Our high school students find themselves on the margins of the working world. A few have part-time jobs, but most have no direct work experience. Many of these students live in one-parent homes where the major source of support is state and city welfare, and some have never had a close personal relationship with an adult who has had a long working history.
For these students, as well as for the many others whose parents do hold jobs, the adult world of work often seems detached from their needs and interests. As adolescents they are preoccupied with social interaction, and their own emotional and sexual development. This, and the bombardment of mass media advertising, which suggests that material consumption is a primary value and an immediate possibility, make the everyday world of low-paying, scheduled jobs seem both boring and unreal.
The questions we hear from our students when they do think about the future are loaded with frustration: “Why are some people so rich while I’m poor? Why do white people have an easier time? Why are there no jobs? What is the use of learning to read and write, or going to college, when that doesn’t get you a job?
In this course we try to help students answer some of these questions. The course, a topical approach to United States History, will look at the history of work and working people in our country.
Our goals are to give students:
1. A sense of historical time and a chronology of U.S. working history.
2. A sense of change: a realization that things were different in the past, that the way things are now grew out of that history, and that ordinary people, working together, can shape our current history and our collective future.
3. An understanding of what work is and how it has been organized in different times and settings.
4. An understanding of how government, people, and the structure of work are interrelated.
5. An understanding of ethnicity and class in relationship to work.
6. A practical vocabulary for talking about the history of work in the United States.
The course is designed for students enrolled in a year-long class which focuses on improving the basic skills of reading, writing, and discussion. The class meets three hours a day and is team-taught. During the second marking period the students study U.S. History during the last hour of the class each day. Although the organization of the larger class is particular to the High School in the Community, we feel that the course we describe could also be included as part of a year long U.S. History course in a traditional setting.
We should emphasize that this curriculum is oriented toward students who generally have difficulty learning in school; in high schools most information is taught through reading assignments, and our students have great difficulty reading. We work with them on reading and writing during another part of the class and have chosen to teach the content of this course mainly through other kinds of activities: films, slides, discussions, oral presentations, and trips. When readings are included they will usually be read aloud in the class. Because non-reading, concrete experiences are so essential to the teaching of this course, we have included a partial list of activities as part of the narrative at the end of each unit. More detailed lesson plans for one unit are included at the end of the entire narrative.
In the seven weeks of this course we cover three aspects of work in United States history: the organization of work, working people, and the relationship between government and people through work legislation. We introduce the course by making an historical time line with the students. Using this device, we can explain the main topics in the course, the time of particular events, and how these events are related chronologically to events that the students may have heard of, such as the American Revolution, the Civil War, and the two world wars.