Movements & Protest – A Unit for American History

When I polled students last year about the social studies curriculum of the 2022-2023 school year, a lot of students expressed interest in the “human struggle” that people face around the world. Some students were genuinely interested in other countries and cultures and the struggles faced by those people, others had caught a history bug and wanted to know about every war there ever was, while others were in it for the story of struggle and redemption. I realized that each request came from a deeply social consciousness, a recognition that each person belongs to a giant singular existence while also experiencing completely unique struggles on an individual level (though I’m not sure they would phrase it quite like that).

So how do I bring together the request to study a specific Asian culture and a particular 100-year-old massacre with the request to study the Holocaust, and the request for black women in history, and the fascination with human struggle and the hero’s journey? Easy, we’ll study the Constitution of the United States of America.

We started the social studies unit in September with the Boston Tea Party. September is American Founders’ Month in the state of Florida, and I heard the call from Tallahassee to focus on founding documents and American values loud and clear. And also, the right to protest has become an increasingly common topic of many political debates in the last decade. 

So the students learned about taxes on things like paper and tea, about acts like the quartering act which required colonists to house British soldiers, and about monarchies and dictatorships. Then they learned the phrase “no taxation without representation”, what actions are behind those words, and why the colonists might be upset about some taxes and not others. Until finally, we were text marking the Declaration of Independence and rewriting it to fit our modern language and understanding, one student pointing out that “this is a public breakup letter that puts King George on blast, that’s savage.”

Once students conceptually understood why the Boston Tea Party, and the destruction of property that was inherent in that protest, was a catalyst for the final breakup letter that is the Declaration of Independence, then we could move into the Sons of Liberty and the creation of the US Constitution. Now that we have severed our relationship with one government, it is our responsibility to create a new government that suits the ideas and ideals of this ‘newly created’ land. We tried text marking and paraphrasing the Constitution as well, with a lot more confusion and a little less success, until someone asked “why do we even still use this?”. “You know, that is a great question,” I say as I think quick on my feet to give facts and not personal biases. “We still learn about this in school because we still use the Constitution to create, change, and uphold laws across the entire country.”

Enter the Supreme Court! We talked about the importance of diversity within a small group that makes decisions for everyone and solidified the point by asking only the boys a question about what girls should be allowed to do on their break time and taking a poll. The boys thought they were being fair and reasonable, though the girls did not agree. Then we took a second vote for how the girls should be allowed to spend their time during morning break that included the boys and the girls. Of course, round 2 had a more equitable list of available options for the girls because it included them in the decision making process. When turning this voting exercise back to the Supreme Court focus, students widely felt like it still isn’t diverse enough, even with our first black woman having been sworn in just last year. 

I also put them in small groups to apply the Bill of Rights to modern Supreme Court cases that involved students. They had to use textual evidence from the amendments and the available evidence in the case to support if they agreed or disagreed with the final decision. One student, about 10 minutes into this activity, spoke out and said “Wow, applying the Constitution to modern problems is hard”, and I could relate immediately. “That is exactly why,” I say “you hear debates about constitutional rights and what is considered unconstitutional regularly in the news to this very day!”

By the end of September’s American Founders month, we had only covered 15 years or so of American history. The next focus of the unit was American movements, and now, I tell the kids, you get to choose what sort of movement and topic of protest you would like to study and lead a short lesson for the class. We briefly looked at major movements like the civil rights movement of the 60’s, the decades-long fight for equal rights for women and its individual causes across the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, and the ongoing movement for the climate. These large movements serve as some, but not all, examples for protests the students can focus on in their lessons. I gave a specific example lesson on the anti-war movement and the anti-Vietnam war protests of the 60’s and 70’s, and it was a big hit (since when do children love war stories so much?). After my example, the students could not wait to dig in and do research on their own protests of choice.

Topics included an impressive range, from ‘racist school hair policies’ to ‘public breastfeeding’, from ‘housing rights’ to the current Iranian protests, and almost everything in between – our students (and their families) have great humanitarian mindsets and a love of learning new things.

Here are a few comments from student reflections on the unit:

On the topic of choice:

I chose to learn. I chose to dive deep into learning about this real vivid problem. I chose to learn how so many people are struggling to be able to have a fundamental human right. I chose to learn, and I chose to teach what I learned to others. Even when I thought what I learned was enough, I dove, and I dove deep.” – N.S.

“When I get to choose what I want to learn more about it makes it more interesting to me and I want to learn more about it every time.” – C.C.

“I felt a lot more passionate about it because I have been hearing about it on the news.” –L.W

On the topic of emotional responses to the content:

“It was awakening to hear about these world protests, because a lot of them I didn’t know about. But I think it is very important for us to be taught these things, and told that these are real problems that people have been fighting.” (prefers anonymous)

“I was feeling a lot of different emotions. I felt sad, passionate, motivated, curious, and hopeful.” – L.D

On the connection between the Boston Tea Party, the founding documents, and protests in history: 

“They all are our government, and our country, they are what we stand for and what we protect. Protests are the change that transforms what was into what is, and into the world we want to live in.” N.S.

By the end of the unit, we made connections between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and the patriotic act of protest. Students identified that choice and personal freedom are important values to this country, and they are motivated to take action in order for all of us to be able to achieve life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The Founding Fathers would be proud.