Interdisciplinary Teaching Ideas

Orphan Train

Base any visual art project on scenes from the novel.
Research the origins of the Claddagh and its role in Celtic art.
Research the art of the Penobscot people.

Research the development of genealogical websites such as the ones used by Molly in the novel to locate Vivian’s blood relations.

Many of the boys who rode the orphan trains were used as free labor by the families who took them in. Research the role indentured servitude played in the development of American industry.

Niamh rides one of the last orphan trains as the Great Depression is just beginning. Why were the trains discontinued during this period?

Classes may discuss Vivian’s approach to merchandise purchasing and display as well as her running of the department store.

Read the following essay, “Orphan Train Myths and Legal Reality” in conjunction with the novel and discuss the success or failure of the trains as a solution to immigration and economic challenges of the time period.

Niamh/Dorothy experiences abuse and neglect in the novel. How was child abuse defined and what penalties, if any, were imposed for child abuse in the mid-1800s in America?  Research development of laws protecting children and discuss how they have changed in the past 150 years.

The orphan train movement is often viewed as the start of formal legislation regarding adoption in the United States. Was the train movement a positive or negative force in this arena? Classes might examine developments in adoption laws in the last century and a half.

Many orphans and abandoned children were transported to save them from a life of crime on the street of New York City. Research and discuss crimes committed by street urchins and the legal punishments common at the time. (Children as young as five were jailed with adult offenders, for example).

Read the following essay, “Orphan Train Myths and Legal Reality” in conjunction with the novel.

Research the one-room schoolhouse (such as the one Dorothy attended) and how it functioned – how did teachers keep order and present material to such a varied group of students? What training would teachers during this time period be likely to have?

Locate fictional and non-fictional accounts of orphan trains and their riders for juvenile and young adult readers.

Research the history of compulsory education and examine how it was enforced (if at all) in cities such as New York during the Great Depression.

Examine and critique the lesson plan used by fourth-grade teachers Linda Vaianella and Laurie Tilmont and their incorporation of technology into a social studies project on the orphan trains. A description of the project and links to further information and resources may be found here.

The novel features the intertwined story of two young women who have lost their families. Discuss the use of the dual narratives and comment on how this structure affects the audience’s understanding of the plot.

Examine the use of symbolism in the novel. Students might wish to focus on such objects as the necklaces worn by both women, Vivian’s attic, Molly’s name, or the trains that carried the children to the midwest.

Several other books have been written about the orphan trains and the children they carried. Choose a non-fictional account of the trains, and compare to the novel Orphan Train. Does the fictional account deviate from the facts of the Orphan Train program?  In what ways might fiction be used to teach history?

Compose a journal from the point of view of any character in the novel other than Vivian or Molly.

For Children’s Literature, encourage students to choose a work of juvenile fiction dealing with the orphan trains, such as Joan Lowery Nixon’s Orphan Train Adventures series, for any of their projects.

Examine the thematic connection between past and present in the novel.

After reading the novel, discussion might center on the use of foreshadowing.  (Vivian mentions in the prologue that her true love died when she was twenty-three).  What other events does this prologue foreshadow and how does the inclusion of the prologue affect the audience as they read?

Compare the documentary The Orphan Trains to the scenes in the novel that depict Vivian’s travel experience. (Note: Documentary will be shown in the Fall semester and admission will be free to all SCCC students).

Compose a review of the 1979 TV film Orphan Train.

Have students conduct some research into portaging, discussed in the novel.  Interview a friend or family member in the manner that Molly did – discuss their background, obstacles they overcame, what they took away from those difficult or challenging times, etc.

After reading the novel, discuss with your class the relevance of the narrative to a college student of any age.  What can be taken away from Vivian’s story?  From Molly’s?

Some foundations classes may require students to conduct a personal artifact project.  What personal artifacts do characters in the novel cling to?  What is the significance of these objects?

After reading, classes may discuss why shared reading (such as our college novel) is required on many college and university campuses nationwide.  See the description of our college novel initiative on the college website.  What is the purpose of the novel to a liberal arts education?

Compose a movie poster or book jacket for Orphan Train.

Illustrate any scene or theme from the novel.

Research the design of posters and handbills announcing the scheduled arrival of the trains in rural areas across the country.

The novel is obviously ripe for examination in a variety of historical topics. You may wish to consider with your classes the wave of immigration in the mid-1800s, the expansion of the Midwest, territories achieving statehood, the start of the Great Depression, etc.

Incorporate information literacy activities such as locating primary sources regarding the orphan trains using library databases.

Review and critique the lesson plan for teaching the concept of social trade-offs in the context of the orphan trains to students in grades 6-8 at

Research the ads and articles placed in newspapers announcing the schedule/arrival of the Orphan Trains.

Some of the children in the story, such as Dutchy, held jobs such as bootblacks before they boarded the trains.  Examine the roles that children played in the dissemination of news in the mid- to late eighteen-hundreds (especially as newsboys).

Discuss the psychological impact of loss and physical and cultural displacement as experienced by Vivian and Molly in the novel.

Examine the ways in which adoption impacts families (including biological and adoptive parents and children).

In addition to the two main women whose story forms the bulk of the novel, secondary characters such as Mr. and Mrs. Byrne or Mr. and Mrs. Grote are ripe for psychological examination.

Niamh and other orphan train riders often have their names changed, and Niamh remarks at one point, “Sometimes I forget what my name is.”  In what ways are names and identity tied together, and what effect can a name change have on a person when made willingly? Unwillingly?

The Children’s Aid Society and the New York Foundling home and hospital were responsible for placing children on Orphan Trains in the hopes of saving not only their lives but their souls, as well. Both organizations still exist.  Examine how their missions have changed or evolved and how their religious views influence the ways in which they function.

Vivian manages to keep her grandmother’s Claddagh cross throughout the story, even when she loses everything else. Discuss with classes why it is so important to her, and examine whether its meaning changes throughout the course of the novel.

When children are placed with families in the novel, the families are told that they are responsible for the religious upbringing and education of the children.  What role does religion play in the plot, and how important is it to individual characters?


As the novel deals with orphan trains, adoption, and the foster care system, it is obviously very useful for a myriad of class discussions and projects in this discipline.  Students can trace the development of social policy and adoption laws from the mid eighteen-hundreds to the present day.

Examine the role of immigration in the growth of cities and the influx of homeless and working children circa 1850-1930.

Characters such as Niamh, Molly, and Dutchy are often viewed suspiciously because of their ethnic, religious, and cultural backgrounds. Examine the role of race and ethnicity in the novel.

Discuss the role of immigration in the United States during the time period that the orphan trains were transporting children from New York and additional Eastern cities to other parts of the country, including the Midwest.