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Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909

Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909

Written by Michelle Markel and Illustrated by Melissa Sweet

Published in 2013 by Balzer + Bray
ISBN-10: 0061804428

Grades 2-8

Book Review
As a young immigrant girl, Clara Lemlich lands in New York City “dirt poor, just five feet tall, and hardly speaks a word of English.” Her father is unable to find work, but Clara does as a seamstress in a garment factory. Full of grit and determination, Clara recognizes the injustices of the garment industry on the workers and organizes the girls to strike in the winter of 1909. Thousands of young girls line the streets of New York in protest of the working conditions. Readers of Michelle Markel’s picture book biography of this young heroine will be moved by not only Clara’s story but by the power of all of the girls banding together to create social change. Melissa Sweet’s signature style of illustration combines hand-drawn illustrations alongside paper and fabric collage in a homage to the young lives centered by sewing machines. Sure to inspire students, this story will be an important addition to your social studies units on immigration, industrialization, and labor and can serve as a mentor text for biographical writing.  This lesser known story of a courageous young girl reminds us all to use our voices for the greater good and never to doubt the bravery of the young when it comes to fighting for what is right. 
Teaching Ideas / Invitations for Your Classroom:
Grades 2 – 8
Collage Study. In this story, Melissa Sweet combines hand-drawn illustrations with collage techniques that mix paper and fabric. Have students select a favorite illustration and closely analyze the ways the illustration enhances the text of that page. Support students to respond in writing by describing what’s happening, what’s important on this page, what craft techniques Sweet uses, and for what effect? 
The Author’s Note: More About the Garment Industry. Read the author’s note about the garment industry. How does this information enhance or clarify a reader’s understanding of Clara’s story? Record with students the facts included about the garment industry between 1880 and 1920. Record questions your students have after reading the author’s note and support them to conduct short-term research projects to answer their questions.  

Multimedia Duet Model: Bravery. Despite many obstacles, including police brutality and imprisonment, Clara Lemlich continued to organize garment workers and call for a general strike until the industry changed. Ask students to recall the challenges that Lemlich faced and her efforts to keep moving toward social change. In what ways do her actions show bravery? Following a reading of Brave Girl, view Sara Bareilles’s music video for her song “Brave” and engage students in a lyric/video study. Consider how the lyrics speak to what it means to be brave especially Bareilles’s call to “show how big your brave is”. Discuss the ways that the people in the video demonstrate bravery in their own lives. Ask student to think about and then they write about a time in their lives when bravery was needed. Students could illustrate their stories, which could then be bound into a class book to share with others.

Pioneering Women. Gather a collection of picture book biographies that feature women who were pioneers in their field. Divide students into small groups and ask students to read the books and make notes about the subjects of their books. Ask students to prepare a brief summary to share with classmates. After each group shares their summary in a whole group session, ask your students to brainstorm categories to construct a comparison chart featuring the women’s lives and accomplishments. Return to small group work with and ask groups to complete the information to construct the chart. When the chart is assembled, hold another whole group discussion, noting any patterns across the categories. The Classroom Bookshelf blog features several titles ideally suited to this activity, including Me…Jane and  The Watcher (Jane Goodall), Night Flight (Amelia Earhart), Annie and Helen and Helen’s Big World (Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan), Life in the Ocean (Sylvia Earle), Miss Moore Thought Otherwise (Anne Carroll Moore) and Rachel Carson and Her Book That Changed the World. (Laurie Lawlor).
Grades 4 and Up

Studying History: Learning about Life in the Tenements. Clara Lemlich and her family lived in tenement housing in the early 1900s. The Tenement Museum in New York City has a wealth of resources to support students to learn more about immigrant life from 1863 to 1935. Support student understanding of this time period through their collection of photos. Ask students what they notice about the people, the street scenes, and the Lower East Side neighborhood. What stories do the photos reveal? Then, take a virtual tour of the tenement building at 97 Orchard Street. Support students to notice the details of tenement living. After that, view primary source documents from this time period to learn more about people, places, and events related to tenement life. Finally, listen to oral histories from people who lived in the tenements and learn even more about what life was like for the individuals and families who lived in tenement housing.

The People Speak: Learning about Factory Girls. Howard Zinn’s film The People Speak is a collection of everyday voices that made a significant difference to American History. Marisa Tomeiperforms the words of a young factory girl preparing to strike in October 1836. Support students to view her performance that includes photos from the time period as part of the film sequence.  How does her performance and the words of the factory girl impact their understanding of what factory girls were fighting for? Support students to write a narrative of a factory girl and to then perform them for each other using their voices to convey the feelings of the girls about to strike.
Critical Literacy
Workers’ Rights Today. Issues of workers’ rights continue today particularly in debates about minimum wage. Share articles with students on the minimum wage issue such as the Time Magazine article from December 30, 2013 and have them consider different sides of the argument. Consider the larger issue of what it means to earn minimum wage and still live below the poverty line. Conduct a statistics search from reputable sources and find data on the number of people and number of children living in poverty here in the U.S. and around the world. Compare the current data with the information presented in the narrative of the book as well as the back matter. 
Matters of Class. Following a reading of the author’s note on the garment industry, support students to question why the police brutality ceased when wealthy women joined the picket line. What issues of power and privilege does this reveal? In what ways can these issues still be seen today?
Where Does Your Clothing Come From? In 1909, young girls new to this country were the seamstresses making the clothing for half of the country. Today, factories abroad continue to employ child labor. Based on an activity from Rethinking Globalization by Bill Bigelow and Bob Peterson, have students check the tags on their own shirts. What country does their clothing come from? What are the child labor laws of those countries? What do your students think about children working in factories instead of going to school? Pair this book in a duet model with Kashmira Sheth’s, Boys without Names, set in contemporary India where storytelling helps the main character survive his life as a sweatshop boy. Read with students about child labor today and the dangers children face in sweatshops by using various articles from sources like The New York Times.   
Girls and Education. Working in the garment factories kept Clara and many young girls from getting an education. Today  523 million girls and women cannot read or write. Share with your students the story of Malala Yousafzai who was shot by the Taliban on her way to school in Pakistan. View her speech before the United Nations Youth Assemblyas well as her interview with Jon Stewart. What do we learn from this modern-day brave girl about the power of education?   Give students different quotes from Malala and have them write a reflection about how her words demonstrate bravery and the power of education.

More to Clara Lemlich. Clara Lemlich became a devoted communist. This was an important part of her life as an activist in fighting for the collective rights of workers. The back matter does not include reference to Clara’s politics. Why not? Engage in a discussion with students about why authors or publishers would omit her political affiliation. 
 Online Resources

Michelle Markel’s Site
Melissa Sweet’s Site
The Tenement Museum Site
Scholastic article on Child Labor
Clara Lemlich Biography from PBS
Jewish Women’s Archive Site on Clara Lemlich Shavelson
Life in the Shop by Clara Lemlich, New York Evening Journal, November 28, 1909
Bartoletti, S. (2000). Kids on strike! New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin.
Burgan, M. (2011). Breaker boys: How a photograph helped end child labor. Minneapolis, MN: Compass Point Books.
Kraft, B.H. (1995). Mother Jones: One woman’s fight for labor. New York, NY: Clarion.
Marrin, A. (2011). Flesh and blood so cheap: The triangle fire. New York, NY: Knopf Books for Young Readers.
McCully, E. (1996). The Bobbin girl. New York, NY: Dial Books for Young Readers.
Meltzer, M. (1991). Bread and roses: The struggle of American labor, 1865-1915. New York, NY: Facts on File.
Paterson, K. (1991). Lyddie. New York, NY: Lodestar Books.
Russell, F. (1994). Kids at work: Lewis Hine and the crusade against child labor. New York, NY: Clarion.
Sheth, K. (2010). Boys without names. New York, NY: Balzer + Bray.
Springer, J. (1997). Listen to us: The world’s working children. Toronto, Ont.: Douglas & McIntyre.  

Katie Cunningham About Katie Cunningham

Katie is a Professor of Literacy and English Education at Manhattanville College. There she is also the Director of the Advanced Certificate Program in Social and Emotional Learning and Whole Child Education. Her work focuses on children’s literature, joyful literacy methods, and literacy leadership. Katie is the author of Story: Still the Heart of Literacy Learning and co-author of Literacy Leadership in Changing Schools. Her book Start with Joy: Designing Literacy Learning for Student Happiness will be released September 2019. She is passionate about the power of stories to transform lives.