Confronting Child Labor

An elementary teacher discovers that her students' best work emerges from a unit on child labor

By Katharine Johnson

Photo: Reuters/Sherwin Castro
Boys look out a window during a
police raid on child labor in Bombay.

The best work I have seen from my students came as a result of a two-month-long research project into child labor. The work my students created during this social justice research project showed passion, creativity, and academic rigor. Keeping justice at the center of my curriculum did more than heighten students’ awareness of social issues; it offered them an opportunity to expand their academic skills by engaging with something meaningful.

I teach in an urban public school in Portland, Ore. Most of Boise-Eliot’s students are African-American (nearly 80 percent) and come from working-class and working poor families. The rest are from immigrant or low-income white families. My school is proudly multiracial, multilingual, and academically rigorous.

When I designed my child labor unit, I had a few key goals in mind. I wanted students to gain an understanding that goods are produced by labor. I wanted them to see that children perform that labor in many parts of the world, including the United States. I wanted them to develop personal connections with real children trapped in child labor. I wanted them to learn about effective strategies for resistance. And I wanted them to create polished work around the issue of child labor. I found the child labor chapter in Rethinking Globalization: Teaching for Justice in an Unjust World to be a valuable guide in helping to align teaching goals and classroom activities.

Seeing Labor

To help my students start to think about the origins of the goods we purchase in U.S. stores, we began with a “label hunt.” Students worked in pairs to identify the countries of origin for their shoes and their shirts. I made a list of the countries where our clothes were manufactured and together we tallied the number of articles made in each country. Most of the clothing was manufactured throughout Southeast Asia; the shoes primarily came from China. Then I gave them world maps and asked them to highlight all the countries from our list.

“I have a bunch of highlighting down here by India,” noted Irina*.

“Yeah, me too. How do you say this place Bon . . . Bang . . . “

“Bangladesh,” I answered.

“Dang, that’s far,” said Deja. ” I bet it took her shirt like a week to get here.”

Through this exercise, students were beginning to understand that labor often takes place far from where the products of that labor are consumed. Later I would regret beginning with a focus on international rather than U.S. labor, but at the time I was elated at their enthusiasm.

Seeing Child Labor

The next day I asked them what they thought child labor was. They responded with a litany of household chores they were responsible for doing. Kalvin has to watch his baby sister sometimes and always has to take out the trash. Frank and Ben have to work safety patrol before and after school. Elizima has to stay home from school to help her mom when the babies are sick. After I learned what they thought child labor was, we began to read about and discuss child labor: what it looks like, who is involved, who benefits, who is hurt.

Over the course of the next weeks, we spent time reading background articles that discussed various aspects of child labor. (See “Useful Resources on Child Labor,” page 27.) As the students read and discussed the articles, the conversation grew richer.

We analyzed the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of the Child and discussed why parts of this international document are ignored in different contexts. Students created their own versions of the declaration and shared these with classmates by making posters that we hung from the window blinds.

Making Personal Connections

An important shift in my students’ thinking came when we read “Everywhere on Earth,” by Eduardo Galeano. (See sidebar, page 28.) This stirring piece illustrates various jobs children around the world are forced to do.

The classroom, normally filled with murmured questions and blurted observations, was very quiet as we read this piece. I asked students to tell me what they felt as we were reading. “Sad” was the most common response, along with “That’s whack,” and quite a bit of tongue clicking and lip smacking. I asked my students to call out some of the jobs Galeano mentions. I listed the jobs on chart paper, and then we compared the list to the household chores my students had listed earlier. When I asked for an analysis of the jobs child laborers do versus the chores my students do, hands went flying.

“I wouldn’t want to pick fruit all day, especially with those pesticides on it.” Maria began.

“Yeah and what if you had to work in a diamond mine? That’s messed up. I’d take me some diamonds and run away,” Leon added. The students were beginning to understand that child labor is not helping around the house but aching work performed all over the world by children even younger than they are.

The Tea Party

To deepen my students’ connections to real child laborers, I used two amazing books: We Need to Go to School: Voices from the Rugmark Schools and Stolen Dreams: Images of Child Labor. The books are filled with photographs, descriptions, and personal narratives from actual child laborers. I used these materials to develop a “tea party.” I copied or transcribed short biographical sections from the books, passed the biographies out randomly to the class, and asked the students to read them as many times as they could. As they read, I shared the pictures of the children they were reading about. They read and reread the biographies and spent a long time looking at the photos to memorize information about the child laborers. Finally they spent an afternoon in character as these laborers. Students walked around the room talking to each other and sharing details from their characters’ lives. The knowledge I was asking my students to work with was painful and hard to comprehend. Being able to talk together and literally move away if it felt too overwhelming helped sustain the learning over a longer time than if I had simply had them at their seats reading biographies of child laborers.

Debating Child Labor

My students had already been developing strong reading and research strategies by reading articles and responding in research journals and discussion groups. I knew I wanted them to write persuasive essays by the end of the unit, but I hadn’t planned how to do that yet. Fortunately, Karen Cosper, our English Language Learning teacher (who spends 45 minutes a day in my classroom) came up with the idea of having debates. She had held debates before in another class and promised they would strengthen students’ knowledge. We planned to use debates to solidify the students’ understanding and meet state benchmarks for formal speaking. These same debates would then act as springboards for organizing persuasive essays.

“What should we do about child labor?” I asked the class a few days later. Most of my class wanted to make it impossible for child labor to occur. But I reminded them that some child laborers we had read about didn’t want it to end. They just wanted it to be safe and to earn a living wage. After some small-group and whole-group time devoted to the question of what should be done, we eventually agreed upon two main options for dealing with child labor: to make it stop right away or to make rules so it would be more fair. Karen hung two pieces of chart paper-one labeled “Abolish” and the other “Regulate”- and we divided the class into groups of three or four to generate ideas to support both positions.

They had their research folders out, and the teams searched for reasons why to abolish or regulate child labor. Karen and I passed out two colors of Post-It notes, which the students used to post their support of one of the positions on the chart papers. As a class we negotiated whether ideas belonged on one list or could be used to support either position. “Children get hurt or die,” belonged on both lists. But the fact that children are needed to help support their families belonged on “Regulate.”

By having the students in small groups discussing and reviewing the articles in their research folders, we were able to get a broad base of supporting details for the two positions. Students developed evidence from both the factual information in articles about international child labor and stories of real children living in child labor.

After the students shared their posted ideas, Karen and I recorded their Post-It note ideas onto the chart paper with bold black marker to make them easier to read. These chart papers hung at the front of the room and became both the support for our debates and a source of further information for students who still struggled to find their positions.

At first we did organized debates as part of our research time. Two students stood in front of the class and each took a position. (They didn’t have to agree with the position.) They followed a formula for initiating the debate. Each student stood in front of the chart paper that listed the reasons to abolish or regulate and began by stating, “I believe child labor should be regulated/abolished because ______.” Then they stated what they believed to be the strongest reasons for their positions. The two debaters went back and forth, giving reasons to support their positions and responding to their opponents’ positions. Students pulled ideas from the chart paper. Karen and I modeled the debating process, overacting and turning to look at the chart paper for our ideas. At the end of our debate, we smiled and shook hands. Karen told the class that everyone would debate sometime in the next week then asked who was willing to start. Hands flew up.

At first, the debates lasted only two or three minutes and the students relied heavily on the ideas posted on the chart paper. But after a few days, they started improvising and the debates grew to three or four minutes. After each debate, Karen asked members of the audience what new ideas they had heard and encouraged everyone to return to their research folders and journals to get their own new ideas. Students hunted for great facts or vignettes to make their points. Mai studied the gnarled hands of an eight-year-old carpet factory laborer while Ken read and reread the article about child activist Iqbal Masih. Sarah circulated around the room asking for more evidence when she got stuck. Soon what had been “Kids get hurt when they work” became “Kids get hurt, like Benta, whose hands burn from the pesticides. Her hands should be protected.”

Students who supported abolition began by saying, “No one makes the factory owners follow the law.” By the end of the debates, someone said, “There are rules already, but they don’t get followed and look at what happened to Iqbal Masih when he tried to make it change. He got murdered.”

Students changed their positions as the debating continued. Some days, a student would debate very effectively for a position and a few kids would shift to that position. I did not want to force students to occupy either position; the debates were supposed to stir up ideas and solidify them through talking and listening. After about a week, most students stopped changing positions and had added ideas of their own to the initial ones we had listed on chart paper. We were almost ready to write persuasive essays.

During the final stage of the debates, I required each student to stake out and maintain one position. I gave them a day to decide finally where they stood and why. Again, I offered them time to discuss in small groups or with partners using the resources we had available. These final debates were the formal speeches students needed to give to meet the state benchmark. Students were prepared to present a fairly lengthy formal speech with a clear thesis, vivid details, and a strong conclusion.

Persuasive Essays

To help my students turn their oral arguments into persuasive essays, I passed out graphic organizers-pages with a large box at the top for a main idea and several smaller boxes below for details. I asked each student to record his or her position and several strong reasons for holding that position. I modeled completing the graphic organizers for both positions with an overhead transparency of the graphic organizer. I demonstrated the process, not because the form itself was difficult to complete, but because I wanted to show them how to pick four or five reasons that could best support their positions. Students took two class sessions to complete their graphic organizers. This large chunk of time allowed students to really think about which evidence they would choose to support their positions. It also allowed me a chance to give small group support to students who were overwhelmed by the vast amount of information we had collected. Some graphic organizers were the beginnings of eloquent essays with passion and voice already emerging. Others were simple lists of reasons to regulate or abolish. The important thing was that each student now had a map, crude or elegant, to guide the essay writing.

The persuasive essays would be the academically rigorous product I had hoped would come of the valuable process of this work. The debates supported the writing in a few ways: Students had already identified their strongest reason for holding their positions; they had already practiced responding to opposing views (counterpoint); and they had already practiced supporting their positions with evidence during the debates.

I used a variation on Linda Christensen’s introduction examples (startling fact, quote, scene, questions) to teach ways to introduce persuasive essays. I found examples from books and wrote a few myself to give students ideas of different types of introductions. I pointed out how each example had a position on child labor somewhere in the introductory paragraph.

Each student tried writing each type of introduction over two days of writing time. After trying each type, students chose one introduction they thought strongest for their essay. Some students used knowledge from the tea party to practice writing “character description” introductions. Roberto wrote:

I know somebody who needs your help. Her name is Akash. She works in a carpet factory. The work is hard. The pay is little. She wants to go to school; mostly she wants time to play. Because of Akash and the other 125,000,000 child laborers child labor should be abolished so Akash can go to school and have time to play.

Hannah used a “startling fact” introduction:

Did you know child labor doesn’t only happen in the Third World? It happens in the United States, too. 120,000,000 children aged between four and fourteen work around the whole world.

Using descriptions he had read of various types of work child laborers do, Karl wrote a “scene” introduction:

Smoke rises from the dimly lit factories. The floor is musty; the air is dirty. The walls are filthy . . . and nobody is ever happy in there. Kids ranging from age four to fifteen from all over the world work endless hours in these conditions for little money each day. Sad hmmmmmm? Well what you just read about is child labor and every word of it is true.

Trevor used questions in his introduction:

Why do some kids work? Why can’t they go to school? Child labor should be abolished so kids can go to school.

The introductions varied in sophistication, but the variety of categories made this less glaring than if every child had written an identical introduction. Experimenting with different kinds of introductions also made it possible for my students to focus on the aspects of child labor that mattered most to them.

Once we had introductions, we returned to our graphic organizers. I used the overhead to show how to take an idea listed on the organizer and wrap explanatory sentences around it to make a paragraph. Students spent three days writing the body paragraphs of their essays. Each day we began and ended writing time with students sharing paragraphs they were confident about or ones they were stuck on and wanted their classmates to help them with. A few students needed one-on-one support to focus all the information into clear paragraphs. Others relied heavily on the chart papers still hanging at the front of the room for their details. But they all wrote.

Getting Active

I posted the essays on the bulletin board outside our classroom door and thought educating our school community could be the activist component of the unit. But I soon learned the bulletin board was nowhere near good enough for my kids. They wanted to do something more direct. Mel wanted to send all our school supplies to schools that educate former child laborers. Sandy wanted to bring former child laborers to the United States as adoptees. Gary wanted to go to the factories and get the kids. I needed to remind students of our earlier conversations about the larger context. I talked about shifting power and not just helping individual kids. They needed my help to decide how we could be effectively activist instead of impotently outraged. We decided to raise not just awareness but also money.

After an Internet search of various groups working to end child labor, I chose to affiliate with the Rugmark Group. The Rugmark Group liberates children from carpet factories and certifies factories as “child-labor free.” Rugmark runs schools that educate former and current child laborers. I thought my students would be able to identify with the Rugmark schools.

We decided to continue our community outreach by creating a display booth for the Boise-Eliot Multicultural Fair, an event that happens once a year. And we agreed to raise money for Rugmark by making magnets to sell.

For the display, we left the persuasive essays up and added student poems for two voices (one voice a student at Boise-Eliot the other a child laborer). [See page 43.] For the magnet project, the students spent hours at home and school precisely coloring in motifs common in rugs woven by child laborers, which we then laminated and affixed to magnets.

The students practiced and role-played educating adults and kids who approached our display about child labor. I gave small groups scenarios they might encounter the night of the fair. What if a little kid keeps touching the magnets and messing up the display? What if an adult claims that you are doing child labor by selling magnets?

By the night of the fair we had created about 100 magnets. We set up a schedule of 15-minute shifts that teams of three kids would work. The bulletin board was covered with essays, photos, and poems about child labor. The students arrived eager to sell some magnets, most wearing their “church clothes.” I practically had to kick kids out of the booth at the end of their 15- minute shift so that everyone got a chance to work. I hovered near the booth, monitoring but not interfering.

While the students’ conversations couldn’t be scored or sent into the school district’s research and evaluation department, they offered me the evidence I needed to feel confident about my students’ learning. Juan and Ned tried hard to sell the magnets for more than a dollar. “They cost a dollar but if you give more we’ll send that, too.”

Jameala and Aida got serious with their customers: “Did you know some kids have to work 14 hours a day for only $1?” Some kids were nervous and hardly spoke, but most could articulate that we were raising money for a school for children who used to be child laborers.

People were surprised to see what we were doing. A few seemed put off, but most asked the kids lots of questions, read some of their essays, and bought magnets. The last three kids were still selling magnets as the last families left the evening event.

The next morning when we counted our $125 to send to the Rugmark Foundation, every face in my classroom was bright. We shared joy in knowing that we had seen injustice and we had worked to stop it.

Looking Back

I would change many things about this unit. I would begin by analyzing child labor in the United States so that my students understand that child labor isn’t something that just happens far away. I would try to make the activism closer to home, like supporting the school serving the agricultural workers I see every summer right outside of town. Or we might try to influence our school district in deciding who grows, picks, and packages the school lunches. I would try to put my students in touch with students at one of the schools serving students coming out of child labor.

Overall, I was extremely pleased with the academic skills my students developed during this unit. They honed geography skills when we did the label hunt; math applications when we sold magnets; reading and research strategies throughout the unit; speaking and writing skills during the debates and essays. They experienced collaborative learning and negotiated with each other through some meaningful disagreements. I was even able to turn in scores to the research and evaluation department of Portland Public Schools for their debates and essays.

I am certain that the quality of my students’ work and their commitment to struggling through difficult material was born not just out of a dedication to learning, but from the meaningful, provocative content of child labor.

Useful Resources on Child Labor

Harvest, by George Ancona (Marshall Cavendish Corp., 2001). A color photography book detailing the experience of migrant farm workers, including children in the United States.

Rethinking Globalization:Teaching for Justice in an Unjust World, edited by Bill Bigelow and Bob Peterson (Rethinking Schools, 2001). An excellent collection of resources, articles, and teaching ideas for all levels.

Stolen Dreams: Portraits of Working Children, by David Parker, with Lee Engfer and Robert Conrow (Lerner Publications, 1997). I used this for the tea party because of the terrific black-and-white photographs and brief captioned descriptions of working children.We Need to Go to School:Voices of Rugmark Children, compiled by Tanya Roberts-Davies (Groundwood Books, 2001). First-person narratives of former child laborers who attend Rugmark-funded schools. Includes artwork and schoolwork done by the students.

Katharine Johnson ( teaches fourth and fifth grade at Boise-Eliot Elementary in Portland, Ore. *All students’ names have been changed.