During the January book study group, much of our discussion focused on author Jacob Riis’s intentions in his book, How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York (1890). Our discussion proved immensely valuable as it went beyond the tenements and their situation, elevating to the level of surrounding influences, which helped to adjust my understanding of the book. As I read through Riis’s work, I questioned the overwhelming presence of negative stereotypes, which, from my twenty-first century point of view, would only perpetuate the plight subjects. My mini-revelation reminded me of the importance of utilizing the Historical Thinking Benchmarks as a guide in teaching historical understanding. I have found that they ground me in focusing a lesson in skills as well as content. When one uses the “perspective” benchmark, which reads: “understanding that although the past tends to be viewed in terms of present values, a proper perception of the past requires a serious examination of values of that time,” Riis’s work can be examined on deeper level.
The introduction by David Leviatin addresses the culture in which Riis developed his worldview. Riis’s point of publication was to awaken Americans, in particular New Yorkers, to the troubles that brew in the horrid conditions of the tenements. He hoped to inspire and provoke change, as he asks in his introduction, “What are you going to do about it?” If you choose to use Riis’s book in to teach tenement life and progressive reform, I suggest that you use the book on two levels. The wealth and variety of pictures as well as descriptions that awaken all senses create awareness of tenement living. By dividing your class into small groups, assign each group a particular ethnic group. Have students assess their section with basic questions that address the tenement living. If time allows, advance your students to the “next level,” and direct them to explore his intentions and the culture in which his work was produced in a debate that asks if Riis’s work did more harm than good.
The historical thinking benchmarks can be found at http://www.historians.org/teaching/policy/benchmarks.htm.