How the Other Half Lives by Jacob A. Riis
The first assignment for the Year III History Book group was How the Other Half Lives by Jacob A. Riis. Most History majors encounter this book at some point in their undergraduate work. I know I did. I don’t know where that copy ended up after all these years, but I’m grateful to have received a newer edition, one with an enlightening introduction by David Leviatin. Leviatin offers an interesting historical essay where he presents information regarding Jacob Riis’ personal history as well as a concise glimpse of New York City and America in the 1880’s. This is incredibly useful, as many teachers will not only choose to discuss the obvious themes of Immigration, Photojournalism, Urbanization, but Riis’ experience and biases.
While Riis’ work hasn’t changed - it’s still an eye opening expose of tenement life in New York City in the late 19th century - the way teachers can use this Primary Source has definitely been broadened. Technology allows teachers of all grade levels to utilize Riis’ work. The Yale American Studies Program has Riis’ original Primary Source document online at: http://www.yale.edu/amstud/inforev/riis/title.html. Since his work is divided up into short chapters, it’s easy to send older students to a certain chapter. Teachers of younger students can “grab” individual paragraphs to present to students. Having also just finished the TAH Wiki Workshop, it’s also possible for teachers of younger students to create podcasts for younger students to access the smaller quotes.
Teachers often strive to immerse the students into the tenement environment through the words of Riis. A great addition to his words is an online virtual tour of the Tenement Museum at: http://www.tenement.org/. Students are also drawn into his stark, and at the time, revolutionary, photographs of tenement life. Yale’s online text does contain photos, but their quality isn’t the best. A few sites to quickly find powerful discussion starters are: Masters of Photography: Jacob Riis site http://www.masters-of-photography.com/R/riis/riis.html and PBS American Experience site http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/wilson/sfeature/sf_poverty.html. The Tenement Museum and the vast collection of photographs are easily accessible to all grade levels. A standard worksheet to help students analyze the photos as Primary Sources can be found through the National Archives site at: http://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/worksheets/photo.html.
Our discussion of Riis’ work was fascinating. Favorite passages and photographs were shared, and personal critiques varied widely. Through this blog I have been a champion for these History Book Groups. Even if you haven’t physically joined the group, you can still access the titles and all ancillary materials. Kara has created a wiki for the book group at: http://historybookgroup.wikispaces.com/. Our next title is Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans by Jean Pfaeltzer. I’ve only read the first few chapters, but it’s excellent. It is a painfully eye-opening documentation of pogroms against Chinese Americans in the American West. Already I know this book will change the way I teach the American West. Check it out!