Author: Nicole Pfister
Grade Level: 8
Length of lesson:
2 class periods
Download Activity

Historical Context:

  • Theme: Change and continuity in American democracy: ideas, institutions, events, key figures, and controversies
  • Era: Contemporary America


This activity is part of an integrated Social Studies and Language Arts Unit on Civil Liberties. It takes place before and after reading the book Warriors Don’t Cry by Melba Pattillo Beals. Before reading the book, small groups of students examine photographic documents of the Little Rock Nine in Little Rock, Arkansas,1957. Students are asked to make careful observations, make inferences, ask questions, and make connections. After reading the book, students are asked to re-examine the same photograph and respond to the same questions. They then write a short reflection comparing their “before and after” observations.

Essential Questions

In what ways do prevailing conditions give rise to change?
How can an individual person or a group of people cause change?

Focusing Question for this activity

How do photographs deepen our understanding of history?

Background Information

Before reading this book, students will have some knowledge of Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown v. Board of Education.


  • Primary source activity worksheet (provided in download).
  • Historical Voices (provided in download). Each group may use the whole packet or groups may be assigned specific excerpts, or the packet may be copied, cut up, and individual sources distributed among the groups. These are excerpts of letters, editorials and other documents included in Maudean Neill’s Fiery Crosses in the Mountains.
  • Photograph from the Vermont Historical Society of a July 4th, 1927 KKK rally in Montpelier (provided in two parts in download).


  1. Look at page one of the worksheet and have students whip around and read different questions in the KKK oath of membership and then Article 1 of the Vermont Constitution. Ask for student observations/predictions as to what might happen if the Klan attempted to organize in Vermont.


  1. Ask students to turn the organizer over and have a volunteer read the statement from Governor Douglas, a typical expression of Vermont’s image as a liberal, tolerant state. Discuss what people he means when he says “Main Street.” Point out Vermont is also one of the “whitest” states. Go over the directions with the students.
  2. Assign student groups (I randomly count off, but you might wish to assign groups). Hand out the Historical Voices primary sources packet, either one to each student if you wish the whole class to consider them all, or parts of it to each group. Include the VHS photo in the packet. Remind students to take turns reading aloud before discussing each source.
    1. If necessary, post and review with students key questions to ask about primary sources, moving from the level of basic observation to interpretation/speculation, to synthesis/critical thinking (e.g., What is this? What details do we notice? Can we tell who wrote or made it? (When, where, how?) Who might be the intended audience? What message does it offer? Why was it written or made? What questions does it raise? What other sources might help to answer those questions? How does this fit in with what we already know, or with other sources/interpretations? Provide support for vocabulary as needed.
    2. If preferred, instead of having every student fill out an individual organizer, have the group create one version of it on chart paper.
  3. It may take one or two periods for the groups to work through the sources, depending on how the sources were assigned and the skill level of students. Remind them to discuss a tentative conclusion.
  4. Have groups share their results. One way to do this would be to have them place sticky notes with sources and key quotes on a class chart on chart paper or on the board (if the sources have been divided among groups). Another way would be to ask each group to share and explain different excerpts while the teacher puts them on a class organizer. Before each item is listed, invite other groups to comment on whether they agree or disagree, and why. (Some of the sources are open to different views: for example, what does a letter from a Klan leader in response to a sermon attacking the Klan show about Vermont, as a whole, not just the individuals involved?)
  5. Emphasize that these are just some of many sources historians would look at before reaching a final conclusion, but at this point, we can see the question does not have a simple answer. We can only reach a tentative conclusion, and be ready to change our thinking with more evidence.


Have students turn to a neighbor (think-pair-share) and create a metaphor for the way they see Vermont in 1924. (For an example, share with them the “melting pot” and “salad bowl” metaphors for America in the early 20th century). Then whip around the circle and have the partners share and explain their metaphors. This serves as an informal assessment of their understanding as well as a synthesis of interpretations for the class.


6.3 Analyzing knowledge
6.6 Being an Historian
6.12 Human Rights