States…” (p.81). In twenty-first century America, Ellis argues “we currently inhabit a second Gilded Age” characterized by “unacceptable levels of economic inequality” (p. 114); A result Adams “tried to tell us … was virtually inevitable over two centuries ago” (p. 115).

Considered the “Father of the Constitution” by many if not most, Madison was the “obvious person to focus on” in his chapter on law. Ellis argues that during the period of 1787 to 1789, Madison’s actions “just might constitute the most brilliant political performance in American history” (pp. 121-122). Considering him to be a pragmatist, Ellis describes Madison’s changing constitutional interpretations from opposing Hamilton’s plans for strengthening the national government to later rejecting John C. Calhoun’s secessionist arguments not as inconsistency but rather a reflection of Madison’s willingness “to accommodate what the evolving political context required” and “as political adaptions of principle to changing conditions” (p. 149). Ellis contrasts this Constitutional adaptability to the originalist interpretations perhaps best exemplified by the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. For Ellis, if arguably the chief architect of the Constitution interpreted its words differently according to the historical context, how can modern jurists rigidly apply eighteenth-century understandings to twenty-first century issues by “channeling the wisdom of the founders” (p. 170)?

Just as Madison was the logical choice for the previous chapter, George Washington, as “the primary architect of American foreign policy in the founding era,” was the clear option to review the origins of American foreign policy (p. 173). Ellis concentrates on the contradiction inherent in a democratic republic being an imperial nation at the same time. His first example of this is Washington’s failure to protect the sovereignty and rights of Native American tribes in the western territories acquired in the Treaty of Paris (1783). He continues with problems of neutrality during the war between Great Britain and France in the 1790’s culminating with the highly partisan debate and vote over Jay’s Treaty (ratified in 1796). In analyzing Washington’s Farewell Address, Ellis believes that focusing on the prescription for an isolationist foreign policy overshadows a more important, “deeper message” to be found in the address; namely that “foreign policy must be based on a realistic appraisal of American interests, not on popular referendums or nostalgic memories” (p. 193). It is this advice, he argues, that has been ignored since the end of the Cold War, a period distinguished by “nearly perpetual war” without “successful outcomes,” despite “the overwhelming military superiority of the United States” (p. 211). This has resulted in a policy that “became an inherently improvisational process” (p. 209). American exceptionalism today means the opposite of its original understanding: “In effect, precisely because the conditions shaping the American founding were unique, it was highly problematic to presume that the American model was transportable beyond the borders of the United States” (pp. 215-216). The future of our foreign policy, according to Ellis, is destined to continue to be an erratic one.

            Ellis emphasizes that the founders, and especially the men he uses in each chapter, were not godlike or superhuman. Rather, they were men of talent who were able to make the most of that particular moment in time. Ellis also stresses that the founders did not speak with one voice. They “harbored different beliefs about what the American Revolution meant” (p. 232). These differences were at the heart of the arguments that occurred when major issues arose. For Ellis, this “made dialogue unavoidable” (p. 232). It is this diversity of opinion that prevents any political party or special interest group from claiming to know or represent the framer’s intent. Ellis alleges that “it is the argument itself, not the answer either liberals or conservatives provide, that is the abiding legacy” (p. 232). And it is this assertion that makes this book important reading for social studies teachers. It can serve as a springboard for ideas to get students to see history as relevant and not as a dead discipline. Teachers can pose interesting questions for students to consider and have them consult historical references for evidence to support their answers. For example, students can probe the meaning of the democratic ideal of equality. How has this concept expanded over the century? What does equality mean in a society still grappling with issues of race or of enormous economic differences? What is the relationship between equality and equitable treatment? Teachers can also have students investigate the complexity of current issues in historical context. For instance, what did the Second Amendment mean in 1791? Given the extent of gun violence in the United States today, is there a need to revisit or revise the existing amendment? Is there a role for the federal government in addressing economic disparity? What should the role of the United States be in world affairs?

            The value of this book for teachers is the emphasis Ellis gives to the importance of history. Not just to memorize dates and events but to illustrate the differing opinions held by our revered historical figures. Making students aware of this reality will enable them to better evaluate sources and to critique current arguments surrounding controversial issues. Indeed, Ellis is openly critical of “the most flagrant forms of ideological prejudice” employed by leaders or analysts who are guilty of “cherry-picking the evidence” to support a current political or social issue (p .7). An informed citizenry in a democracy requires more than a knowledge of facts; it requires the necessary critical skills to detect political bias and to make better informed decisions.

            We are living in one of the most polarized eras in American history. Citizens are regularly bombarded with claims as to what the framers’ intent was in grappling with twenty-first century problems. In part, Ellis rebuts this practice by reminding us that appealing to the past to shed light on current solutions is problematic. “By definition, all efforts to harvest the accumulated wisdom of the past must begin from a location in the present, so the questions posed of the past are inevitably shaped either consciously or unconsciously by the historical context in which they are asked” (pp. 6-7). Ellis’ goal is not to resolve any dispute as to the founder’s intent or “to find answers” but rather “to argue about [these questions]” (p. 9). And this, to me, is the value this book has for educators entrusted with teaching future democratic citizens. Democracy is built on deliberation, debate, and even arguing. However, as Ellis demonstrates, the founders understood the value of compromise as a means to keep moving forward. Not all compromises were successful but they at least enabled the nation to avoid remaining stagnant. In an era when both parties employ a “my way or the highway” approach to solving critical issues, our students need to understand that reason can facilitate problem solving. Dialogue, even intense disagreement, about issues is at the heart of democratic government. Ellis’ book offers examples of how teachers can use the founders to confront controversial questions in the twenty-first century.

Poverty and Child Labor in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era in New York City

Poverty and Child Labor in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era New York City

John Louis Recchiuti

Why are people poor? What can be done to protect children who are growing up in impoverished households? These were central questions in Progressive Era New York City and across the country as they remain today. In this workshop your group will be assigned a particular perspective on poverty and child labor and develop arguments championing that perspective. You may find the perspective you are asked to argue to be precisely the opposite of your own view on the subject. The goal is to build-out elements in the debate so that we can gain insight into the public policy challenges surrounding poverty in turn-of-the-twentieth century New York City. Your final product will be testimony before “The New York City Commission on Poverty and Youth.” Your group’s testimony should be based on material provided in this package and any additional sources you wish to consult.

Group Perspectives:

  • Group 1: ”The Undeserving Poor and the Deserving Poor”
  • Group 2: Family, Faith, Education, and Work — “No government assistance!”
  • Group 3: Our Responsibility as Consumers
  • Group 4: The Need for Mothers’ Pensions
  • Group 5: State Governments are the proper venue for laws against child labor and for child education.
  • Group 6: Federal Child Labor Laws must be Passed
Working at Home. National Child Labor Committee

Background: New York City History

Source: J. Recchiuti (2007). Civic Engagement: Social Science and Progressive-Era Reform in New York City. University of Pennsylvania Press.

At the turn of the twentieth century New York City had evolved from its early seventeenth century beginnings as a Dutch harbor-colony into an international center of finance, commerce, manufacture, and culture – competing on the world stage with London, Paris, and Berlin. The Brooklyn Bridge was completed in 1883. The Statue of Liberty, arrived from Paris, was installed in 1886. The Washington Arch at Washington Square Park went up in 1889. Carnegie Hall opened in 1893. The first subway line opened in 1904. And, the city rose vertically: the 1902 21-story steel-framed Flatiron Building was eclipsed in 1913 by the 60-story Woolworth Building. Henry Frick, Henry Phipps, the Vanderbilts, and Andrew Carnegie built mansions along Fifth Avenue. While, at the same time, many New Yorkers lived in squalor. Tens of thousands of New Yorkers lived in ill-lighted, overcrowded tenements, many without running water, flush toilets, or electricity.

New York City was, in these years, the world’s largest port, and served as the point of entry for many of the nation’s eighteen million immigrants in the quarter century before the First World War. By 1910, 87 percent of the 4,767,000 people in Greater New York were immigrants or the children of immigrants.

In today’s Gotham there are few factories, but in the early 1900s there were 30,000 manufacturers in the City, employing more than 600,000 workers, and New York City ranked first in the nation’s industrial output. The Lower East Side, around Rivington Street, was an immigrant hub, its immigrant population in the late 1880s and early 1890s mainly Germans, Poles, Russian Jews, and Rumanians. A young woman, Helen Moore, a volunteer among the poor, wrote in 1893 of “fermenting garbage in the gutter and the smell of stale beer” and “a long panorama of heart-rending sights”:

“Every window opens into a room crowded with scantily-clothed, dull-faced men and women sewing upon heavy woollen coats and trousers. They pant for air, the perspiration that drops from their foreheads is like life-blood, but they toil on steadily, wearily…. From a political, sanitary, and educational point of view it [the Tenth Ward] is the worst ward in the city, and social statistics offer no parallel in any city.”

The Lower East Side was, the urban historian Kenneth T. Jackson notes, “The most crowded neighborhood in the world.” It had only private charity — often from churches and synagogues – and some municipal sponsored free coal for heat. (Federal veterans’ pensions did supply aid for that fraction of the population who had served the Union army in the Civil War, but most of the city did not qualify.) In the long tradition of private or county-sponsored relief, places of confinement, such as prisons, orphanages, asylums, and almshouses sheltered those in need and in distress.

A. Poverty in the City

In 1910 in New York City, tens of thousands of children labored for pennies an hour in many the c. 12,000 tenement sweat-shops licensed by the state. “Our little kindergarten children at Greenwich House (located near Greenwich Village in lower Manhattan),” Mary Simkhovitch, the settlement’s founder and head resident, wrote, “go home from school to help make artificial flowers and as late as eleven o’clock at night we have found their baby fingers still fashioning the gay petals.”  

Around the country, “Boys of 10 years were common in the blinding dust of coal breakers, picking slate with torn and bleeding fingers, or sweltering all night in the glare of the white-hot furnace of the glasshouse; the incarceration of little 10-year-old girls in the dust-laden cotton mills of the South or the silk mills of Pennsylvania for 12 hours a day was looked upon with approval or indifference; tobacco and cigarette factories, canneries, sweatshops, the street trades, and the night messenger service all took unchallenged too from schoolhouse, playground, or cradle.”

In 1904 Columbia University professor Henry Seager wrote, “It might be thought that considerations of common humanity would lead employers of children to fix hours and other conditions of employment that would not be injurious to them.” “Unfortunately,” “this is not the case,” he wrote. It was a “cruelty,” he said, “not only of employers, but even of [the children’s] own parents.”

B. Corruption

New York City’s government was corrupt. Tammany Hall battled with reformers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Tammany Hall was not vanquished until 1966). In a memorable example of corruption in city government a student in the Manhattan-based “Training School for Public Service” (founded in 1911) recounted his first assignment at the School: 

“That assignment was to go to the City Hall and attend the meeting of the City Council; I was told to walk in and take my seat at the press table. I was a complete stranger in New York and had some difficulty in finding the City Hall and where the council met. The only thing the council did that morning was to discuss some routine matters and pass one resolution appropriating $25,000 for the paving of a certain street. I returned to the office of the [Training School] and handed in my report, thinking that the task was ended. The next morning my assignment was to locate that street and to see if it needed paving. The street was more difficult to find than the City Hall but I finally located it over on the east side. I found that it had never been paved. I made this report in writing, feeling that my task was ended. The next morning my assignment was to go to the city clerk’s office and search the records to see if the street had ever been paved before. I discovered that the street every year for 25 years had been paved.” 

C. Children in the City

As in today’s New York City, children in the late 1800s and early 1900s had a broad range of experiences, experiences that often depended on their socio-economic class. Edwin Seligman, future Columbia professor of economics, was born and raised in Manhattan—the child of a wealthy German-Jewish family. Seligman was tutored as a child by the children’s author Horatio Alger, famous for his rags-to-riches stories–in which a poor but honest, industrious, and frugal lad finds himself, by dint of pluck and not a little luck, happy, married, and wealthy by story’s end. Seligman’s own family history, and his childhood experiences in New York City, in many ways mirrored Horatio Alger’s stories of childhood flourishing.

But in that same city, and in these same years, on streets near Greenwich Village, the social settlement activist Mary Kingsbury Simkhovitch wrote (in November 1903): ”A neighbor’s child was burned to death alone in a tenement house. A man was stabbed on election night by a drunken comrade. On Cornelia Street…the [Irish and Italian] Jones Street boys are fighting the colored boys nightly with one or two really serious results.” And, a “Jewish girl, sixteen years old,” was told by an employment agent that “she was going to a restaurant to work for two dollars a week and tips,” discovered that she was to be sent to a brothel instead. The girl was saved when an unidentified “assistant” paid ten dollars to the agency for her release.

“CHILD LABOR IN NEW YORK,” New York Times, January 12, 1903, pg. 8. A petition with numerous signers, many of them persons of experience and authority in such matters, has been submitted to the Legislature for amendments to the laws regulating child labor and providing for compulsory education. The chief complaint brought forward by the petitioners is that the two laws do not agree, and the discrepancies interfere with the enforcement of each. The compulsory education law, for instance, requires as to children of twelve years of age merely that they shall attend school eighty days. The child labor law requires that children shall not work until they are fourteen years of age. If the former law required compulsory schooling until fourteen, the enforcement of the latter, it is believed, would be much more practicable. On the other hand, an amendment to the school law requiring school attendance at an age earlier than eight, as at preset, would also help. Amendments are also proposed prohibiting vacation work for children of twelve, making the ten-hour limit strict without reference to shorter hours on Saturdays, including street work in the occupations forbidden under fourteen, requiring a child’s name when employed to appear on a pay roll, and requiring a certificate of ability to read and write as a condition of lawful employment. These, as we understand them, are the points made in the petition, but that document is loosely drawn and not easily interpreted. Probably amendments are needed to the laws. These should be carefully studied and collated by a competent lawyer, and such recommendations should be made perfectly clear to the Legislature.

Group 1:”The Undeserving Poor and the Deserving Poor”

Josephine Shaw Lowell

You are assigned to give testimony to “The New York City Commission on Poverty and Youth.” Your group will explain its view that government does harm if it gets involved in aiding poor men and women whose poverty arises because they are “indolent” (lazy). Your group will refer to these men and women as “the undeserving poor.” You will report to the “Commission” as Mrs. Lowell and members of her Charity Organization Society of the late 1800s. You believe the “Undeserving Poor” must be offered jobs and not given “alms” (money). The poor need to learn the discipline of work, and private organizations such as the Charity Organization Society can help them get in the habit of work. Children who watch their parents work hard and take moral responsibility for their lives are likely themselves also to become responsible, hardworking citizens. Society needs to teach the underserving poor to take responsibility for their own lives. They must overcome their indolence, alcoholism, or drug dependency. The undeserving poor need to get a job!

Josephine Lowell founded the Charity Organization Society (COS) in the late nineteenth century. The COS sent “friendly visitors” into New York City’s poor neighborhoods. “Friendly visitors” used questionnaires to determine whether a poor man or woman deserved Charity Organization Society support. “Friendly visitors” went into apartments of the poor and asked questions. If the poor person was judged “undeserving” (that is, undeserving of being given money by the COS—for example, the “friendly visitor” might see evidence of alcohol or abuse) then the poor person would be refused alms.

Josephine Lowell said “recipients of alms become dependent, lose their energy, are rendered incapable of self-support, and what they receive in return for their lost character is quite inadequate to supply their needs; thus they are kept on the verge almost of death by the very persons who think they are relieving them.” 

Josephine Lowell continued “It is the greatest wrong that can be done to him to undermine the character of a poor man–for it is his all”; “almsgiving and dolegiving are hurtful–therefore they are not charitable”; “the proof that dolegiving and almsgiving do break down independence, do destroy energy, do undermine character, may be found in the growing ranks of pauperism in every city, in the fact that the larger the funds given in relief in any community, the more pressing is the demand for them, and in the experience and testimony of all practical workers among the poor.” (NOTE the importance of this last sentence: Lowell is arguing that when we as a society give out money to those who won’t work—as ‘welfare’ or alms—we find that more and more (and ever more) money is demanded by them. 

Lowell did fault “the pressure of the unjust social laws and legislative enactments which produce hardship and cause more people to become idlers than would otherwise be the case,” but, “the usual cause of poverty,” she wrote, “is to be found in some deficiency–moral, mental, or physical–in the person who suffers.”

The Charity Organization Society’s “Friendly Visitors” assessed the worthiness of each individual poor person who applied to it for aid, and also lectured the poor–and tried to find them jobs. The COS even hired many of the poor. Women deemed employable were sent to wash and iron at a Charity Organization Society laundry that opened in 1889 at 589 Park Avenue and moved to the Society’s Industrial Building at 516 West 28th Street in 1900. By the early 1900s the laundry was training eighty or ninety women a month. The system began first “over steaming wash-tubs, advances them to starching and ironing, and graduates them with a recommendation after thorough instruction in the ironing of filmy lace curtains and finest linen.”

The Charity Organization Society also opened a wood yard in 1884 on East 24th Street, where young men were sent to test their willingness to work. The Society sold tickets to the charitable for them to offer to street beggars in lieu of cash–each ticket entitled its bearer to a day’s work in the wood yard. Beggars who showed themselves willing to work were placed–as jobs became available–as domestic servants, factory workers, janitors and furnace men, messengers and delivery boys, porters, watchmen, drivers, dishwashers, bootblacks, and the like. The Charity Organization Society functioned, in this way, as an employment agency.

The Charity Organization Society did not content itself with its private activities but took public action against what it perceived as New York City’s indiscriminate charity. When the city persisted in distributing free coal to the poor (a practice it had begun in 1875), the COS lobbied legislators and the practice stopped. It even urged the municipal government to follow the European practice of giving lengthy prison sentences to vagrants and street beggars. And, when, in 1904, “a flurry of excitement over children who go breakfastless to school” created a movement to provide “free meals” at public expense, the Charity Organization Society opposed it in hearings before the city’s special committee of the Board of Education. 

Two years later, another proposal was offered to “give eye-glasses to all for whom they were prescribed” among the city’s school children, and the Society took a stand against it as “’certainly unnecessary’“ “in view of the admitted ability of parents in the very great majority of all cases to take care of their own children.” Although, the COS was stern but not heartless: it would “supply the needs of any child” whose family was truly unable to feed them or buy eyeglasses. (And, to be fair to Lowell, by the end of the century she was, increasingly asserting the need for some government assistance to the poor.)

Group 2: Family, Faith, Education, and Work — “No government assistance!”

John W. Burgess

You are assigned to give testimony to “The New York City Commission on Poverty and Youth” from the following perspective. You will explain the view held by Columbia University political scientist John W. Burgess that poverty will best be addressed and curtailed through faith, family, education, and individual moral responsibility.  John W. Burgess was a political conservative who believed, as he wrote in 1912: ”We dare not call anything progress . . . which contemplates . . . the expansion of governmental power.” He argued that “improvement and development of — the system of popular education, — revival of the influence of religion, –the restoration of a better family life, producing a more enlightened individual conscience and a more general conscientiousness would … be the truer way, the American way, the real progressive way of overcoming the claimed failure of our system.” In his writings, Burgess advocated government by the elite. “It is difficult to see why the most advantageous political system, for the present, would not be a democratic state with an aristocratic government, provided only the aristocracy be that of real merit, and not of artificial qualities. If this be not the real principle of the republican form of government then I must confess that I do not know what its principle is.”

Burgess also held racist ideas. He believed “Teutonic nations are particularly endowed with the capacity for establishing national states . . . they are intrusted [sic], in the general economy of history, with the mission of conducting the political civilization of the modern world.” In a book on Reconstruction after the Civil War he wrote “black skin means membership in a race of men which has never of itself succeeded in subjecting passion to reason, has never, therefore, created any civilization of any kind.”

Group 3: Our Responsibility as Consumers

Florence Kelley

Your Group is assigned to give testimony to “The New York City Commission on Poverty and Youth,” from the perspective that each of us as consumers can end poverty by buying goods and services made by workers being paid a living wage. This means buying from stores, farms, and manufacturers that pay a living (good/high) wage to employees — and from employers who do not hire children. If we will each buy goods and services made by workers (especially unionized workers) we can, by our individual shopping habits, reduce poverty among the working class–and end child labor (because working adults will be earning a living wage and will be able to afford to send their kids to school instead of into the factories to earn money to supplement parents’ low wages). Your group will argue from the perspective of Florence Kelley’s National Consumers’ League headquartered in New York City.

Under Kelley’s leadership the Consumers’ League worked against industrial sweatshops and against sweated labor in tenements, it sought an end to child labor, and to excessive hours and night work for women. In 1904 the League published a “Standard Child Labor Law” intended as a model for uniform laws across the country. A “Consumers’ League label” was affixed to articles “made under conditions approved by the League” and the League published a “White List” (the reverse of a blacklist) of recommended retail stores, where working conditions were, by League standards, fair. Kelley also championed state and federal minimum wage laws, and laws to regulate hours of labor, but she urged that we, individually, as consumers must also do our part by buying goods made by workers paid a living wage.

In 1907, Florence Kelly argued “An association of persons who in making their purchases strives to further the welfare of those who make or distribute the things bought. The act of shopping seems to many trivial and entirely personal, while in reality it exerts a far reaching, oft-repeated influence for good or evil.” Kelley also wrote “the interest of the community demands that all workers should receive, not the lowest wages, but fair living wages . . . Responsibility for debilitating workplace conditions “rests with the consumers who persist in buying in the cheapest markets regardless of how cheapness is brought about.” 

Frances Perkins, secretary of the New York branch of the Consumers’ League and later United States Secretary of Labor in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration), wrote “The Consumers’ League is an organization of persons who wish to improve the industrial conditions by utilizing the shopping power, the buying power of the consumers, who are banded together, that is, by pledging themselves in their shopping to do their buying in such a way as to improve conditions, rather than make them worse.” 

According to Florence Kelley pensions would “lift the burden from the widowed mother by giving her, as her right and not as the dole of a private charity…an allowance out of public funds on condition that she stay in her home and keep her children at home and in school.” Jean M. Gordon, a National Child Labor Committee member, wrote in The Child Labor Bulletin: “I contend it is just as much the duty of the State to pension dependent mothers as dependent veterans. Certainly the mother does as much for the country in rearing her children as the veterans did in killing her sons!”

Group 4: The Need for Mothers’ Pensions

“Public aid would have to be administered with intelligence and care,” Mary Simkhovitch wrote in an essay, “Women’s Invasion of the Industrial Field.” “But the difficulty of developing the technique of such a plan is not to be compared with the difficulty the state will meet through the inadequate care of families.”

Your group will give testimony to “The New York City Commission on Poverty and Youth” explaining that mothers in single-headed households (households in which a father is not present) must be provided with money from New York City and New York State so that these mothers can feed, clothe, and shelter their children. In the early twentieth century the term “pension” was used in the context of giving people state tax dollars — there were, for example, Civil War Pensions in which former Union soldiers from the Civil War were given old age pensions. Your group will urge the Commission to create a system of Mothers’ Pensions (money the state will give single moms to help them raise their children). Your positions is that private charity organizations alone simply cannot feed and clothe all needy children.

Group 5: State Governments are the proper venue for laws against child labor and for child education.

Edgar Gardner Murphy

In your testimony to “The New York City Commission on Poverty and Youth,” you will argue that individual states, not the federal government, must pass laws to regulate child labor. You are in agreement with Edgar Murphy and his allies that child labor laws are the responsibility of individual state governments only. Edgar Murphy’s argument was grounded in federalism. Federalism is the view that powers not granted by the Constitution to the Federal government are powers that are retained by individual state governments. Since the regulation of child labor was not listed in the U.S. Constitution as a power of the Federal government, Child Labor must fall under the regulatory power of individual State governments.

Edgar Murphy was an Episcopal minister from the South and the first secretary of the National Child Labor Committee. In 1903, Murphy wrote “The conditions of industry vary so greatly and so decisively from state to state and from locality to locality that the enactment of a federal child labor law, applicable to all conditions and under all circumstances, would be inadequate if not unfortunate.” 

Murphy claimed he was “interested in the question of child labor, not merely because I have photographed children of six and seven years whom I have seen at labor in our factories for twelve and thirteen hours a day, not merely because I have seen them with their little fingers mangled by machinery and their little bodies numb and listless with exhaustion, but because I am not willing that our economic progress should be involved in such conditions; and because . . . I am resolved to take my part, however humbly, in the settling of the industrial character of our greatest industry . . . I believe that an intelligent moral interest in the conditions of the factory, and the jealous guarding of its ethical assumptions, will minister not merely to the humanity of its standards and the happiness of its operatives, but to the dignity, currency and value of its properties.”

Group 6: Federal Child Labor Laws must be Passed

Samuel McCune Lindsay

Your group will testify to “The New York City Commission on Poverty and Youth” that a Federal Child Labor law is needed. You will advise the Commission to support passage of the Keating-Owen Child Labor Bill, a 1916 bill that would regulate child labor from the federal level by forbidding the interstate shipment of products of child labor. 

Samuel McCune Lindsay, Professor of Social Legislation at Columbia University argued at the 1911 National Child Labor Committee conference: ”Is it not our duty to seek for greater uniformity in the protection of working children, so that the children of all states may enjoy the same rights to a normal childhood, to life, education and leisure, to a time for play, a chance to grow and an opportunity to develop their best abilities whether they are raised in Alabama or Pennsylvania, in Georgia or Massachusetts, in Texas or Ohio? It is precisely to promote and secure this equality of opportunity for all American children that we are organized as a National Child Labor Committee [and therefore a FEDERAL LAW making child labor illegal is needed].”