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Photograph of Jacob Riis
Jacob Riis. Frances Benjamin Johnston

Learning “How the Other Half Lives” with Jacob Riis at the Library of Congress

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Many of us know Jacob Riis for his compelling photographs, but the exhibition Jacob Riis: Revealing How the Other Half Lives underscores that Riis was also a powerful communicator who “devoted his life to writing articles and books, delivering lectures nationwide, and doggedly advocating for social change” (Exhibition Overview). Riis recognized the value of images for catching the attention of his audience and moving them to take action. Use still and moving images to make that world real for your students, provoke questions, and pique their interest in learning more about the Progressive Era.

Mulberry Street, New York City
Mulberry Street, New York City, ca. 1900

Evoke the time and place by inviting your students to immerse themselves in this photograph of Mulberry Street, New York City, taken around 1900, which can be found in the exhibition. Hide and Seek on Mulberry Street with the Library of Congress describes one approach to helping students imagine being in the scene. In brief, students imagine hiding somewhere in the picture. Another student acts as the seeker, following sensory clues given by the student who is hiding. Encourage students to describe what they see, hear, touch, or smell in their hiding places. After all the students have had a chance both to hide and to seek, ask the class what they notice about the image, what they think is happening, and what they wonder. Record answers for later reference. This approach can be used with a wide variety of photographs; for even more photos of Mulberry Street, browse this gallery.

Add another element by introducing a brief film clip from the exhibition, Move On. This film was created shortly after the photograph of Mulberry Street was made, also on New York’s Lower East Side.

  • What do students imagine they would hear, if the film had sound?
  • How does the movement in the film change how they perceive the scene?
  • What new questions do they have?

Move On. Thomas Edison, 1903.

Students might further explore the Riis exhibition online to discover answers to some of the questions. As time allows, encourage them to conduct additional research to learn about immigration, social reform, technology of the time, and other topics of interest.

Let us know in the comments what your students discover and wonder.

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  1. I attended the exhibit with a group of students. It is an outstanding exhibit and we all enjoyed it. The students took away a new understanding of the lives of the underprivileged in that time period and of the importance and impact of the work of Riis.

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