Labor Takes a Seat in the Classroom

The resources to teach students about America’s storied labor history are there. It’s up to educators to connect young people to a story that could have a lasting impact. “You want the people who read history, young people or people of any age, to recognize their own power and to recognize themselves in history,” says [Howard] Zinn. “After all, most of the people who are going to be reading and studying history are not going to be business executives. They are going to be working for a living.”

Labor Takes a Seat in the Classroom
By Adam Doster

When I taught in a ‘brick and mortar’ classroom I was alway searching for ways to teach my students to ‘see’ class. (I have included a few of these assignments in the ‘Teaching Materials’ section of this site.) I would get them to use the American Fact Finder, for example, to create an economic history of their families and the communities in which they lived.

I would also get them to interview their parents and grandparents about education and work. At least in the short term, I think many did start to see the patterns of class mobility and stasis over the course of the last twenty or thirty years. Almost every semester a student would tell me that he or she saw their family’s history in an entirely new light.

Introducing Labor history into the classroom is another, perhaps less individualistic, way to teach class awareness. Doster offers several other examples of how we can put labor back into circulation as an important part of our heritage. There’s now an “American Labor Merit Badge,” for example. The Boy Scouts have a wiki,, where you can find a description of the requirements.

Doster also mentions, “Hardball and Handshakes,” a set of classroom activities that explore the reasons behind unions in professional sports. That can be found on the American Labor Studies Center website, along with information about Women and Labor, and a special section on Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers. among other things. The ALSC is in Troy, New York.

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol]

One Thought on “Labor Takes a Seat in the Classroom

  1. Ray, I’m intrigued by your family literacy assignment. Are your students able to get past individualistic explanations for why their parents or grandparents did not go to college? I can envision a student who feels him or herself to be on the cusp of “making it” in college assuming that hard work and distinctive talent were the ticket to their distinctive success.

    I’ve been intrigued by the Labor Awareness program at U of Kansas — given how many college students work now in service jobs, I’ve wondered how such curriculum might find its way into our academic coursework.

    Thanks for the interesting post.


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