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Reformers versus Residents in Five Points: A Role Play

In this activity students learn about the religious, class, and ethnic tensions between reformers and residents in the working-class Irish immigrant neighborhood of Five Points. Students research roles of a Protestant reformer and two Irish women debating whether the reformer should send Irish children to live with upper-class parents.  This activity accompanies the film Five Points: New York's Irish Working Class in the 1850s, but parts of it can be completed without the film.


  • Students will be able to describe different contemporary perspectives, reformer and resident, on life in Five Points during the 1850s.

  • Students will choose evidence from different primary and secondary sources to support their interpretation of reformer and resident roles.  

This activity supports the following Common Core Literacy Standards in History/Social Studies:

  • RHSS.6-8.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources.


Note: Students will be working in groups to assemble the facts to develop their characters for the role play. The teacher may choose to put students in their character groups before or after the film. 

Step 1: Tell students that they will be writing and performing a script of a scene between reformers and residents in the Five Points neighborhood. To gather evidence to build their characters, they will first watch a film, then read some primary and secondary documents. Divide students into three groups and assign each group an identity: Reverend Pease, Catherine, or Mary Mulvahill. Distribute the worksheet "Reformers versus Residents in Five Points" and go over the scene and cast of characters. 

Step 2: View Chapter 1 (Rev. Louis Pease: Reforming the Five Points), Chapter 2 (Mary Mulvahill: Surviving in a New Land), and Chapter 5 (Matthew Mulvahill: Boyhood in the Streets) of the Five Points DVD.  As students watch, they should think about the events described from the perspective of their character in the role play.  

Step 3: Allow students to gather in their groups to read through the various primary and secondary sources. Students should read the documents and use the Character Research Sheet to develop their character's talking points for the scene.  

Step 4: Now make groups of three, with one student from each character group, to work together to create a script of the encounter between Reverend Pease, Catherine, and Mary Mulvahill. The scene should begin with Rev. Pease's arrival at Mary Mulvahill's house, where the meeting will occur. Each script should incorporate the characters' talking points and address the "Questions to Consider" on the worksheet.  

Step 5: Students perform scenes. (Optional: Pass out the Scene Assessment Rubric to all students. As students perform, the other students should use the rubric to assess how well each script uses evidence. Use student evaluations for follow-up discussion.)

Step 6: Lead students in a discussion of the different perspectives of Catherine, Mary Mulvahill, and Reverend Pease:

  • How did they see the issues surrounding child adoption (class, religion, family, etc.) differently, and why?

  • How did different characters interpret the historical evidence?  

  • Were the arguments presented in the scripts grounded in the historical evidence and context provided?  

Historical Context

During the 1840s and 1850s, there were no state or federal agencies available to help people with all the problems created by slums; religious groups generally took up that role. Protestant reformers such as Reverend Pease were horrified by the growth of the city's first major slum, Five Points, and saw it as their responsibility to improve poor people's lives. The upper and middle classes, most of whom were native-born Protestants, prided themselves on being different from the poor, and were very critical of Irish Catholics, whose faith was seen as proof of their backward ways. These reformers believed that poverty was caused by a person's immorality and lack of self-control and wanted to save immigrant children from poverty and abusive parents.

Source | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, 2009.
Creator | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning
Rights | Copyright American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Item Type | Teaching Activity
Cite This document | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, “Reformers versus Residents in Five Points: A Role Play,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed September 29, 2023,

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