Eugenics and the Progressive Era: Living Newspapers

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Gain a more complex understanding of the Progressive Era in the United States
  • Consider what it means to re-present history by using primary documents and then creating dramatic performances
  • Read primary texts with care and creativity



During the period, journalist Walter Weyl wrote a book entitled The New Democracy (1912). The Progressive Era was replete with the "new." From the new immigrant, to the new woman and the new negro, to the new politics, art and growing urban landscape, the United States was experiencing a moment of transformation and modernization. The moment was both exciting--full of opportunity and possibility--and frightening. Weyl writes:

America to-day is in a somber, soul-questioning mood. We are in a period of clamor, of bewilderment, of an almost tremulous unrest. We are hastily revising all our social conceptions. We are hastily testing all our political ideals. We are profoundly disenchanted with the fruits of a century of independence.

Indeed, the Progressive Era is marked by radical transformations catalyzed by immigration (by a "new" population of immigrants), migration (particularly by African Americans), urbanization, industrialization, imperialism, economic dislocation, the growth of popular amusements such as movie palaces, amusement parks, and dance halls, and labor unrest, just to name a few things. The following lesson, drawing on readings from Chapter 4 of our resource book, Race and Membership in American History:The Eugenics Movement, seeks to bring some of these threads to the fore to help students to gain a more nuance perspective on this important—perhaps defining—moment in US history. This activity focuses on careful reading of primary documents from our new book and then group presentations of particular readings in the style of a living newspaper. An innovation of the Federal Theater Project, living newspapers were dramatic productions that drew on journalistic and documentary sources to address contemporary issues. Living newspapers brought critical issues—such as poverty and educational inequality—to the public in creative ways.


Teaching Strategies


  1. Chapter 4 opens with a quote by Walter Lippmann, a Progressive Era journalist who co-founded the New Republic magazine. Lippmann writes:

    "We are all of us immigrants in the industrial world, and we have no authority to lean upon. We are an uprooted people, newly arrived and nouveau riche."

    Have students journal on this quote and what they think Lippmann is getting at. What thoughts, feelings, ideas, images does this quote generate?

    Have students Think, Pair, Share

  2. Explain that students are going to create living newspapers based on issues and events of the Progressive Era.

    Students are not acting. Rather, they are dramatically representing these historical events or issues--each based on primary documents. Therefore, students should stay true to the text--that does not mean that they have to read the text in its entirety. The goal is for students to communicate that event or issue clearly and to draw attention to it. Strategies for doing this might include repetition of words and/or phrases, breaking the text into a dialogue so different parts can be emphasized or de-emphasized with different voices, etc.

    You might choose a short text and do this as a class. By taking something such as Lippmann's quote above, you might ask students to work in pairs on how they might dramatize this statement.

  3. Create groups of 4 or 5. Taking the readings from Chapter 4, assign a reading to each group of students. There are readings, for example, on education, the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, US imperialism, immigration, and so on. Each group is responsible for "mastering" that reading.

    Readings to use from Race and Membership in American History: The Eugenics Movement: Chapter 4: American Life in an Age of "Progress"

    • Reading 1, "Marvels of a Marvelous Age"
    • Reading 2, "The End of the Frontier"
    • Reading 3, "A Celebration of Progress"
    • Reading 4, "'Progress,' Civilization and 'Color-Line Murder'"
    • Reading 5, "Doors to Opportunity"
    • Reading 6, "Taking Up the White Man's Burden"
    • Reading 7, "Disparities"
    • Reading 8, "'Progress' and Poverty"
    • Reading 9, "Rumors and Fears"
    • Reading 10, "The Kind of World We Lived In"

    [Please review each reading before assigning them as you might find some readings to be more sensitive than others and, therefore, trickier to dramatize. For example, Reading 4 looks at lynching and the Springfield, Illinois riot of 1908. With care, students could create a living newspaper about this history. This kind of issue would be a crucial one to be brought to civic spaces for discussion, but you might want to choose a less sensitive reading the first time that you do this or if you have other concerns.]

  4. If you have time, ask students to do primary research on the topic of their reading. They should each find two sources on the topic. Because the Progressive Era witnessed an explosion of print media, students should find newspapers (local and national), magazines, and professional journals that address many of their topics.

    If you don't have time for research, the living newspaper could be created from the readings from Chapter 4.

  5. Students should read their piece individually and then read it together as a group. As they read (individually and as a group), they should underline key words and phrases. They should also consider: what is the focus of this piece? what issues are important and should be emphasized? As a group they should discuss these issues and then transition to how they can bring these issues alive in their living newspaper. Keep in mind that the presentations should have a time limit (for example, 5 minutes).

  6. Students should share with you their plans for their living newspaper.

  7. You could choose to do a couple of presentations per day and focus on that issue in discussion, or you could do all of the presentations back to back and get a sense of the many issues that informed this moment at once.

  8. Debrief the living newspapers activity. What was the experience creating one? What was the experience as a learner viewing a presentation?


The following activities could be used as assessments or follow-up activities.

  • Based on the presentations, ask students to create an identity chart of the Progressive Era. Ask each student to reflect on their identity chart, what ideas and themes are emphasized? Why did they make these choices? Pair and share. In sharing identity charts, ask students to create a three column journal: what ideas/themes are the same as their partner's? which are different? after discussing their charts, what might they add or delete and why?
  • If your students were writing a real newspaper for the Progressive Era, what headlines would they create? for the era overall (if that is possible)? what issues would make the front page? why?
  • Debrief the identity charts and newspaper activity above by highlighting your ideas and your students' ideas regarding the dominant themes and issues of the period.

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