At the start of the 2014-15 school year, I asked my 4th- and 5th-grade students at Trillium Charter School in Portland, Oregon, to meet me in our classroom meeting space. I had posted a map of the world on the wall for everyone to clearly see.
“I’d like everyone to look at the tags on your shirt or T-shirt and place a pushpin in the country where it was made,” I instructed. As more pushpins landed on our map, I asked my students, “What do you notice?” Aria responded with “There’s a lot of pins below America” (meaning in Central America). Emily, who noticed large clumps of pins in China and Bangladesh, asked, “Why are there so many shirts made in the Middle East and Asia?”
“Why do you think we have the shirts on our backs created so far from home?” I asked my students. No one was able to answer. This was the launch of our Storyline.
Storyline, a method of teaching developed in Scotland, is a collaborative process between teachers and students where students create characters within a setting and then drive their collective story in a specific direction. As a part of my initial teacher training, I was enrolled in a Storyline workshop. In Storyline, our curriculum is written solely by the teachers. We introduce students to a world unknown to them. As a class, we then create a three-dimensional setting and students create their characters. As the Storyline progresses, students encounter “incidents” that affect their characters in their environment. “Incidents” are events created by the teachers ahead of time that will challenge the students to make decisions and change the course of the story.
My teaching team consisted of myself along with the two other 4th- and 5th-grade teachers, Bijal Makadia and Patricia Velasco. We decided as a team to use the Storyline method to teach our students about the history of factories in the early 1900s. It was around this time when factory workers began cutting their long johns-style garments at the waistline to move more freely while working. This practice became a trend and eventually the marketable T-shirt style we know today. As factories were booming in 1915, T-shirt factories provided significant economic growth.
I launched this unit focusing on T-shirts. I asked students, “Why are our T-shirts made in these other countries? Why not make them ourselves? T-shirts were actually invented in America.”
“Then why are they being made so far away now?” Mia asked. Raphael added, “Isn’t it harder to have our shirts made far away and have them sent to us?” To answer these questions, we used the Storyline method to go back in time to when the T-shirt was invented. But to do this effectively, I needed to fill the students’ imaginations with the background and context they needed. We had to attempt to look through the eyes of a factory worker during that time period to get a sense of what life was like then.
Exploring the Past
Over the following two weeks we dove into our research, spending about 45 minutes a day reading over materials. We read about child workers in factories, like the little girl in the book The Locket, which follows Galena as she barely escapes the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire — a horrific event where 150 T-shirt workers died within a locked factory. Galena survives and later becomes a political activist who petitions for safe working conditions. I read biographies aloud to the class like Hear My Sorrow: The Diary of Angela Denoto, which follows an Italian immigrant who worked in a T-shirt factory and lived her life in a constant state of exhaustion until the day she had enough and began to organize a strike for the well-being of herself and her family. We watched Labor’s Reward, a silent film made in 1925 that followed the life of a female factory worker who was pushed to the point of exhaustion and collapsed on the job, fired for not being able to work. The film explains what unions are, why they are needed, and why we need to support union-made products. We read heartbreaking stories of children working in factories. Most factory owners preferred having a few children workers, some of them as young as 5 or 6. In fact, in the year 1900, 18 percent of all U.S. workers were under the age of 16. They were asked to reach into the huge machines and fix small parts that had broken. Due to their size, docility, and exploitability, this was a common practice, and many children died in these factories. We looked at haunting pictures of the children in Child Labor in America whose faces told stories of pain, exhaustion, and sorrow.
Students seemed moved by these stories to the point of choosing these books instead of their typical reading materials during our independent reading sessions. They were particularly moved by stories pertaining to the Shirtwaist fire, like the book Fire at the Triangle Factory, which depicts the true story of two young women who became friends while working in the factory and became trapped while the building burned beneath them.
“How could a boss lock their workers inside all night long?” Muhammad asked. I recall Abigail saying, “I can’t imagine dying in a factory.” While these stories were heartbreaking, a light of hope began to shine when we read about the people who decided to organize. Through these books we saw a movement beginning to form.
The next stage in a Storyline is to make a physical setting. I asked my students, “If we wanted to make a small-scale, three-dimensional factory of our own, what would it look like?” I allowed students to look online and through our library books to get a sense of what these buildings were like in real life — large, gray, and unwelcoming. I provided cardboard, tissue paper, construction paper, tape, and paint, and let them build it on their own. It stood about 4 feet high. Windows were covered in pencil markings, making it hard for light to enter the factory. The only colors used were dark brown, grays, and black. Students cut out little doors they could open to see inside the factory, complete with tired, stick-figure factory workers, assembly lines, sewers, and cloth dyers. The smoke stacks billowed large clouds of smoke made from cotton balls colored grey with markers. We displayed the factory students made outside of our classroom for the rest of the school to see. Creating this scene took roughly two weeks.
Becoming a Character
Now it was time to make the lesson personal. “It is now time to create a character of your own,” I told my students. “This character doesn’t have to be your same race, age, or gender, but they do need to be a realistic character who would have lived during this time. Where were they from? Were they an immigrant? Did they have a family? What thoughts did they think when they were at work? Was what they thought different from what they’d say?”
My students thought about the real people we read about, like Angela Denoto or the children in Child Labor in America. They created elaborate biographies along with portraits of their characters. Some students came together, joined forces, and created new families. Some fabricated their own family. Some were children who were stowaways on boats from Ireland. Others were grown adults who had several children to feed. I modeled how to make the characters out of construction paper. Each student was given a 4″ x 5.5″ cut of orange construction paper for the background. Students could pick from a collection of skin-toned paper for their skin, white paper for eyes, and a variety of colors for their clothes and accessories. I set out yarn for hair and fabric scraps that could be used for their characters’ clothes. I demonstrated how to make the portrait fill the background as much as possible and to only show the characters from the shoulders up. I also asked students to think about their characters’ expressions. “How can you show your character’s current state of emotion? What would they look like on any given day? Would they be happy or sad? Excited or tired?” With construction paper, yarn, fabric scraps, and markers, my students created a new group of personalities in our classroom represented by two-dimensional portraits. Our exhibit of characters was displayed on the wall outside of our classroom. This display helped focus students on who is truly being represented through our unit, as well as sharing our work with our school community.
As they took on these roles, I asked students to write from the perspective of their character, using their journals to respond to prompts like “How did you get to this factory?” “What are your daily worries?” and “What keeps you motivated to keep working?” They wrote weekly journal entries throughout the unit about their daily lives, describing what they dreamed of becoming as well as what their wishes were for themselves and their family. Students wrote about their tiring days and how they hardly had time to eat or take care of themselves. They wrote about their worries for their children who worked in factories as well. They didn’t want their son or daughter to lose their fingers in the big machines. Theodore said, “I was excited to come to America, but this is really, really hard.” We routinely wrote in our journals every week. If an “incident” occurred, we would reflect how the events have changed our lives.
I also created my own character. I was Evan Fletchberg, the owner of the shirt factory, and I created Evan’s portrait and biography.
“Incidents” are essentially the plot-twists of our story, meant to surprise students and add challenges or layers to their Storyline. Our first incident was payday. I told my class (as Evan Fletchberg) that it was time to pay my workers, and that because other owners were paying lower wages to stay competitive, I had to pay lower wages too. Based on actual wages at the time, male adults were paid 20 cents an hour, female adults were paid 15 cents an hour, and children were paid 10 cents an hour. Immediately, students complained about how unfair it was that they were being paid differently for the same amount of work.
Multiplying with decimals is not always easy for elementary school students. However, my students were eager to learn so that they would know how much money they’d have for their family. I gave them a list of how much groceries cost in New York City in 1915. Columbia University provides free online archives full of government documents dating back to the early 19th century, listing wages, costs of living, and costs of goods. I asked them to calculate how much money they would have in a day if they were making their wage and working 12 hours a day. My students were desperate to know if they had enough money to feed their fictional families and themselves. Students who belonged to the same family gathered to make a family budget. Students first calculated how much their family made in a day, then a week, then a month. They were able to then take these amounts and start creating a family budget.
“Let’s see if we can afford to eat!” one student hollered to his family. After calculating how much they made a day, a week, a month, they were appalled by how little they had to work with.
“We can only afford bread and milk!” I heard across the classroom. “We can’t even afford meat!”
“I don’t want to starve!” another student shouted. Some decided that their children had to work in factories instead of going to school in order to survive.
In order to simulate the constant insecurity that workers lived with, I created a second incident. I pulled names of characters out of a hat. The first seven characters I pulled were able to keep their jobs. The rest of the class was fired for either showing up late, missing a day for being sick, or fainting from exhaustion. Corporations were notorious for firing employees for a variety of reasons, including organizing into a union, with little to no warning. My students were perplexed by being let go.
“If I’m fired, am I still a part of Storyline?” one student asked. I told him, “Yes you are, you just don’t have a job. So what will you do now?” They were confused and filled with dread for the well-being of their families.
“It’s not fair to fire us for only being sick! I was only sick because you worked us too hard!”
“If I have no job, how will my children survive?”
“Let’s go work somewhere else!”
“Would that be any better?”
Emotions ran high in my class. They threatened my character and I told them I had bodyguards who kept me safe. They then threatened my bodyguards, to which I replied, “If my bodyguards are gone, I will just replace them, as I have already replaced you in my factory.” They did not like this answer.
I asked students, “Even if you don’t have a job, what power do you have?” They talked in informal groups, discussing what they could do to overpower Evan Fletchberg. I heard murmurs around the room of “How can he do this?” and “This just isn’t fair!” I stepped out of my Evan Fletchberg role and got my students’ attention. I asked, “How do people get their circumstances publicized? How might they change the system? Shouldn’t the public know about this injustice? What about Angela Denoto and other workers from this time? What did the woman do in Labor’s Reward?” Raphael responded with, “They went on strike!” Emily declared, “I’m making a sign!” — and she did. The sign read “Don’t work for Evan! Stand up and fight!” Students decided to follow her lead, grabbing rulers, popsicle sticks, and paper, making signs saying “We need our jobs back!” and “Children should be in schools, not factories!” and “We demand sick leave!” It was eerie how much their signs resembled the actual strike signs of that era.
At this moment, I decided to pause the class and tell my students a quick story about my previous year as a substitute teacher. One month into substitute teaching, the teachers decided to organize a strike. This put me in a difficult situation. Luckily, the teachers and the district came to an agreement and a strike never happened.
I told my students, “I needed to work to live, however my sympathies were with the teachers. If I crossed that picket line and taught their students, my peers would have lost respect for me, and I wouldn’t have respected myself for betraying my own beliefs. So what’s more important? Standing with your fellow co-workers in an unfair situation? Or a paycheck?”
Students who still held positions at the factory felt conflicted. I said, “What if your boss told you that if you join the strike, you will lose your job?” And switching into my teacher role: “So what do you do? Do you feed your children and work for the system that has hurt your former co-workers? Or do you stand for what is right and support these people who were given a bum deal?” I then explained how if I were to teach during a strike, I would be referred to as a “scab.” They had to make a decision. Most students decided not to be a scab, and to join the strike with their fellow factory workers.
Eventually my room was not a big enough space for their strike and they burst out the doors of my classroom, chanting and marching down the hallway.
“Fair pay for women!”
“Kids in schools, not factories!”
“We demand sick leave!”
After shooting a quick email to teachers, informing them that my students were invested in their Storyline and were not actually striking our school (something I plan to do ahead of time with the next Storyline), I followed my students outside, where they stood on picnic tables and made their voices heard.
The following day all 4th- and 5th-grade students had a community meeting to discuss future field trip dates and announcements. Our final “incident” was a premeditated interruption to that meeting. The school receptionist entered the room and said that all 4/5 teachers were needed in the office. As we walked out of the room, the director of our school, Kieran, snuck in through the back door. He played the role of a union organizer from another factory and spoke with my students, saying that he had heard their concerns. He explained to the students that, if they unionized, they could get all the factory workers, whether they are fired or still working, on their side, and the corporate bosses would have no choice but to negotiate with them. He brought a sign-up sheet for anyone interested in joining. At this moment, it seemed that most students began to see why unions were important to defend their rights and living conditions; in fact, with their impromptu walkout, they had begun organizing before Kieran arrived. The students signed the form under their character names and brought it to me and my fellow factory owners.
In our negotiation, students wrote out their demands such as two-day weekends so that they could recuperate every week. They said that children did not belong in factories — the conditions were too dangerous and they needed to receive an education. They also explained that every employee should be able to have a few days a year to leave work if they became sick without getting fired, and that 12-hour days were too long and exhausting. Days needed to be shorter so employees could go home and feed their families. Employees needed a wage they could live on, not barely survive on. There should be an agreed-upon wage that was livable for everyone.
“Don’t expect unions to go away,” Bella said. “Either you meet our needs or we will get everyone, including the workers you have now, to strike.” Evan Fletchberg felt stuck. He decided to honor their requests and began accepting union workers into his factory.
Back to the Map
As our Storyline came to a close, we looked back at our map of the world with clumps of pushpins in developing countries. I returned to our initial question, “Why are T-shirts being made in these countries and not in America?” I then asked my students, “If this is where T-shirts are made now, are they dealing with the same issues?”
To directly address these questions, we turned to a wonderful documentary that NPR produced as part of its Planet Money series called Planet Money Makes a T-Shirt. Through five chapters, this documentary follows the elaborate process of a T-shirt being created, going from a U.S. cotton field, to a sweatshop in Bangladesh, and then the shirts are shipped back to the United States. We followed the story of Jasmine, a girl who has worked in T-shirt factories since she was 16 years old. She works six days a week and makes about $80 a month with no sick leave. We saw the story of a T-shirt factory in Bangladesh that had crumbled to the ground killing more than 1,100 people, making it one of the world’s largest industrial accidents. This building was built ignoring codes aimed to prevent such accidents. Before this tragedy, the workers were barely able to live on their minimal income. The survivors are now left with no job and haunted memories. This happened in 2013, just a few years ago.
I showed my students pictures of T-shirt factories from the United States in 1915 next to pictures of T-shirt factories in developing countries in 2014. The machinery, wages, and conditions were strikingly similar.
After viewing this documentary and observing these photos, we had a class discussion. I asked, “What struck you about this movie? Did you see any similarities between these factories and the ones we learned about in U.S. history?”
“It seems like we made our country better but instead of just keeping the factories here, we moved them over there.”
“Why would we do that?” I asked.
One student stated, “Probably because it’s cheaper, they don’t have to pay them a lot of money.”
Another chimed in, “Yeah, and they don’t have to have as many rules so they can make people work too much and not get in trouble.”
My students felt a sense of responsibility for this unfair system. Of course, “we” don’t make global investment decisions; these are made by corporate executives with an eye to profit maximization. But all of us — including our students — are implicated in this system of exploitation every time we put on a T-shirt or turn on a television. Through class discussion, the invention of characters, journal entries, and public displays of rebellion, students developed a deep sense of empathy and sorrow for individuals who still endure these horrible working conditions. I asked them, “How can you make a difference?” They answered with “We shouldn’t give money to these factories that still treat people badly.” Another stated, “Maybe we can support companies that take care of their workers and that let them be in unions like we were shown.”
I plan to revisit this unit in the spring in more depth and to explore some of the themes that were left out the first time around. Going forward, we could look at where child labor is still prevalent around the world. We could also look at how workers have advocated for themselves in other countries, and study efforts to improve working conditions around the world. We explored the wage gap between genders, but not the lack of opportunities women faced in terms of job selection. People of color working in these factories were treated even worse with lower wages and minimal job options. Unions have changed over the past 100 years and look very different now.
How have unions evolved from this time and what do they look like now? Why have people joined unions in our community? There are many opportunities to loop my future students into current events when it comes to organizing for workplace justice. I hope to keep these discussions open so that students can reflect on these stories and how they relate to their own lives.
Of course, not everyone has equal access to unions. As I taught this Storyline, I was acutely aware of the irony of teaching about unions at a non-union charter. However, through a process of collaboration involving myself and fellow teachers, Trillium is now in the process of becoming one of the few charter schools in Oregon to unionize. The process of joining a union has given me invaluable insight into the mechanics of changing from a non-unionized to a soon-to-be-unionized employee.
This process has made me critical of the portrait of unions that may have come across to my students in this Storyline. My choice to have one individual come in to represent the union, to explain the benefits of unions, and simply sign people up, may be one vision of unionism — but it is a limited, perhaps even stereotypical one. Unions are not just imported from outside a workplace, but they grow from the inside, through workers’ own struggles and conversations. And the character of a union depends on the workers who build it. There are terrible, undemocratic “ghost” unions, and there are democratic ones that fight not only for better wages and working conditions, but also for broader social change. When I do this again, I will look for a more democratic approach, such as allowing my students to list their needs and organize in a way that they choose.
Through teaching the Storyline method, I have found that students learn more deeply when they are emotionally invested. To them, their characters were real. Their emotional reactions were real. When you are emotionally invested in a story, it leaves a lasting impression. When I was a child, I remember “playing pretend” with my cousins. We could be anyone we imagined, and in that moment, we were those people. Why not use that energy and imagination as a resource? When we use our imagination to walk in another’s shoes, that’s where real learning begins.
Michael Koopman teaches at Trillium Charter School in Portland, Oregon.