Education: Heritage Discovery Center

Johnstown Area Heritage Association
Teachers' Guide: After your visit

Making a Living

After your visit

Organizing, Muckraking, and Legislating, Part 2: Making Changes

Redistribute the "Inspection Report" activity sheets that students kept while on the museum visit.

Ask students to assess the amount of evidence they were able to find at the museum. Chances are there are holes. Museums aren't libraries, archives, or web sites. Exhibits use primary sources to tell a story, which means they can't be exhaustive. That's what this web site is for! Students should supplement the evidence they found at the museum with whatever they can learn from the various primary and secondary sources linked from the Student Resources page. Check especially the Company Town gallery and article. Photos, interviews (including their Family Folklife interviews about wages and working conditions), and census data are all legitimate sources. They may also use evidence found in books or on the other web sites, as long as they are well-documented.

When they believe they have enough evidence to make recommendations about fixing the problems and to "build a case" that will convince others, they are ready to take action.

Just as the reformers did, students will use various means to get their message across and change things. Their end-products will depend on their role. Below are several appropriate options for each of the four roles. Whichever reform project they decide to take on, they should make liberal use of the evidence they have gathered.

Union organizer projects

  • Write up bargaining points (demands) in the form of a contract;
  • Write slogans for picket signs to explain to others what changes you are striking for;
  • Write lyrics to a song union members can sing to help them remember why they are striking.

Investigative reporter projects

  • Write an article illustrated with photos from the galleries exposing;
  • Draw a political cartoon.

Social worker projects

  • Write a report about working and living conditions illustrated with photographs from the galleries;
  • Draw up a plan for a settlement house and the programs it will run to help immigrants improve their lives.

Lawmaker projects

  • Draft a bill introducing new workplace laws to Congress;
  • Write a newspaper editorial to gain public support for their new laws.

After students have finished their projects, let them self-assess in small groups:

Larger than Life: Workers' Folk Heroes

Workers can be very creative in how they cope with the pressures of work! This activity will deal with one of the more creative: the creation of folk heroes that embody their values and ideals about work.

Reading: The stories of John Henry and Joe Magarac

Two legendary heroes who worked in local industries emerged from nearby areas. John Henry was a real person, an African American railroad worker who gained fame for dueling with a steam hammer and who died in the process. Joe Magarac, a titan of a steel worker was strictly fictional and not nearly as tragic a figure as John Henry. Students can read their stories here.

Song: The Ballad of John Henry

John Henry's tragic, determined heroism inspired what is one of America's most well-known folk songs. It started in the African American folk music tradition, was picked up by Southern white Appalachian folk singers, then was transformed again by the blues. Several recorded performances of John Henry and one of the best-known set of lyrics demonstrate to students how well-used and well-loved this story is. Try singing it with your students!

Activity: What Heroes are Made of

Find out what makes John Henry and Joe Magarac tick

Students will explore how folk heroes develop by looking at John Henry and Joe Magarac more closely. A chart helps them organize their observations about how the real characteristics of skilled workers become exaggerated into the "superpowers" of folk heroes.

Create a coal mining folk hero

Using what they've learned about how heroes are made, students will make a hero themselves -- from scratch! The coal industry hasn't developed a lasting folk hero (though it has made up for it by inspiring such great songs as "Sixteen Tons," "Dark as a Dungeon," "Coal Miner's Daughter," and many more!). To wind up this activity, students will rectify that situation by creating a coal mining superhero (to use today's version of folk heroes).

After they decide on a name and what special powers and ethical codes the hero should have, they can set him or her into a situation to test those powers. The situation could involve mine hazards, a conflict with a boss, righting a wrong in the company town, or any situation that student can imagine after learning about mining and labor relations. Assign them to tell the story of how their hero resolved this situation. Choose the story-telling medium to fit with your other curriculum goals. Some ideas include: written story, a song or song lyrics, play, puppets, animation, video with special effects, comic book, mural, postage stamps, to name just a few of the many possibilities. Have fun!

Activity: Family Folklife Interviews - Work Part 2

The Family Folklife Interview goes a step further toward being able to imagine names and numbers as human beings. Talking to their own families about their work experiences really makes the point!

This activity works best as an individual homework assignment, so students can interview an older family member (encourage phone interviews, if necessary). If this seems too challenging (with foster families, for example), it can also work as a cooperative learning activity with teams of three or four students interview a grandparent of one student.

While it is great to be able to reach as far back as possible with these interviews, it is not always practical or possible to talk to the oldest family member. That's OK. Students may be just as amazed that their parents and grandparents remember before computers were a necessary tool at work. The important goal of this part of the interview is to learn how people make a living, what they literally do at work, how work has changed over the years and continues to change.

Part 2 of the Family Folklife work interviews is slotted for after your museum visit, because the questions focus on wages, work conditions, safety, and other possible sources of conflict on the job, which are especially applicable to the activities in this section. If you decide to assign this activity to students, you might use both sets of questions, rather than having students do a second interview.


Interview an older adult in your family to find out more about family traditions and how they have changed over the generations:

Building a better warning

One big challenge in having many immigrants on the job is communication. The members of a work team could speak five or six different languages!

You've seen some of the dangers lurking in the mines and mills. How could foremen warn workers of important safety rules if they didn't speak the same language? Cambria Iron and Steel solved this problem by posting this sign:

Safety sign in three languages

What's wrong with this picture?

Discuss the warning sign

  • How many languages does the warning sign use?
  • Read the warning out loud in English. What danger is it warning about? How easy is it to understand in English?
  • Why was this safety warning important? [Touching bare electric wires could electrocute and kill them! Most probably didn't have electricity at home, so weren't familiar with it.]
  • How well did this sign work, do you think? Why? HINT: Think about the census lists you studied before visiting the museum.
  • What were some of the questions the census taker asked that would give us a clue about whether this sign did its job? [the 1900 census asked whether the person spoke English and whether they could read and write]
  • How many were not able to read? How did they find out about this rule? [with a rule this important, surely workers warned each other, probably the first day on the job!]

Discuss what makes a good poster

  • What is the goal of a poster? [To get a message out to the public.]
  • Where are posters usually displayed? [streets, hallways, entrances, waiting rooms, etc.]
  • What are poster viewers doing besides reading posters? [walking by, waiting in line, talking to someone, riding a bus or trolley, etc.]
  • What is wrong about just typing up a message in large font and hanging it up, like the coal company did with its list of rules? [good posters must catch the attention of someone passing by and communicate their messages fast. If viewers have to stop long enough to read it, the poster hasn't done its job well. If they don't even notice it long enough to stop, then it really hasn't done its job!]

Poster masterpieces from the WPA

During the Great Depression in the 1930s, many people were out of jobs. Artists, writers, musicians, and actors were really in bad shape. If people didn't have much money, they certainly weren't spending it on going to concerts and plays or buying a painting! As part of President Roosevelt's New Deal, the government hired some of these artists and writers to make its publications communicate better. It was a program called the Works Progress Administration (WPA for short). Some of the best posters ever made were designed by those artists. Many of them were job safety posters. The mill warning sign, though it was earlier than the 1930s, could learn a lot from the WPA!

Show examples of the posters in the WPA Poster Gallery.

Discuss what makes these posters work so well:

  • What helps these posters get noticed? [large bold shapes, just a few strong colors, high contrasting colors]
  • What makes them easy to understand? [use few words, if any; simplified drawings using shapes rather than lines; not much detail that can't be seen from a distance; use picture symbols to communicate fast (the crane with a girder to tell workers to stay alert for dangers overhead; huge gloved hands to remind workers to protect their hands, etc.)

A better warning

Using what you've learned from the WPA artists, brainstorm a better warning poster for Cambria Iron and Steel:

  • What images could communicate the message of the warning sign?
  • Write a one sentence summary of this warning.
  • Edit the sentence down to just a few words. Can you get down to just five words?
  • Imagine shouting your message as a warning to a new worker who is about to touch a live electrical wire. How well does it work?

Tackle another safety problem

Design a safety poster without words to tackle one of the safety problems you found in your inspection.

Poster design criteria

While designing your poster, remember to:

  • Decide what your message will be.
  • Think of an image that would communicate that message. If you have several ideas, try them out in miniature to see which works best (artist call these "thumbnail sketches").
  • Use large bold shapes that reach to the edges of the paper;
  • Choose just a few strong colors. You should have very little white paper showing though -- just parts of the design you need to be white, not the background;
  • Simplify! Make shapes big, lines few and bold, colors strong (really bright or really dark)
  • Use words only if you think your image-message alone won't be understood. If you do, keep it short -- no more than five words. Make them part of the design (bold shapes and colors, etc.).

When the posters are done, students can test on their classmates how well their designs communicate. Display posters one at a time to the class or a small group. Ask for guesses about what the poster is saying (remember, you are not trying to stump anyone -- you are trying to communicate!). If people aren't able to guess, ask them to suggest changes. (Obviously, posters that use words aren't eligible for this part of the lesson, but they can still participate in the "how to improve" discussion below.) Constructive criticism only!

Teaching tips for leading class art critiques:

  • Don't use the words "criticism" or "critique"! Call it a discussion or idea session to help everyone improve his or her posters. That's what a critique is, it just sounds scarier!
  • Remind them of the goal of this poster -- in this case to communicate an important safety rule quickly without words.
  • Use the criteria for good poster design listed above (after "remember to…" as a basis for discussion.
  • Make a rule that students voicing an opinion must also tell why: "I like it" or "I don't like it" or better yet "the poster makes a good warning" -- must always be followed with "because…").
  • Encourage them to talk about the art, not their feelings about the art. You can teach by example by not starting your own with "I" but instead start with something in the artwork: "The colors really call attention to the poster" not "I like the bright colors" or "Dark colors against dark colors are hard to read, maybe you could lighten one of them" instead of "I can't read the lettering." Follow up such comments by asking for a reason. Bring the discussion back to the list of criteria.



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