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Social Studies Lesson | 10 Homes

Social Studies Lesson

Photojournalism and Societal Ills

Jacob Riis tenement photo (credit Museum of the City of New York)


In this lesson, students will identify and document (through photography) a social problem that plagues either their school or community and then create a book, newspaper, or magazine with the material the students have created.

Grades: 6 – 12
Time: 5 periods


This lesson aligns with standards from McRel Standards for History

  • STANDARD 17: Understands massive immigration after 1870 and how new social standards, conflicts, and ideas of national unity developed amid growing cultural diversity.
    Level II (grades 5 – 6). Understands patterns of immigrant life in the ate 19th century.
    Level III (grades 7 – 8). Understands the background and experiences of immigrants in the late 19th century.
    Level IV (grades 9 – 12). Understands challenges immigrants faced in society in the late 19th century.
  • STANDARD 20: Understands how progressives addressed problems of industrialization, urbanization, and political corruption
    Level II (grades 5 – 6). Understands Progressive ideas and reform efforts.
    Level III (grades 7 – 8).Understands the spread of Progressive ideas and the successes of the Progressive movement
    Level IV (grades 9 – 12) Understands the origin and impacts of the Progressive movement.


To prepare to teach this lesson, teachers should:



  • Digital cameras or smartphones. If these are not available, you may use disposable (film) cameras.
  • Copy of How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis. (Note: If you have a Smart Board, you can view some pages from Google Books on the Smart Board.)
  • Paper
  • Pencils
  • Printer or photo printer or (if using disposable cameras) prints
  • Copies of essential questions worksheet and photo rubric

Period 1

  1. Begin by asking the students to explain what a tenement is. What were some of the problems with tenements in the mid-to-late-19th century? Elicit answers such as “Dark, i.e., too little natural light, poor air circulation, cramped, lack of sanitation, disease spread easily, no indoor plumbing, hot in summer, cold in winter, etc.” Ask students why they thought people lived in those conditions. (Students should understand that the people who lived in tenements did not have a choice.) Ask students if they remember the name Jacob Riis. Explain to students who Riis was and what he accomplished. Share How the Other Half Lives with students and let them either flip through it, or select passages to read together on the Smart Board through Google Books. (The introduction is good.) What does the title mean? Do students think the title is relevant today? Introduce the term photojournalism and discuss, making sure students understand the word. Do students think Riis’ book made an impact? (It did. It helped bring about the tenement reform movement that led to many improvements in the way tenement buildings were constructed. Nonetheless, tenements largely remained lousy places to live.) Why was Riis able to make such an impact? (The importance of photographs.)
  2. Tell students that they are going to channel the spirit of Jacob Riis to identify a serious problem, either in the school or in their town or city, and bring it to light through photography.
  3. Have students brainstorm their thoughts for what might be a good problem to focus on. Try to gear students away from frivolous suggestions (e.g., they don’t like the food in the school cafeteria) and towards issues with which their town, school, or community are truly grappling. Ideas might include poverty, lack of community investment and commercial life, inadequate or substandard housing, disinvestment in public schools or public amenities like parks, or deteriorating infrastructure. Be aware that you will be sending students out with a camera and that their safety must be paramount. Thus, topics like crime, gang violence, guns, drug and alcohol use, must be approached with extreme caution. Use your discretion and judgment as an educator to make a wise and safe choice for your students and for you. As a class, agree upon the topic you will tackle. Also agree upon what format the final project will take. It can be a newspaper, magazine, or book.
  4. Distribute “essential questions” worksheet. Students work in groups of four to answer the questions and then share.

Period 2 or on the students’ own time

  1. Students explore their school or community to take photographs that illustrate the problem they are describing. If the photograph-taking is taking place within the school and on school grounds, students should work in groups of four. If the photo-taking is taking place within the larger community, they may also go in groups of four, and each group should be accompanied by an adult. Try to enlist parent volunteers to help.

Period 3

  1. Students (in their same groups of four) analyze the photographs they took and winnow their choices down to four photographs. They use the photo rubric to decide upon which photographs make the cut for the final project. The four photos that earn the highest score will be selected.
  2. Students write captions for each photo.

Period 4

  1. Students assemble their photos into whatever format has been decided upon. They may physically “cut and paste,” or digitally create the pages of their book, newspaper, or magazine.

Period 5

  1. Each group presents to the class their section of the book, magazine, or newspaper. If resources allow, students may make a presentation to the larger school audience, or print copies of their project to distribute to other classes in the school, or even to the larger community, e.g., elected representatives, libraries, newspapers, or civic leaders.



  • How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis
  • Shutting Out the Sky: Life in the Tenements of New York 1880 – 1924, by Deborah Hopkinson
  • The Tenements of Chicago, 1908 – 1935 by Edith Abbott
  • At the Edge of a Dream: The Story of Jewish Immigrants on New York’s Lower East Side, 1880 – 1920 by Lawrence J. Epstein

Online Sources


This Social Studies lesson can be extended to other subjects or paired with other 10 Homes that Changed America lessons to create the following interdisciplinary connections:

  • Art: Just as Jacob Riis included drawings in How the Other Half Lives, students may create pen-and-ink drawings (drawn from life) to include in their book, magazine, or journal.
  • English Language Arts: Students may supplement their photographs with text that describes and analyzes the problem the students have identified.
  • Mathematics: Students may calculate the perimeter and area of their own bedrooms and compare it to the average estimated size of a tenement room (13’ X 13’)
  • Science: Students may research how disease spreads and how the physical layout of the tenements contributed to disease amongst tenement dwellers.