June 22, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Work and Wages: Inquiry Across the Curriculum | On Common Core

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Stories about labor and the economy continue to dominate headline news. Statistics reflect the growing income gap as debates rage about raising the minimum wage, and tales about the underemployed working multiple jobs in order to meet their families’ basic needs are legion. What work environments will today’s teenagers enter upon graduation from high school or college? In what ways does a “rising tide lift all boats”? What is the real minimum wage required to bring working families out of poverty? How much is too much when it comes to the ratio of a CEO’s salary to that of an average worker? These are all important questions for young people to explore in the context of high school social studies.

The new College, Career, and Civic Life C-3 Framework for Social Studies State Standards provide teachers with a process for examining issues such as work and wages from a variety of perspectives. While the Framework was not written to replace current state standards, they are a useful starting point for a national conversation about what should comprise the K-12 social studies curriculum continuum, and states are encouraged to incorporate elements of it into their own social studies standards. The Framework consciously adopted language from the Common Core English Language Arts State Standards to further reinforce the integration of subjects and demonstrate that literacy is a tool for learning.

In this month’s column, we use the process suggested by the C-3 Framework to brainstorm a unit on  employment in America. The Framework suggests that teachers start with “compelling questions” that can drive student thinking through meaningful inquiry. Additional “supporting questions” will allow students an opportunity to explore the topic though the lens of civics, economics, geography, and history. As students immerse themselves in inquiry, they’ll encounter a variety of texts and evaluate each on individual merit, be able to consider different perspectives, and compare and contrast the information they mine from a number of resources. Ultimately, they’ll create their own texts to demonstrate their thinking and to articulate how they use facts and theories to convey experiences, and to inform and persuade their audience. Reading, viewing, and listening to a range of texts will also reinforce the understanding that literacy expectations codified in the Common Core cannot be met in English class alone.

Note: In our previous columns we have drawn from the world of children’s and young adult books. But for the purposes of this particular unit, the age of the students, and the focal point of this particular topic, we found the majority of books were written for adults.

Compelling Question:
“What are the rewards of work?”

Supporting Questions:

  • Why have income levels changed and/or stayed the same over the past 50 years in America?
  • Who benefits from the minimum wage?
  • How does the U.S. minimum wage compare internationally?
  • How does work shape your identity?
  • How does unemployment or underemployment impact one’s identity?

Grade Span: High School, Grades 11-12

Disciplinary Lens: Social Studies, using the lens of Civics, Economics, and History


C-3 Framework:

D2.Civ.14.9-12. Analyze historical, contemporary, and emerging means of changing societies, promoting the common good, and protecting rights.

D2.Eco.15.9-12. Explain how current globalization trends and policies affect economic growth, labor markets, rights of citizens, the environment, and resource and income distribution in different nations.

D2.His.5.9-12. Analyze how historical contexts shaped and continue to shape people’s perspectives.

D3.1.9-12. Gather relevant information from multiple sources representing a wide range of views while using the origin, authority, structure, context, and corroborative value of the sources to guide the selection.

D4.3.9-12. Present adaptations of arguments and explanations that feature evocative ideas and perspectives on issues and topics to reach a range of audiences and venues outside the classroom using print and oral technologies (e.g., posters, essays, letters, debates, speeches, reports, and maps) and digital technologies (e.g., Internet, social media, and digital documentary).


Common Core Grades 6-12 Literacy in History/Social Studies:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.6 Evaluate authors’ differing points of view on the same historical event or issue by assessing the authors’ claims, reasoning, and evidence.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.8 Evaluate an author’s premises, claims, and evidence by corroborating or challenging them with other information.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.9 Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources.


Berlatsky, N., ed. (2012).  The minimum wage. [Opposing Viewpoints]. Farmington Hills, MI: Greenhaven Press.

Ehrenriech, B. (2000). Nickel and dimed: On (not) getting by in America. New York: Metropolitan Books.

Terkel, S. (1974). Working: People talk about what they do all day and how they feel about what they do. New York: New Press.

Packer, G. (2013). The unwinding: An inner history of the new America. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux.

Pekar, H., adapt. (2009). Studs Terkel’s Working: A graphic adaptation. ed. by Paul Buhle. New York: New Press.

Digital Resources:

United States Department of Labor

United State Department of Labor: Books that Shaped Work in America

The New York Times: Minimum Wage

NPR Graphic on the Minimum Wage

List of Working-Class and Labor Museums from the Center for Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University, Youngstown, Ohio

Teaching Ideas:

  • Before reading any texts, have students define “work.” What does it mean to work for pay? Should income and wages be tied to how difficult a job is, how critical the work is to society, or how much money the work generates? What should be the base salary for full-time employment in the United States? Ask students to write down their understanding of the minimum wage and what it means for American workers.
  • Have students brainstorm about and list the largest public and private employers in their area. Are there positive or negative associations that accompany working for any of these employers? Why or why not? How are these employers connected to the identity of students’ town or city and its history? How have the businesses grown and/or diminished over the years?
  • Divide students into three groups, each one focusing on a different decade: 1970s, 1990s, 2010s. Within each group, a core nonfiction text from that time period will be examined: Stud Terkel’s Working explores the notion of work and identity in the 1970s (a graphic version is also available); Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed in America examines the lives of the working poor in the 1990s; and George Packer’s National Book Award-winning The Unwinding details contemporary dilemma’s about work, pay, and identity. Teachers may want to allow students to choose the time period they are interested in, or differentiate according to reading abilities. Each book is easily chunked, so strands of each text or particular chapters can be read and shared within small groups. While they work through their individual titles, provide time for students to explore their ideas and questions with one another in mixed-book groups. What commonalities do they see across the decades? What differences?
  • While students are reading, or after they have completed their assignment, ask them conduct individual or small-group research on work, wages, and the economy in the 1970s, 1990s, and 2010s. The school librarian can target key subscription databases and government websites to locate reports, research articles, and periodicals. Schedule presentations for groups or individuals so that the information is distilled and shared and the key similarities and differences of the three decades can be discussed.
  • Prepare students to interview an adult they know about his or her job and use the interview as a way to extract themes that span titles. Students can brainstorm questions collectively, and then fine tune them in small groups based on the occupations/fields that they think they may want to explore. Interview questions can focus on job satisfaction, changes in the field, demands of the job, income growth and wage stagnation, the level of education and prior work required to do the job, personal fulfillment, worries about the future of the job, etc. (Discuss with students about appropriate and inappropriate questions regarding income.) Drawing on the three core books as mentor texts, ask students to write about the interviews or create multimodal presentations using video and audio (with permission from those they interviewed). Compiling class publications on the American worker is a great way to share with the larger community. The school and/or public library may be willing to host the digital publications on their websites.
  • While students are reading and discussing in small groups, ask them to research the history of the minimum wage in the United States and around the world. How far does the federal minimum wage stretch in their area? Does their state have a different minimum wage? What are the benefits to raising the minimum wage, for individuals, business owners, and the community at large? What are the drawbacks? The New York Times page on the minimum wage may be a useful starting point for students to locating texts.
  • After students have completed reading their group texts, assign them independent reading. The US Department of Labor has created a list of “Books That Shaped Work in America.”  Students can select a title based on the personal recommendation(s) of the individuals that have added to the list. As they read these books, ask them to draw connections between the themes at work in their selections and the core texts.

The world of work and wages raises compelling issues for all of us. By using the C3 Framework, Common Core Standards, and nonfiction resources, we can introduce students to these issues in challenging, yet manageable ways. Focusing on just one “compelling question” allows high school students to deeply explore economics, public policy, local industry, and the myriad ways in which our identities are shaped by the work that we do. When using inquiry and integration to guide curriculum planning, we can discover exciting opportunities for teaching social studies.

Next month in this column, we will explore the role of inquiry and integration in primary grade math.

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