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Grades 3-5 Print E-mail
Lesson Ideas:


Beginning Your Study

  • Transportation Center 
    MetroCardSet up a small display in your classroom about public transportation.  Invite students to contribute items such as maps, commuter train schedules, photographs, postcards, MetroCards, advertisements, and books.  Also establish a word wall, posting vocabulary words related to your study. Students can add to the collection of objects and words, which can be referred to as the study progresses. 

  • Share and Compare
    BusAsk students to bring in toys or magazine pictures of various modes of transportation.  Use the toys and pictures for sorting and classifying activities: 
    • compare and contrast the similarities and differences in the vehicles
    • sort by distinguishing features such as shape, color, and sound
    • sort into categories of land, air, and water
    • sort modes of public transportation from those that are not public transportation
    • pair various means of transportation and have students tell which they think is faster or which would hold more passengers
    • place toy vehicles or pictures in a bag and have students take turns selecting one, and while keeping it hidden from the class, give clues for others to try and guess the vehicle

  • Bus DrawingOh the Places We’d Go…
    Invite children to name places they would like to visit, listing responses on the board.  Ask students how they would get to some of these locations, encouraging them to name alternate means of transportation for each.

  • Transportation Tally
    Create a chart for students to use to keep track of all the different types of transportation they see in one week.  Compile the information and use it for graphing, classifying, and sorting activities.

  • The ABCs of TravelABCs of Travel
    Invite students to create an alphabet list of various modes of transport.  For example, A = airplane, B = bus, C = car, D = donkey, E = elevator, etc.  Add to the list as your study progresses, seeing how many words students can generate for each letter.

Before Visiting the Museum

  • Map It: Using Primary Sources
    Divide students into small groups and provide each group with a current subway map.  Help students get acquainted with the map by having them locate the five boroughs, rivers, and major landmarks, as
    Map well as making sure they understand the information provided in the map’s key.  Then use the map for various activities:

    • Locate the subway station closest to your school.  Identify the colors and names of the train lines that stop at this station.
    • Explore various lines.  Have students use their fingers to follow the length of particular lines.  In what boroughs do the lines start and finish?  Can students find a train line that travels in three different boroughs?  Which line do they think is the longest?  Which looks the shortest?
    • Explore various stops.  Help students identify express and local routes/stations.  Identify stations where passengers can transfer from one line to another. 
    • What subway line could you take to get from your school to the Transit Museum?  Ask students to follow the route with their fingers.  Where will you get on?  Where will you get off?  How many stops will the train make along the way?  Will you have to transfer? 
    • Bonus: Give students other destinations (such as Times Square, Coney Island, Chinatown, Yankee Stadium, Shea Stadium) and ask them to describe the route they could take to reach each of them from your school.  Did each group mark the same route, or is there more than one way to get from your school to the destination?
    • Extension: Students might also enjoy studying and discussing other transit maps, such as bus maps or commuter train maps.

  • Our Journeys
    Sights of TransitAsk students to keep a journal of their thoughts and experiences riding public transportation.  Have them record observations of their travels: similarities and differences between older and newer train cars and trains that run on different lines (such as the F train compared to the 2 train), a list of things they see from the bus window, and signs and advertisements, for example.  Share and discuss the thoughts and observations recorded on their journeys.

  • Their Journeys
    Their Journeys
    Invite students to interview parents or grandparents about their memories of travel on public transportation when they were children.  How do their parents’ or grandparents’ remembrances compare to the students’ own experiences?  As a class, research statistics on public transportation ridership, automobile use, bicycle use, and the use of other forms of transportation in New York City, such as taxis and ferries – for both today and when students’ parents or grandparents were children (such as twenty-five or fifty years ago).  Compare and discuss the findings. 

  • Traveling Back In Time: Using Primary Sources
    Horsecar 1866
    What would traveling in a horse-drawn mode of transportation have been like?  Show students photographs of horse-drawn vehicles on the streets of New York City.  Ask students to step back in time and imagine that they travel regularly in omnibuses or horsecars.  Have them write and share descriptions of their journeys.  Ask them to think about where they might go, how long the trip might take, and what experiences they might have along the way. 

  • Picture the Past: Using Primary Sources
    Crowded NYC StreetsShow students photographs of the crowded streets of Lower Manhattan in the late 1800s. What problems do they see?  What do they notice about transportation and traffic conditions?  What risks and challenges do travelers and pedestrians face?  How could these problems be solved?  Again, ask students to imagine that they are living in the past.  Have them write letters or proposals to the mayor, stating reasons why New York City needs to alleviate street congestion by creating an underground rapid transportation system.

  • Many Ideas
    Steel, Stone and BackboneIn an attempt to ease Lower Manhattan’s street congestion in the late 1860s, many inventors proposed ideas for various forms of transit.  We now know that the subway was the best solution, but it is interesting to consider other possibilities that were proposed at the time.  Have small groups of students research and present information on the transportation ideas or inventions of Alfred Beach, Alfred Speer, Dr. Rufus Gilbert, and Charles Harvey.  Ask students to explain the inventor’s proposal or creation, how the invention [would have] operated, its practicality, and whether they consider it to be a success.

  • MetroMath
    When the subway opened in 1904, a ride cost a nickel.  Today fare for subways and buses is $2.75.  Create a chart with two columns: one labeled “early 1900s” and the other labeled “today.”  Create several rows and label them with a variety of categories, such as subway fare, movie ticket, slice of pizza, and candy bar.  Then have students research the cost of the items – both in the early 1900s and today – to complete the chart.  Use the findings to compare the costs of items then and today.  What has increased the most/least?  How much has the cost of each item increased?  Students can also research the average cost of living and salaries earned for several jobs – both then and today.  Record these figures in a second chart.  Using the information in the charts, have students make graphs to represent and discuss comparisons.   

  • Public Transportation in New York City
    Public Transportation in New York City
    Divide students into small groups and give each group a photograph showing a mode of transportation in New York City’s transit history (omnibus, elevated train, trolley, commuter train, etc.).  Have each group research and present information on the mode of transportation and the time period during which it was used.  Groups should consider:

    • how, when, and where their particular mode of transportation operated
    • changes (if any) to the actual vehicles over time
    • number of passengers served by the mode of transport
    • fare
    • how the mode of transport affected the physical nature of New York City
    Groups should also incorporate aspects from the time period during which the mode of transport was used, such as the population of New York City, political happenings, as well as any significant events of the time.  Information can be presented on posters, which can be added to your classroom display on public transportation, or students can create digital presentations to share with the rest of the class. 
  • What’s Going On Down There?
    Steel, Stone and BackboneThere’s a lot going on underneath the streets of New York City.  Begin by reading Under New York, a good introduction to this topic.  Then help students further research information on what is underground, considering both natural geography (rocks, sand, water) and “man-made” additions (pipes, wires, cables).  Discuss the impact these things had on the various methods of building the subway system.  What challenges did engineers and workers face?  How did they solve these problems? 

  • Lay of the LandMap
    Find a profile or cross-section map showing the elevation of Manhattan (one can be found in A Subway for New York).  What do students notice about the lay of the land?  To keep the subway level and safe, engineers had to plan for subway construction through various terrain.  Core sampling was used to help engineers determine what kinds of tools and explosives would be needed in certain areas.  Give students an opportunity to explore the process of core sampling.  Fill a plastic box with various layers of earth (clay, gravel, coarse sand, and soil – you may want to vary the depth of the layers or leave some layers out in sections).  Give students clear, plastic tubes (plexi tubes) to take core samples.  Discuss what can be learned from the samples and how this information was useful to engineers mapping out subway routes.

  • On the Job
     Transit CareersIf possible, invite an MTA employee (such as a bus driver or train operator) to come speak to your students.  Have students prepare questions for the guest speaker in advance, focusing on gathering information particular to your study.  Throughout your study, your students may also enjoy hearing tales from Transit Talk: New York’s Bus and Subway Workers Tell Their Stories.  Hearing these stories may inspire your students to write their own autobiographical transit tales, recollecting a memorable trip on a bus or train.  Ask them to illustrate their stories and then put them all together to create your own version of a “transit talk” class book. Explore Day in the Life of a Bus on our website.

  • Mosaic Makers
    MosaicsOrnamentation has always been a part of subway station construction. Show students images of mosaic and plaque work from various stations, or if possible, arrange a visit to a subway station in your neighborhood to see the artwork in person.  Ask students why they think subway stations have ceramic ornamentation.  How might the artwork be helpful, in addition to being pretty and colorful?  Provide students with small squares of paper to use in making their own mosaics.  What pictures or words will their artwork convey? See our Online Gallery Talk entitled "Subway Style" for an in-depth look at subway mosaics with museum experts and curators.

  • I Spy
    Detail of Subway Station - Weep HoleIf you travel by subway to reach the museum, ask students to notice features of the subway station(s) and the train car(s) on the way:   station architecture and decorations, such as mosaics and plaques; turnstiles; train seats;  lights; and signs and advertisements. 
    Students will be comparing what they notice about today’s stations and subway trains with the vintage trains and objects they see in the museum.

After Your Visit to the Museum

  • Our Visit
    Horsecar 1866Ask students to choose a vehicle they saw at the museum that they found interesting.  Have them draw a picture of it and write a description telling what they know about the vehicle and what they think it might have been like to travel in the vehicle.

  • Intersecting Ideas
    Create a Venn diagram to compare and contrast two modes of transportation that students learned about while visiting the museum, such as cable cars and trolleys or elevated trains and subways.  Or use a Venn diagram to compare designs of early and modern subway trains or buses.  Discuss the similarities and differences.

  • Energy and the Environment
    All forms of transportation need a source of energy and they all produce waste products.  Create a chart that lists various types of transportation (omnibus, horsecar, cable car, trolley, elevated train, bus, subway), the form of energy each uses and the waste produced.  What do students think is the environmental impact of each?

  • Then and Now: Using Primary Sources
    Elevated Train
    Look at photographs of neighborhoods before the elevated train/subway reached the neighborhoods, and then look at photographs of the same neighborhoods today.  How are they similar/different?  Discuss changes that have been made over time.  Why do students think these changes have occurred?

  • Enjoying the View
    Ask students to imagine the view when traveling by elevated train through New York City at the turn of the 20th century.  Have them draw sketches of what they might have seen from the train window.

  • Is it Fare?
    Discuss the various methods of fare collection that have been used over the years by passengers paying for public transportation: tickets, coins, tokens, and MetroCards.  What were the advantages and disadvantages of each?  Why have methods of fare collection changed over time?  You might also want to talk about “slugs” – objects the same shape and size as subway tokens – used by passengers to cheat the system and get a free ride.  

  • More Mapping Fun: Using Primary Sources
    Compare today’s subway map with an earlier subway map.  How are the maps similar?  How are they different?  How has the New York City subway map changed over the years?  Why might these changes have occurred?  As a challenge, ask students to identify stations that were part of the system in the past but that are no longer in use today.  Why might these stations have closed?

  • Transit Trips
    Boarding a Bus
    Have students design a poster to advertise a day get-away using the subway, buses or commuter trains as the modes of transport.  Students might choose destinations such as Coney Island, Yankee Stadium, Shea Stadium, the New York Botanical Garden, or Orchard Beach.  Don’t forget to include travel directions!

  • Stand Clear of the Closing Doors
    Help students compile a list of rules for safe travel on subways and buses.  What warning signs and safety announcements have they seen and heard on public transportation?   Have them design their own signs and posters for safe travel.

  • From the Drawing Board
    Train Entering StationAsk students to imagine that the MTA has hired them to design a subway car for use in the future.  Have them think about the changes they observed in the design of subway cars they saw at the Museum as well as consider:

    • who uses the subway
    • how subway design meets the needs of passenger comfort and safety
    • how the design would be durable and low maintenance
    • how the design would discourage vandalism

    Encourage students to create sketches accompanied by written descriptions.  Share and discuss the designs.

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