WORK, WORKERS, & THE US LABOR MOVEMENT: Unit Plan for 5th Grade Social Studies

July 23, 2011

An 8-lesson activity helps students explore issues of work and workplace conflicts through reading, discussion, interviews, and investigation.



Objective: to get students thinking critically about work in today's society.

Write the word "Work" on a large piece of paper, and draw a circle around it. Explain that the class is going to create a concept web together about what "work" means.


  • What is work?
  • What do you think of when you see the word "work"?
  • What makes something work and not play?
  • What kinds of work do people in our society do?
  • What kind of work do your parents do?
  • What types of work are paid and what are not (ie childcare, housework, etc.)?
  • What type of work is valued and what is not?
  • What work do you do everyday?
  • Do you get paid for this work?
  • What work do you not do? Is school a form of work?
  • Why do some jobs pay more than others?
  • Does something have to be not fun in order to be work?
  • Why do people choose the jobs they choose?
  • Is it always a matter of choice?

Explain that over the next few weeks, the class will be investigating various issues relating to work and workers. Have the class journal for a few minutes about what the biggest questions they have surrounding work are, and how they hope to answer them during the unit. Try to get each student to share at least one of their questions.


Objective: to expand students' understanding of work to include workplaces and the issues which surround them.

Day 1:

Explain that while yesterday the class talked about work, today you will be talking about workplaces.

Ask the class:

  • Where do people work?
  • What makes some places to work more fun/harder/easier than others?
  • What kinds of conditions would you like to have at your workplace?
  • Who controls the workplace?
  • What happens when conflicts arise?

Have students write a brief essay (1-2 pages) about what is most important for them to have and not have in their workplace. They can use examples from parents, relatives, and friends to generate ideas. Ask them to write about how they would deal with conflicts in the workplace and how they would go about making sure that their rights were being respected.

Day 2:

Explain that for today, you are going to pretend your class is a factory making X (have the students decide what you want to be making). Set up an assembly line for the production of this object. Act as the manager and periodically put new demands on the students (Go faster! Switch seats! You're doing it wrong! Etc). Have the students use the ideas they wrote about in their papers to improve conditions in the workplace. See what works and what doesn't. Afterwards, discuss their tactics and the barriers they came up against.



Objective: to get students thinking about the various ways in which workers respond to conflicts

Work with students to come up with a definition of "union." Discuss unions in the context of students' experience as assembly line workers during the previous lesson. Talk about a few concrete gains unions have won, which many now take for granted: the weekend, the 8- hour day, etc.

Read Si, Se Puede , an illustrated book about a strike by janitors in Los Angeles that was led by the Service Employees International Union. Discuss the issues the book raises. Discuss the role of unions in today's workforce. (The book can be ordered through:



Objective: to learn skills in interviewing and data collection. To make connections between the theoretical and the practical. To use the students' immediate surroundings when talking about issues that affect the world.

Explain that tomorrow, the class will be interviewing the various people who work to make the school run. Divide the class up into teams: some will interview teachers, others will interview administrators, janitors, cafeteria workers, etc.

As a class, brainstorm a list of questions to ask these workers. Talk about open-ended questions vs yes-no questions. Sample questions might include: What do you like most about your job? Least? How did you choose the job you have? What conflicts have come up in your workplace and how have you dealt with them?

Ask each student to come up with a list of questions individually, although they may use the sample ones to get them started.

Discuss interviews and how they are conducted. Ask the students to think about how they themselves would most like to be interviewed. Have students role-play an interview or two (with each other, taking turns) and come back together to debrief from their experience.

Explain that students have the day to set up appointments with the people they will be interviewing. Hand out interview permission forms that designate various time slots, and ask them to bring them back filled out the next morning. Interviews may happen during the school day or over the phone.



Objective: to read about some current labor struggles and examine the media's portrayal of them.

Ask some students who have already conducted their interviews to talk about it with the class. What went well? What was hard? Invite students who haven't yet conducted interviews to ask questions.

Bring in several newspapers from the last few weeks. Have the students go through the newspapers and find articles relating to struggles in the workplace. Cut these articles out and paste them on the wall. Read a few of the articles together. Talk about how the media portrays the workplace struggles, and how that compares to students' findings in the interviews. Briefly discuss major contributors to mainstream media and why it might be hard to get an accurate picture of workplace conflicts.

Homework: have the students type up their interviews and put them into whatever format they choose.



Objective: to begin to synthesize students' findings in interviews and create a class anthology.

Discuss the common themes that came up in interviews. Talk about what the class would like to do with the interviews, and design a creative way to collect the interviews in a format that other people can read. Have everyone draw a picture or design a visual page (using photographs, collage, etc) to go along with their interview.



Objective: to learn about current, nearby labor struggles and how students can act to change working conditions nearby.

Day 1

There's a lot of room for variation in this lesson. If there is currently a strike going on nearby, that's easy—talk about the strike, find out what the issues are and what the workers are asking for. You might go on a field trip to interview the workers on the picket line.

If there isn't something that high-profile happening, you still might be able to find a contract battle, organizing campaign, or other work-related issue nearby that the students can learn about. Have students discuss and journal some ways in which the class can help workers improve conditions.

Day 2

Continue to discuss how students want to respond to current nearby labor campaigns or issues. Design a plan for doing so. Have students take on different roles. This will be an ongoing project that will not end when the unit does.



Objective: to get students thinking not only about labor struggles nearby, but about the connections to the larger world—issues of globalization and sweatshops.

Have students look at the tags on their shirts, and put pushpins on a map showing where everyone's clothes come from.

Watch a brief movie from the National Labor Committee—perhaps Mickey Mouse Goes to Haiti. (See Discuss the phenomenon of moving production overseas for cheaper labor conditions, and the "race to the bottom" concept.

Have students read—or, if possible, hear themselves—testimony about working conditions from workers overseas. If possible, bring in a student from a nearby university working on an anti-sweatshop campaign. You may be able to locate nearby activists through the group United Students Against Sweatshops ( Talk briefly about the role students have played in the anti-sweatshop movement.



We welcome your thoughts and suggestions about these activities! Please email us at:

Emma Rose Roderick is a workers' rights activist and a student at Smith College.