Friday, July 9, 2010

I'm Giving It Away for Free: You're Welcome!

For English teachers, social studies teachers and specifically teachers of AP English Language, here's a lesson I created last year (referenced in an earlier blog posting, "Freaky Happenings"). 

Feel free to use it with your own students, but please credit me; this topic makes for a very effective, and, I was told, "captivating" class (or two!) that will get your students thinking and writing. This lesson works best for high school students (I typically taught juniors and seniors), or college freshmen.

Traditionally, discussion of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire is used as a way to discuss workers' rights and policies crafted to better ensure workers' safety.

I use this topic because of the myriad powerful images we have that tell the story of this tragic fire. Learning how to synthesize information (text and images) is an important life skill in nearly all disciplines, but specifically in AP English Language courses.

AP English Language & Composition
November 13, 2009

Teacher:  Elizabeth Collins

Topic:  Crafting written arguments based on photographs and photography.

Background and assigned reading for homework:
Chapter 3, Photography. AP / Honors English Language and Composition: ANALYSIS, ARGUMENT & SYNTHESIS, People’s Education.

This lesson comes near the beginning of a unit about Photography. The classes have already seen some other visual images (old advertisements, political cartoons, and WPA photos from the Great Depression), but this lesson brings us back to discussing how to write about visual images, and how to elicit ideas about visuals for use in a synthesis essay (a critical, and especially challenging, part of the AP English Language & Composition exam).

Students just completed an argumentative essay—a more basic assignment—and this new topic will require them to use what they did there (writing with a purpose to argue a particular point, while coming up with a moving rhetorical context and respecting the reader, and portraying one’s own role, as writer, in a credible manner) but also to take these ideas to the next level, in combination with outside sources such as photographs and historical documents.

Purpose of lesson: 
To discuss the impact of photographs, and how photographed images can tell just as much of a story as a thousand written words might.

Students will learn how to determine the context of visual images; how to use inferences about context and observations to write about photographs or other graphics; and how to ascertain the photographer’s role, intention and purpose in the documentation of an experience. They will also start to learn how to synthesize their impressions of visual images with related text.

Goals:  To have students actively involved in brainstorming ideas about visual images that they can use in a written assignment (the next step in our process!).  I want students to come up with good vocabulary that may be used to describe the images they see and discuss today. I also want students to inspire each other  and to ramp up their efforts for this new and challenging next step in our curriculum.

Materials:  Handouts of photographs of the Triangle fire, plus a rallying poster used afterward. Reporter’s account of the fire.

(Images, Google search: Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, 1911)

Detail, History of the Needlecraft Industry (1938), by Ernest Feeney, High School of Fashion and Industry. A mural commissioned by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGW). FDRL

Detail, History of the Needlecraft Industry (1938), by Ernest Feeney, High School of Fashion and Industry. A mural commissioned by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGW). FDRL

Political cartoons about the Triangle Fire (very effective tools for helping students "read into" graphics that at first glance may not seem to say much, but, after analysis, are full of ideas and evoke many emotions and reactions.).

Teacher’s Notes:

Background on Triangle Fire (hand out article by William G. Shephard-- 
Also hand out Xerox copies of relevant photographs.)

The site of the Triangle Shirtwaist company is the Asch building in Greenwich Village that is now part of NYU’s campus…

On March 25, 1911 a fire broke out in the upper floors of this garment factory. Many of the young women—most about 15 years old, immigrants, working a low-wage job—inside were working overtime, and thus were still in building when it caught fire.

146 out of 500 workers died because they were trapped inside the factory. The doors were locked—ostensibly to prevent burglary, but also, reportedly, to cut down on “frivolous” bathroom breaks, and many girls jumped to their deaths rather than choose to burn alive.

Those who survived climbed to the roof.

Firetrucks did not have ladders that reached high enough to put out the fire, and the fire escape bent under the weight of people. Efforts to rescue workers were hindered by falling bodies, by too many girls jumping at once, etc.

Although this fire was a great tragedy, and a shocking example of factory owners’ greed and disdain for their workers (and it also illustrated the lack of personal power that workers, especially young working women, had), it also spurred positive change…

Anyone know how?

  • Union rallies against unsafe working conditions
  • Campaigns to investigate factories
  • Passage of important factory safety legislation
The factory owners were tried and sued because so many workers testified they’d been locked in, but a good lawyer for the owners managed to plant enough reasonable doubt in the jury so that they were found not guilty. In the end, they paid only $75 to each grieving family.

Questions for class:

What do you observe in the photographs?  (Teacher can pick and choose any images s/he prefers, though I like some of the photos pasted above) Write down students' ideas on board.

A good selection of images for discussion include:

Cartoon Poster
News photographs

Ask students:

  • Which image seems like the one you might write the most about, were you asked to write?
  • Why?
  • What words might you use to describe the subject matter, action, purpose of the graphic, intent of the artist? 

(Separate class into four groups; have each group tackle on particular image.  Walk around while groups are working, and help them to think of descriptive words and phrases.)

Then come back and share ideas…model upgrading language and brainstorming for students. For example, if a student says that a picture is "sad," gently suggest how to expand on that idea, e.g, "This photograph evokes both anger and sympathy on the part of the viewer; what is most shocking about this image is, perhaps, the unreal look of the girls' dead bodies, twisted in unnatural poses, while authority figures do not even look down. Instead, they are looking up, purportedly watching more girls jump. They don't seem upset--why? Are these deaths inevitable? Do they not care? Is it a hopeless situation?"

If a student says the images "don't look real," the teacher might suggest using words such as " I feel incredulous..." or "...a feeling of incredulity," "surreality," etc. 

All throughout this lesson, teacher should take the basic ideas students blurt out and help guide the class into shaping those initial, brief ideas into more sophisticated language--precisely what students should do in between initial note-taking and reading, and later, the writing of a formal essay or report.

  • Let’s also talk about the anonymous people behind the lens…what assumptions might you make about the photographers?

  • How (do you imagine) might the photographers have been affected by what they saw and documented in the aftermath of this historic and horrible fire?

  • The photographers must remain detached enough to document history, and yet how could they not be troubled by devastating scenes?

  • How do you think the photographers distanced themselves when they took these pictures? How do you distance yourself now, as an observer?

  • How are you affected by these photos?  Are you? Or do they seem unreal?

Let’s now read a reporter’s account of the fire (Shephard piece).

  • Have your ideas about the visual images changed now, or been enhanced?

  • How so?

  • What words, phrases, ideas might you now use to describe what you’ve seen in the visual images that might accompany this article?

Students should begin to see how initial ideas develop (as do photographs) into more profound ideas that can cover much more ground than they originally assumed!

All throughout this lesson, teacher should model how to take ideas and phrases to the next level...

Homework is a fifteen-minute writing exercise such as the one I suggest below:

  • Contrast the act of seeing and writing with the act of composing and taking a photograph. How does photography tell as much in one image as an essay might in two pages? 

After this lesson, students should feel less nervous about writing essays based, in large part, on images such as photos and political cartoons.

Good luck!



  1. BagNews Notes is a great blog that "reads" media photos and images of current events. A good resource for lessons like this.


  2. Yes--thanks. That is a good example for students to show them how to write about images.

    They still need to practice on their own, however, but I like the resource you suggest. It's a very good way to demonstrate/model how to see an image, think about it and then translate the initial ideas into more thoughtful writing.