Social Sundays: Teaching the Progressive Era

The Progressive Era is one of my favorite periods in history to share with my students.  I could spend a whole year on this period if I had the chance.  Typically, my class spends 2-3 weeks.  An enormous number of events and decisions were made from 1900 to the early 1920s have shaped the century that followed this period.  So, my biggest challenge is not having enough to teach but trying to cram it all in to a tight schedule without making it feel like speed dating.  I teach what I can and hope to inspire students to dig deeper on the events, people and topics that inspire them.  

With different classes and at different times, I have started with essential questions such as: "What role does the federal government have in ensuring the safety and well-being of its citizens?"  "What were the societal challenges that the Progressive era focused on and what progress can be seen today in these areas?" "How do science and technology impact the progress of humanity?" Is it important that societies balance the rights and needs of individuals?  Explain."

The work by the students, then, serves to answer one of the essential question or questions.  The approach is more like conducting research.  We have a question that we then are gathering evidence to answer.  For this unit we take a decidedly policy-oriented approach to the era.  The policies of the three Progressive presidents (Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson) shape the overall focus.   We look at individual policies, both domestic and foreign, for each president as well as the people and events that shaped these policies such as the muckrakers exposing work conditions in factories, the captains of industry who fought the unions and grew into monopolies, and the political cartoonists who made pointed commentary on the actions on political figures and policies of the day.  

Actual in-class events include a mix of gallery walks, collaborative activities, stations, and student-created projects.  The sequencing of these investigations can change based on class time, school events, or student knowledge.  

Below is a typical sequence:

Sometimes, I begin with an illustrated timeline in which each student researches a specific event and gives a quick summary and visual image of the event.  The timeline can be particularly helpful in providing a quick overview of the era.  As we go through the era in more depth, the students are able to refer back to it and literally see the sequencing of decision making.  

When I have a particularly dynamic class, we have a role play project in which students research a particular figure from the Progressive era.  Near the end of the unit, I host a soiree in which each person comes as their figure and to meet and discuss issues of the day.  I throw in some guiding questions that are relevant not only to the Progressive era but hypothetical situations reflective of today.  When I have a more introverted class, students each complete a project on a topic of their choice.  We present the projects at the end of the unit in a science fair style.  (More on student-centered projects here and here).

This is part of a series of posts for teaching 20th century U.S. History.  Topics in the series include:

The Progressive Era
World War I
The 1920s
The Harlem Renaissance
The Great Depression
World War II
The Cold War
The 1950s
The 1960s
The Civil Rights Movement

Social Sundays is a bi-weekly post sharing tips, ideas, resources, and products for teaching social studies.  If you have questions or think there is something I should share, you can leave me a message in the comments below or at the store in the question and answer section.



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