Out of the Zoo: “We’re a union just by saying so!”

Newsies

Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  In this dispatch, Annie writes about one of her favorite movies. –JF

Newsies might just be one of my all-time favorite movies. Starring a young Christian Bale as the fictional main character Jack Kelly, the nearly three-decade old film offers a musical retelling of the Newsboys’ strike of 1899. The said strike, which took place on the streets of New York City in protest of high newspaper prices, ended after two weeks when Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst agreed to buy back unsold papers from the newsies at the end of each day. 

The movie, interwoven with a beautiful Alan Menken score and lively dance breaks, throws around a lot of terms like “union,” “demands,” and “scabs,” each of which could easily be heard inside a U.S. history classroom. However, as much as I love Newsies, I must admit that the film fails to explain these terms with any complexity; it does not place them in their broader historical context either. As a musical theatre geek in high school I found it easy to cheer when Jack Kelly and his chorus of newsboys triumphantly sang, “We’re a union just by saying so!” But as a student I probably wouldn’t have been able to tell you much about what a union was, much less how or why it was formed.

Although Newsies might be entertaining, it remains a shadowy fictional representation of the issues that shaped the reality of the Gilded Age. There are far better ways for students to comprehend the complexities of labor disputes than watching Christian Bale dance across a television screen (sorry Disney). Mr. Anderson, one of the United States history teachers at Northern High School, showed me one such way last week when I got to sit in on his class for my Sophomore field observation. Anderson led his class through an exercise that not only helped his students gain a better understanding of unions, but also allowed them to relate the past to their lives in the present. 

Instead of lecturing for days about organized labor, Mr. Anderson provided the necessary historical context–fleshing out the themes and complexities that defined the Gilded Age–and let his students do the rest of the work. He briefly taught about the two prominent Gilded Age unions, but then let students form a union of their own, dubbed “The United Students of NHS.” First, students broke into small groups and listed all their grievances–issues ranged from passing time between classes to club funding. After narrowing down their complaints, the entire class circled up to decide which eight requests they would draw up and deliver to the school’s administration. 

While he raised his voice occasionally to direct attention to the task at hand, Mr. Anderson let his students take the lead in the entire process. When the whole class collaborated on the final eight grievances, students spoke up from around the circle suggesting a procedure or speaking out in defense of one of their demands. While his students engaged in discussion, Mr. Anderson told me that he thinks that students shouldn’t have everything planned out for them. Instead, educators should leave room for learners to experiment, take charge, and figure things out on their own–always taking time to reflect afterwards about what went well and what could have gone better.

I couldn’t have agreed with Mr. Anderson more. His students were passionate and eager to apply what they learned about unions and the Gilded Age to their everyday lives. They learned to cooperate with each other, compromise when necessary, and innovated if their process became inefficient. And all the while they gained an increasingly thorough and nuanced understanding of the past. It is this kind of history classroom, one where students are invested, engaged, and challenged, that I want to emulate someday.