History in the Classroom

Teaching with the photographs of Jacob Riis

Lesson Plans

How the Other Half Lives.

As part of the summer 2010 History in the Classroom summer institute a group of veteran New York City public school (DOE) teachers read and discussed Riis's classic work on late 19th century immigrants How the Other Half Lives. After reading Riis's book and hearing Professor Hasia Diner's historical critique of Riis's iconic immigrant photographs the teachers designed lesson plans to help their students read Riis critically and place him and the immigrant experience into historical context. These lessons are initial plans for teaching this important historical topic in the 2010-2011 academic year. In the spring we plan to update these lessons with reports from the teachers about how they fine tuned their lessons when they taught them and also how the lessons went over with their students. The idea here is to share teaching ideas and learn as well from assessing student reactions to the lessons that result.

At the bottom of this webpage we have included the talk Professor Diner gave to our teachers institute last summer along with transcribed excerpts from the talk that focus directly on Riis.


Prof. Hasia Diner

"Riis has gotten in the last 20 years negative treatment by historians because of his voyeurism, and because of his seeking out the most prurient, and telling the most extreme, stories of depravity. I think if you put him in his context he looks different."

In this video clip, Prof. Hasia Diner talks about using Jacob Riis' photographs in the classroom and comparing them to other primary sources.

For a transcript of Professor Diner's remarks on Riis, please download this PDF.

The full interview is available on the video page.

Other online resources

Books by Jacob Riis online:

Jacob Riis tours New York City's Fourth Ward: A selection from How the Other Half Lives.

This brief video clip from the History Channel's America: The Story of Us features reenactments of Riis taking photographs in New York.

Photographs by Lewis Hine in the Library of Congress' collection.