Power to the People: Grassroots Struggles for Social Justice in the U.S.

Despite being founded on the lofty Enlightenment principles of natural rights, individual freedoms, and equality, our country made sure to exclude as many groups as possible from the material manefestation of these ideals. African Americans, women, Native Americans, and the poor were examples of such groups. Consequently, collective struggle was necessary in order to force necessary concessions from the exclusionary grip of elite power. As Frederick Douglas famously said, "Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will." No one learned this more directly or memorably than African Americans and women.

Using student-centered Performance Based Assessment Tasks, students explore one of the many social justice movements in which African Americans and women demanded a share of power in the U.S. By the end of the year, they will have written a comprehensive research paper describing the movement's effectiveness and impact on American society.

The Fall semester involves a series of in-depth mini-projects on: class upheavals in the wake of the American Revolution (for example, Shay's Rebellion, Whiskey Rebellion); the Reform movements of the 1830s-50s (Temperance, Education Reform, Abolitionism); the Women's Suffrage Movement (1848-1920); and the Civil Rights Movement (1950s-70s).

Spring semester consists of research and writing of the research paper. Students learn the many skills required for research, clear and persuasive writing, and oral presentations.

Eyes on the Prize Civil Rights Reader (Ed. Clayborne Carson)
My Sould Lokos Back in Wonder (By Juan Williams)
Oh, Freedom! by Casey King and Linda B> Osborne
Freedom Walkers by Russell Freedman
To Be a Slave, ed. Julius Lester
Uncle Tom's Cabin, By. Harriet B. Stowe
The Civil War, Moments in History, by Shirley Jordan
Women's Right to Vote, by Elaine Landau
The Underground Railroad, by R. Conrad Stein
If You Lived When Women Won Their Rights by Anne Kamma
Media Used: 
"Iron Jawed Angels" HBO film
Malcolm X Spike Lee movie
Eyes on the Prize PBS series
documentary on William Tecumseh Sherman (and others on PowerMedia Plus website)
Uncle Tom's Cabin (original ca. 1920 silent film)
Significant Assignments: 

Choose a single state, complete research on its geography and history and make connections to current politics and economy, culminating in a museum exhibit.

Uncle Tom's Cabin: reading and writing assignments, including reflections, journal entries, Venn Diagrams, Character logs, and visual characterizations, performed individually and in small group activities.

Essay on the effectiveness of one aspect of nonviolent protest used during the Civil Rights movement. (Eg, sit-ins, freedom rides, boycotts, and multi-ethnic marches.)

Presentations regarding one aspect of 1850s U.S. culture. Students must read and critique primary documents, such as Ladies Home Journal, and explain to the class the significance of such cultural norms as the antebellum "women's sphere."

Significant Activities or Projects: 

Articles of Confederation vs. U.S. Constitution: Experiential activity demonstrating the futility of one-state, one-vote.

Presentation on antebellum societal and cultural trends, for instance "women's sphere", "Biblically-based pro-slavery arguments", "abolition", and the Fugitive Slave Act.

Culminating PBAT, as described above, including a 10-minute PowerPoint presentation on a major line of inquiry pertaining to social justice movements in the U.S.


Major research project. See above.

Sample PBATs: 
How did non-violence contribute to the success of the Civil Rights Movement?
What were the competing women's suffrage groups; how did they differ; whose strategy was ultimately successful in gaining suffrage, and why?
Why did Lincoln support abolition? Did his views change over time, and why?
Should violent abolitionists like John Brown or Nat Turner be revered as heroes?