Teach PA History
Life in a Coal Patch
Equipment & Supplies
  • Poster Board and markers for board Glue or tape Scissors Dictionary

Day One

  1. If possible, early in the school day place Bituminous Coal in an area where the students can see it, but do not tell them what it is. To begin the lesson create the following student/teacher dialogue by exploring the following questions:

    "What do you think this is an image of?" Steer the students past the obvious answer of "a rock" to the type of rock: bituminous coal (bye-two-min-us.) The majority of coal in Pennsylvania is this type of coal.

    "What is coal used for?" Answers could include a variety of uses for coal as a fuel. One big use of coal is making electricity, for example. It may also surprise students to learn that coal is used in the manufacture of a variety of products such as: tar, dyes, iron, rocket fuel, explosives, records, plastics, synthetic rubber, bricks, dishes, nylon, insecticide, gas, perfume, paint, photo developer, and even vitamins.

    "Did you use any coal before you came to school today?" A lot of electricity today comes from coal. Explain that coal is a very unusual rock - it burns! Student could have also had breakfast on dishes manufactured with coal or taken vitamins. (Coal tar is used in a lot of synthetic vitamins, particularly B vitamins.)

    "How do we get coal for fuel?" It has to be mined.

    "What do you know about coal mining?" Answers will vary. Try to emphasize that coal is in rock layers usually under the ground and is mined through different techniques depending on where it is located. It is very often dangerous work.

    "When do you think coal mining started in Pennsylvania?" Pennsylvania bituminous coal mining started in small mines in the late 1700s. As a reference point, remind the students that the late 1700s would have been when George Washington was president.

  2. In order to help the students understand today's lesson you will need to take a few moments to give them a general background of bituminous coal mining and the towns which grew up around it. Tell the students:

    In the 1800s people started using bituminous coal to make a form of fuel that was perfect for making steel. In order to make steel the steel plants needed a fuel that would burn for a long time and keep a very consistent heat. By taking bituminous coal and placing it in an outdoor oven called a "beehive oven" and burning it there for 2 to 3 days (called "coking") this fuel could be made. The fuel was called "coke." Show the following images:

    "What does the brick shape of these ovens remind you of?" A beehive!

    "Why do you think the air is so foggy?" Burning coal was very dirty. The coke ovens produced lots of soot, and so did the coal heating and cooking stoves used in the houses. Many of the pictures you will see in your handouts today will be "grainy" or foggy due to this. Just think of breathing it all the time - and of trying to keep clothes and homes clean from it!

  3. Hand out US Coal Regions 1996 Map and US Coal Regions 1996 Legend, one copy for every two students.


    "Where is bituminous coal found?" See regions on the map.

    "Where can you find bituminous coal with low volatility (harder to light up, but keeps burning consistently for a long time)? This is the coal used to make coke." Again use the legend to find these areas.

  4. Explain that the bituminous coal which produced the best burning fuel was found along the Pittsburgh seam in the Connellsville area of Pennsylvania. The need for steel in American was growing incredibly and therefore the need for more and more fuel also grew. In order to get this fuel thousands of workers were needed to mine the coal and also to make it into coke in the beehive ovens. Mines were created all over Western Pennsylvania and places where the mine workers and their families could live were needed. Show Coal Patch Houses - Collier. Towns sprang up where only farms and fields had been. These towns were owned by the mining companies, and they built the houses for the workers. The miners then rented these houses while they worked in the mines.

  5. Tell the students that today they are going to take a look into what it was like to live in a coal patch. You will be dividing them into groups of two or three students. Each group will then get a Student Handout and associated Student Worksheet. Each handout will have three parts:

    • an introduction for the students to help them understand which part of the coal patch they are focusing on;

    • pictures of the coal patch;

    • oral histories (stories) of miners, miner's wives and miner's children telling what their lives were like living in coal patch;

    Remind the students that they are to work to together to review the information in their handout and have one person record their answers on the worksheet.

    Explain that after the groups are finished answering their questions, each group will cut out two pictures from their handout and prepare a statement that summarizes their topic for the rest of the class. These pictures and statements will all be put together on one poster that will give a well-rounded description of life in a coal patch.

    There are six areas we will look at:

    • Company Store

    • Food in the Coal Patch

    • Coal Patch Houses

    • Coal Patch Schools

    • Recreation in the Coal Patch

    • Chores and Daily Work in the Home

    One of these areas, Chores and Daily Life in the Home, is quite large, so it is split into two handouts (Set 1 and Set 2), making for a total of seven handouts.

  6. Divide the class into seven groups. Distribute one handout and corresponding worksheet to each group:

    • Group 1-Company Store
      Student Handout 1-Company Store
      Student Worksheet 1-Company Store

    • Group 2-Food in the Coal Patch
      Student Handout 2-Food in the Coal Patch
      Student Worksheet 2-Food in the Coal Patch

    • Group 3-Coal Patch Houses
      Student Handout 3-Coal Patch Houses
      Student Worksheet 3-Coal Patch Houses

    • Group 4-Coal Patch Schools
      Student Handout 4-Coal Patch Schools
      Student Worksheet 4-Coal Patch Schools

    • Group 5-Recreation in the Coal Patch
      Student Handout 5-Recreation in the Coal Patch
      Student Worksheet 5-Recreation in the Coal Patch

    • Group 6-Chores and Daily Work in the Home Set 1
      Student Handout 6-Chores and Daily Work in the Home Set 1
      Student Worksheet 6- Chores and Daily Work in the Home

    • Group 7-Chores and Daily Work in the Home Set 2
      Student Handout 7-Chores and Daily Work in the Home Set 2
      Student Worksheet 6- Chores and Daily Work in the Home

  7. Remind the students to read the introduction first and then follow the directions on the first sheet.

    Allow 20-25 minutes for the students to answer the questions on their worksheet, create a summary statement and choose their two pictures. If students need more time, this can be finished the next day.

  8. Have a representative of each group come up one group at a time and tape or glue their two pictures on either side of the poster, then write their summary statement between the two pictures. Once that group is done, draw a line under their topic and have the next group come up with their information. Repeat this process until all groups have added their information.

  9. Read through the poster with the class and allow the students from each group to orally add to their summary statements as time allows. Emphasize to the class that this poster gives them a general view of what life was like in a coal patch town. Ask how many of the kids would like to live in a coal patch now that they know more what it was like.

Day Two

  1. If the students did not finish the poster from yesterday allow time to finish.

  2. Explain to the students that yesterday they looked into what a normal day was like in the coal patch, but there were many days that were not normal. Working in the mines was not only a hard job, but also a very dangerous one. Inside the mine many accidents could happen - rock falls could trap or crush miners, poisonous gasses could build up and explode, injuring or killing miners. Other gasses would build up and the miners would not be able to breathe and might not be able to get out of the mine before they suffocated.

    Sometimes miners would protest against the poor wages they were paid by the mining companies, or they might protest dangerous and unsafe working conditions or the number of hours they were required to work. If their protests were not listened to by the company, the miners might decide to go on strike. That means they would refuse to go to work and would try to keep the mine from running at all until the company met their demands. When this happened the companies fought back. They would hire other miners to come in and work the mine - the miners on strike called these new workers "scabs" and would try to get them to not cross the line of striking men. The company hired their own police to fight the striking miners and force them back to work. They evicted families from their homes - since the company owned them - and left them homeless. Strikes were ugly and scary times for the miners and their families.

  3. Tell the students that today each student will pick one story of a real mining incident, and they are to place themselves in that family as a child living in that town. They are to write a short story using the real story as part of their story. It can be the starting point of their short story, somewhere in the middle, or at the very end. They must use the story and also they must incorporate at least 3 of the 6 areas from the poster created the previous day about Life in a Coal Patch. The stories will be evaluated for content, use of the real incident, details of at least three areas of coal patch life, as well as grammar writing skills. The students can start these essays in class, but will probably need to finish it outside of class. Suggest to the students that they take some notes from the poster concerning the areas of daily life that they want to include in their story. Each student will know one area very well and that should be easy to incorporate into their essay.

  4. Pass out to the students Student Handout 8-Miners Trapped in the Mines/Rescues and Student Handout 9-Evictions and Strikes.

  5. Have students read the handouts and select which quote they will incorporate in their story. Then have them organize for their final writing assignment. Have them think about:

    • How are they going to use the real story: as a starting point, middle, or ending to their story?

    • What is their story going to be about?

    • What aspects of daily life are they going to include? What details will they describe?

  6. Students may begin their writing in class and complete the assignment for homework.

  7. As an option for the following day, you can ask several student volunteers to read their work and have their classmates practice active listening skills to identify the aspects of daily life the student incorporated in their story.

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