History: The Gilded Age

Title: Lesson Study: The Gilded Age
Discipline(s) or Field(s): History, Political Science, Economics
Authors: Kathleen Thomas, Robert Zeidel, Kam Zogorski, University of Wisconsin – Stout
Submission Date: June 2, 2008

Executive Summary: Our learning goals revolve around students’ struggle to learn about strikes and government regulations because of their preconceived notions about unions and big government. We want students to understand why Americans supported an expansion of government regulations at the turn of the 20th century, especially why the middle-class initiated and drove these reforms in pursuit of “modernity.” Therefore, we begin with the problems of the Gilded Age. Here students learn about the extreme wealth disparities, high mortality and injury rates in the workplace, poor public health, violent reaction to strikes, high unemployment rates, and corrupt urban machine politics. We constructed our study around an interactive lecture with a primary document discussion group activity that was graded for historical interpretation (i.e., an explanation of why these events happened at this particular time and are still relevant for us today). We found that students’ preconceived notions of immigrants are their biggest stumbling block, but when we have them focus on their reactions to low wages, lack of workers’ compensation, etc., they are able to anticipate Progressive Era reforms. Students enjoyed and seemed more engaged when asked to respond personally; they were most frustrated when asked to apply the reading terms from the textbook and to stick to the historical context. Individual reflection followed by group work seems to minimize these frustrations. However, finding the time in or out of class to cover the topic, reflect, then discuss (and grade homework) was still problematic.

Links to lesson plan materials:

Links to the study of the lesson:

Next Phase: The Progressive Era.
These are historical documents used to connect the Gilded Age problems to the Progressive Era reforms:

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