Lesson Plans for Secondary Educators
‘Mother’ Jones, “Speech at a Public Meeting on the Steps of the Capitol Charleston, West Virginia,” 15 August 1912
High School Lesson Plan created for Voices of Democracy by Michael J. Steudeman, University of Maryland
Value to History Teachers
There is a chasm in history classes between the Civil War and World War I in which it is difficult to engage students. If the Progressive Era is taught strictly through the historical facts—of unions, poor working conditions, Theodore Roosevelt’s reforms, and so on—students may have a difficult time envisioning the era’s importance to American history.
This speech by Mary Harris ‘Mother’ Jones helps draw students into the Progressive Era in two ways. First, Jones’s vivid and cantankerous personality certainly draws students’ attention. She represents an important female voice during an era before women had the right to vote. Secondly, Jones’s speech provides an illustrative entry point to help students understand the working conditions that triggered the Progressive Movement, the intensity of the disputes between workers and their employers, and the formation of labor unions in the United States.
Ideas for Pre-Reading
- Have students read the first two paragraphs of Mary K. Haman’s analysis of Jones’s style as a “feisty, offensive, even threatening” 100-pound 80-year-old woman. Have students reflect on the “tough love” of their own parents.
- Prime students to think about workers’ rights by asking them to brainstorm the types of legal protections they possess today. What are employers allowed—and not allowed—to make them do?
- Students should be primed to understand the conditions of mine workers in 1912 West Virginia. The Blair Mountain Museum site provides video and photographic resources from West Virginia mining communities during Jones’s era to help students visualize elements of the speech.
- Students will also need basic historical background on the progressive era. The West Virginia Archives & History site provides historical context on the Mine Wars and Jones’s role. An excerpt from this essay may be assigned to students as homework in preparation for the lesson.
- Jones regularly draws upon the language of the Constitution. A review of the Preamble and Bill of Rights will help students follow her persuasive appeals.
- Henry Meredith’s Pax, West Virginia site features transcriptions of numerous news articles contemporary with the Paint Creek Mine War.
Suggested Timeline and Objectives
Day 1: Determining Context and Purpose
- [Read paragraphs 1-14]
- Students will explain the double-bind posed to miners in company towns by difficult economic conditions and fear of abusive mine operators.
- Students will weigh Jones’s purpose: whether she intends to appeal to the governor or the miners with her speech.
Day 2: Analyzing Mother Jones’s Personality
- [Read paragraphs 15-41]
- Students will critique Jones’s distinct style, crude language, and sarcasm to assess her persuasiveness to the mine workers.
- Students will examine Jones’s narrative to determine how she places the mineworkers as part of a national movement.
Day 3: Analyzing Jones’s Call to Action
- [Read paragraphs 42-67]
- Students will continue tracing Jones’s narrative, focusing on how Jones depicts herself as a protagonist.
- Students will analyze the persuasiveness of Jones’s personal sacrifice and make predictions about how the miners will respond.
Day 4: Balancing Outrage and Restraint
- [Read paragraphs 68-111]
- Students will continue to assess how Jones constructs herself as a protagonist.
- Students will contrast Jones’s assertive appeals for protest against Jones’s pleas for caution and to “obey the law” to draw inferences about her goals for the protest.
Day 5: The Anti-Climactic Conclusion
- [Read paragraphs 112-160]
- Students will assess Jones’s purpose in quelling the protest, drawing further inferences about her goals for the miners.
Ideas for Post-Reading and Assessment
- English: Miner Reflection Essay. Have students write a diary entry from the perspective of a miner who just arrived home from Mother Jones’s speech. In their responses, students should address 1) how the miner reacted to Jones’s shifts in audience, as well as her sarcasm and insults (RL.11-12.6); 2) in what ways Jones’s narrative agitated the miner to act (RL.11-12.3); and 3) what the miner believes Jones hoped to accomplish through her speech (RI.11-12.6). Throughout, students should be clear about what Jones explicitly said and what the miner inferred (RI.11-12.1).
- History: The Political Aftermath. Following the strike, the labor-friendly Henry D. Hatfield became Governor. He released Mother Jones from prison and visited the coal mines to examine the conditions there. Place students in groups and have them craft a series of legislative proposals that Governor Hatfield might make to improve mining conditions. Evaluate students on how well their proposals capture the challenges facing workers in the Progressive Era. Students can then analyze Hatfield’s Inaugural Address to see how their legislative proposals match up with the Governor’s.