S. C. Lee Junior High eighth grade science students worked as engineers and historical social commentators as they built tenement housing which was prevalent in New York City’s lower east side during the 19th century.
Tenements were typically buildings that were once single-family dwellings that were converted into multiple living spaces to accommodate the growing population due to immigration in the area. Because tenements were the conversion of single-family spaces into multifamily spaces, they were cramped, poorly lit, and lacked proper ventilation.
The tenement housing project was part of a four-day unit on immigration throughout the eighth grade, said teacher Justine Henderson.
“Studying and building the tenement housing allowed students to gain a better understanding of the effects of such a large boom in population over a short period of time. Students were able to discuss, in great detail, the living conditions many immigrants faced, and problems associated with them,” Henderson said.
Data determined an area of need in the subject of reading for eighth graders with nonfiction texts, teacher Lori Gray said.
“I approached my fellow teacher, Patrick McDougal, one of the school’s history teachers, to see if he could help me find a topic that would relate to an upcoming social studies standard. He pointed me toward immigration,” Gray said. “I met with the science teachers on our grade level for ideas. They provided me with a lot of valuable insight on how to design this aspect of the unit, and the rubric.”
Gray was able to combine elements of history, reading, and science all into one lesson with the cooperation of her colleagues.
Student Laikyn Cornet was surprised by the living conditions the immigrants lived in.
“It wasn’t a proper environment because it didn’t have running water, and so many children were dying of diseases,” Cornet said.
“The whole floor of a tenement house is one fourth the size of this classroom, and everyone would be living together,” student Dakota Stevens said. “And, they had only one toilet to share.”
Students were given the names of immigrants coming to America, and followed their lives as they settled into their new homeland.
“Immigrants learned the American Dream was all fake. A lot of people didn’t have much with them and money affected life in the new world,” said student Maela Gonzales who followed the life of an immigrant named Hector. “He was able to open a restaurant. But, he had a brother already in America who was a waiter at a hotel. Hector was able to become head chef at the same hotel restaurant. Unfortunately, not everyone was so lucky.”