Philadelphia Writing Project

Supporting Civically Engaged Argument Writing with Primary Sources

Across time and communities, children have engaged in different kinds of work. From summer and after school jobs to babysitting and selling candy, young people engage in a range of work activities. A number of laws govern which jobs young people can hold. Around the time of the Industrial Revolution in the United States, reformers began to advocate for the implementation of child labor laws. At that time, many children—some 5 years old—worked in mills, mines, and factories to help support their families. In 1903, Mother Jones sought to bring attention to this issue by striking and taking 100 children on a protest march that ended at the vacation home of President Roosevelt.

Recently in some states, lawmakers have adjusted child labor laws. Invite students to explore the history of child labor as well as current regulations related to minors in the workforce. Students can join in on conversations about past and recent changes to child labor laws both in the United States and abroad.



Creating a Culture of Argument in the Classroom

Librarian Javaha Ross aware of recent news articles about changes to child labor laws in the United States and was also knowledgable about historical primary source lessons from the Library of Congress on child labor. She felt like this topic would engender lots of discussion and debate amongst her middle school students; so, she designed a mini unit.

Ms. Ross was interested in positioning her students as citizens who have a say in a democracy. She encouraged oral as well as written arguments about texts. To do this, she drew upon resources and rationales for creating a culture of argument in a classroom provided by NWP's College, Career, and Community Writers Program (C3WP). For instance, Ms. Ross used "Notice and Wonder" routine regularly with students as they engaged with a number of texts on the topic: contemporary news articles, informational texts, and historical primary sources. She encouraged students to notice and wonder independently, then in small groups, and finally as a whole class. A number of important questions emerged from the discussions that shaped how students saw the issue: 

Three themes stood out to Ms. Ross in the discussions that took place in her library: 

Keeping track of students' ideas in anchor charts or other public displays can help communicate to students that a unit and its lessons are driven by their ideas and questions.



Introduce the Issue

Teachers may consider whether to introduce one or both of the featured historical primary source above or a more current news article to jumpstart inquiry. Students might share examples of jobs they might have had around the house or outside of the home. Teachers should encourage students to ask questions rather than "taking a side" on the issue early on. Students' questions should lead to digging into additional texts and perspectives.

News article about a Department of Labor investigation into migrant children being used as workers in chicken slaughterhouses. "Perdue Farms and Tyson Foods under federal inquiry over reports of illegal child labor." (NPR, 25 September 2023).

News video about recent changes in child labor laws in the United States. "Why states are rolling back child labor regulations." (ABC News, 2023).

Informational article outlining benefits of summer jobs for young people. "6 ways summer jobs benefit teens." (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2023).

Go Deeper

This mini unit could follow a number of complementary inquiry trajectories. For instance, students might explore the history of child laborers in the United States in the early twentieth century. They might also explore the state of child labor in countries around the world.

Research article that describes what various studies have reported about young people having jobs. "The benefits and risks of adolescent employment." (The Prevention Researcher, 2010).

Research summary and map describing the state of child labor around the world. "Child Labor protections are lacking in many countries, UCLA study finds." (UCLA, 2019)

Informational article with images and facts about a march led by Mother Jones. "March of the Mill Children." (Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, 2023).

Picture book about the march led by Mother Jones. Mother Jones and her army of mill children. (Winter, 2020).



Culturally & Historically Relevant Literacies: 5 Pursuits

In Cultivating Genius (2020) and Unearthing Joy (2023), Gholdy Muhammad introduced a Culturally and Historically Relevant Literacies framework. The framework encourages teachers to plan units using five pursuits that were central to the work and learning of Black literary societies. A unit on the history of child labor laws may address each pursuit in these ways:



Writing and Revising Nuanced Claims

As students deepen their understandings of child labor, they may begin to recognize that the issue is complex. This means that they may want to develop nuanced claims as they construct arguments about what to do (if anything) about child labor policies and practices. The National Writing Project's College, Career, and Community Writers Program (CWP) has developed resources for supporting students in writing and revising nuanced claims.

One routine for helping students to revise and rewrite their claims involves introducing students to multiple perspectives on the issue and inviting them to use sentence stems that integrate one of the perspectives into their claim. This move of acknowledging and responding to a counter claim up front may help a writer strengthen their claim. Students might acknowledge a competing viewpoint and then offer a response in the form of their own claim. Keep in mind that students should encounter a number of perspectives on the issue before being asked to craft a claim. Check out this template for revising claims about child labor.

Child Labor: Make a Nuanced Claim


Additional Planning Resources

Primary Source

Do the poor need their children’s help? 1913 or 1914?. (Library of Congress).

Primary Source Set

The Industrial Revolution in the United States. (Library of Congress).

Lesson Plan

Child Labor. (Library of Congress).

Primary Source

Special Child-Labor Edition. Maryland Suffrage News,1914. (Library of Congress).

Primary Source Set

Mother Jones: Topics in Chronicling America. (Library of Congress).

Informational Text

The girl who spoke out for workers' rights. (Junior Scholastic, 2019).

Informational Text

The benefits of experience: New study finds more work experience benefits for youth. (University of North Carolina, 2023).

Informational Text

July 18, 1899: Newsboys strike in New York. (Zinn Education Project, 2023).


Child labor in the production of cocoa. (U.S. Department of Labor, 

Lesson Planning Resource

Lewis Hines's photographs. (Zinn Education Project, 2023).

Lesson Planning Resource

Exploring child labor with young students. (Rethinking Schools, 2002/2003).

This website features resources created by educators affiliated with the Philadelphia Writing Project (PhilWP), supported by a Teaching with Primary Sources grant from the Library of Congress.