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

Click here for the VOD unit corresponding to this lesson plan.

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.

Relevant Common Core State Standards for English/Language Arts

  • ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.3Analyze the impact of the author’s choices regarding how to develop and relate elements of a story or drama (e.g., where a story is set, how action is ordered, how characters are introduced and developed).
    • Because the mine workers in the audience must risk a lot to strike and/or organize against their employers, Jones crafts a narrative designed to stir their emotions by recounting their unfair treatment.
  • ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.6Analyze a case in which grasping a point of view requires distinguishing what is directly stated in a text from what is really meant (e.g., satire, sarcasm, irony, or understatement).
    • Throughout the speech, Jones throws insults at the miners—but as an endearing maternal figure, the miners react positively. She also makes heavy use of sarcasm and other techniques to rile up workers.
  • ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.1Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.
    • Jones walks a fine line between agitating the miners and curbing impulses toward violence. Students will separate Jones’s explicit account of events from inferences about how she expects miners to act.
  • ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.6Determine an author’s point of view or purpose in a text in which the rhetoric is particularly effective, analyzing how style and content contribute to the power, persuasiveness or beauty of the text.
    • Students will track with Jones to determine her “real” perspective and audience, as she shifts from addressing the Governor to the miners.
    • Jones also possesses a unique “grandmotherly” rhetorical style that strengthens her appeal among the workers.

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.

Important Vocabulary/Figures

  • Agitator. Describes Mother Jones’s style of labor protest: traveling from town-to-town to encourage workers to organize through raucous speech.
  • Standard Oil Company; Andrew Carnegie [paragraphs 87-88]. Jones’s reference to these figures provides an entry point for setting the Mine Wars alongside the other Progressive Era fights against “Robber Baron” capitalists.
  • Theodore Roosevelt [paragraph 112-113]. Jones communicates unhappiness with Roosevelt’s reform efforts, underscoring the difficulty of leading social movements.

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.

Key During Reading Passages and Discussion Questions

  • Days 1 and 2. Make sure students recognize not only the hazards and horrible conditions that face the miners, but also why they might be reluctant to act. Should they act out against the mine operators, they risk being killed by the guards. The rhetorical challenge Jones confronts is encouraging the workers to act out and continue striking against their employers despite this risk.
  • A note on read-aloud. If a student can read aloud in a particularly feisty “grandmother” voice, this may be a fun way to approach sections of the speech. Have students who are not reading aloud track with the text by reading the audience reactions.
  • Paragraphs 5-7 then 9-14. In this section, Jones turns quickly from talking to the Governor (who is not present) to sarcastically declaring that the Governor is indebted to the mine owners and cannot meet the miner’s demands. Students should recognize the abrupt shift in audience and tone to infer Jones’s motives.
  • Paragraph 24. Jones’s narrative involves painting the mine operators as a villain—in this passage, as “demon[s]” that drove out the organization of mine operators in happier times.
  • Paragraphs 44-54. Direct students to notice the clear us versus them distinction Jones creates through her narrative. On one side, the religious leaders, the store managers, the guards, and the prosecuting attorneys are all in cahoots with the operators. On the other side, Jones constructs herself as benevolent leader who, as Governor or God, would drive out the guards.
  • Paragraphs 58-60. Jones discusses her role in organizing in the broader movement. Ask students:
    • How does Jones’s description of child labor serve to stoke outrage in the mine workers? [Also paragraphs 72-74]
    • Why do miners seem to react positively to Jones’s insults here? How does Jones construct herself as a protagonist?
  • Paragraphs 75-81. Jones urges the miners to be cautious not to be violent or destructive, lest they affirm opponents’ efforts to misrepresent them. Asks students to identity how miners might react to the mixed messages of being told to “buckle on your armor” while being admonished “that violence [is] not the idea.”
  • Paragraph 108. Students should analyze the poem and how its imagery contributed to Jones’s overall message.
  • Paragraphs 152-157. Have students evaluate the miners’ reluctance to disperse in light of these mixed messages.

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.