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Lesson Plan Change in Early 20th Century America: Doing the Decades


This unit provides a flexible investigative structure for the study of selected themes in U.S. history and culture using the online collections of the Library of Congress related resources. Core goals are the development of relationships between selected themes and resources, refinement of student skills in interpretation, analysis, and evaluation of primary sources, and the creation of multimedia projects drawing upon different modes of expression.


Students will be able to:

  • demonstrate an understanding of patterns of change and continuity in the history of the United States;
  • identify the unique qualities of different types of primary sources;
  • interpret, analyze, and evaluate primary and secondary sources related to core historical themes and topics;
  • create questions for investigation related to core historical themes and specific time periods;
  • develop original conclusions which illustrate connections between core historical themes and topics; and
  • refine writing and presentation skills using oral and visual communication tools and techniques.

Time Required

Nine weeks

Lesson Preparation



Lesson Procedure

Week One

  1. Introduce the project focus by posing the Essential Question, which frames the investigation:

    What patterns of change affected the lives of individuals and groups in the United States between 1890 and 1941?

    Tell students that they will be engaging in an intensive study of the Essential Question, using a wide variety of resources, posing important questions about specific historical themes, and examining selected topics related to those themes.
  2. Direct students to Core Historical Themes and Topics, which will form the framework for the development of connections between major patterns of historical change and continuity and student projects. Using selected secondary sources (i. e., course textbook, videotapes, other resources), examine aspects of Core Historical Themes during 1890-1941. This broad overview will provide students with a context for their investigation.
  3. Form student teams for the investigation. Assign no more than 6 students to a group, with each student examining a minimum of one theme within the focus of the Essential Question. Each group will address all six themes within one decade from 1890 to 1941. Either assign a decade to each group or allow students to choose their decade.
  4. Once students have chosen their focus theme(s), emphasize that the final project must provide an answer to the Essential Question by demonstrating understanding of how each theme was represented in the daily life of people from their assigned/chosen decade. In the final project presentation, individual students will demonstrate understanding by developing a biography for a person from the decade assigned/chosen and give their portion of the group's presentation with this persona.
  5. Direct students to the Student Procedure section of this lesson plan to acquaint them with the Library's online resources.
  6. Demonstrate the identification, analysis, and evaluation of selected primary sources within the Library's digital collections. Photographs from Detroit Publishing Company provide good examples of detail-rich images, with bibliographic information, and additional subject headings for additional research. Use other media formats such as documents, maps, and audio recordings. Motion pictures downloaded ahead of time can also be demonstrated.
  7. Students then select a primary source item and complete the Primary Source Analysis Tool, working alone or with others. Before the students begin, select questions from the teacher’s guide Analyzing Primary Sources to focus and prompt analysis and discussion.

Week Two

  1. Return to the Library's digital collections. Student teams should investigate the collections with the purpose of developing a series of Questions for Investigation about their core historical theme. For example: Students working with Theme 2 (What were the processes and consequences of migration for the peopling of the United States?) might identify three questions. One question might be, "Who migrated to the United States during {my assigned/chosen decade} and where did they settle?"

    If students are developing questions that do not seem to be central to the theme, the teacher should provide some questions and help students refine their own.
  2. As students locate sources in the Library's digital collections, the teacher should monitor source identification, analysis, and evaluation, providing feedback on the relevance and meaning of sources. Once students are engaged in the selection process, introduce Core Topics of Core Historical Themes and Topics. Tell students that this list contains topics that MUST be represented in the selection of sources for their theme(s). Not all Core Topics will be addressed by all students; but all Topics must be addressed by each group. A minimum number per student should be determined by the teacher so that students can focus their source selection process efficiently.

Week Three

  1. Once students have demonstrated success in identifying relevant, meaningful sources for their themes, and the teacher has provided feedback to help them build a portfolio of useful sources linked to their Core Historical Themes and Topics, the groups should identify the project format or its Mode of Expression.
  2. Discuss the general requirements, schedule, possible mode of expression product ideas, and evaluation.
  3. Students develop a work plan for their project.

From Concept to Completion will help students define and assign responsibility for products that comprise their project.

At this point, facilitate exchange of ideas between individuals within groups and among different groups about:

  1. how project development is proceeding,
  2. sources that appear useful for various projects, and
  3. problem-solving at different stages of project development.

Week Four

Students continue to acquire sources and begin to map how they will construct relationships between the sources and their Core Theme(s) and Questions for Investigation and their Core Topic(s)

Week Five

Students develop a Preliminary Bibliography for their projects. Project-specific storyboards, outlines, or other structural frameworks for the final project are done in first draft form.

Week Six

Students review/critique first drafts of final projects of class members using a Peer Review Form. The teacher also critiques project first drafts. Students assume historical roles in preparation for their group presentations and develop a Historical Biography.

Group findings can be shared in various ways: class discussion, small groups using a jigsaw technique, or via email.

Week Seven

Final preparation for project presentations takes place. Each group should state at least 5 essential findings that emerged from the research, stating findings as generalizations with broad significance, and avoiding the repetition of minute facts or data. Students may use the Strategy for Sharing guide on the Student Procedure page or other guidelines as you prefer.

Week Eight

Group presentations occur. Students complete Making Sense of What We've Studied as they view and interact with each presentation. Peer critiques and teacher evaluations are done. Groups may revise projects prior to public display.

Week Nine

Teacher evaluates the class based on project findings concerning the Essential Question.

Lesson Evaluation

Evaluation in this unit is both diagnostic and summative.

Diagnostic evaluation is ongoing, encompassing assessment of:

  1. Student work products as they build their portfolios of sources (each related to a specific Mode of Expression);
  2. Teacher and Peer Review of project first drafts;
  3. Discussion contributions in small and large group settings; and
  4. Processes used to build final projects (again, related to the specific requirements for particular Modes of Expression used by students).

Final evaluation of the group project, should have both individual and group accountability components.

Sharing strategies to help all students in the class demonstrate understanding of the key ideas from each group project is critical. For example:

  • Have each group create a series of 5 questions about their final project focused on key ideas that other students must answer while examining the group's work.
  • Have each group create an abstract of their key ideas that the teacher could use as the basis for exam questions.

On Presentation Day

Each presenter submits:

  1. completed, revised Historical Biography/Resume; and an
  2. individual annotated bibliography (final revised copy).

Each group submits the group work product (mural/exhibit catalogue, scrapbook, multimedia presentation, magazine/video).

During the presentations, the class will gather information using Making Sense of What We've Studied to collect essential ideas from each presentation along thematic lines.


William R. Fernekes and Harlene Rosenberg


Week 1 - Brief Guide to the Library of Congress online

  1. Go to the Digital Collections home page.
  2. You can Browse Collections by Topic or use the search box at the top of the page. Try Browse first to get a sense of the overall scope of the collections.
  3. Next, look at the left side of the page and scroll down to the area titled “Original Formats” to explore each of the media formats. Click on each format link and select a collection you want to explore. Locate an item of interest and then print it along with its bibliographic information. Do this for each media format. For sound recordings and motion pictures, print the page with the bibliographic information.
    Find a photograph or drawing of a city you know.
    Find a map of the same city.
    Find a book or document on the U. S. Congress or on work/economy (See if you can see the document image -many are available.)
    Find a film or video on work.
    Find an audio recording relating to work.
  4. How would you cite these sources? Go to the Teachers page and find Citing Primary Sources for examples.

Useful resources:

Core Historical Themes and Topics

Each group will address all six themes and all twelve topics within the decade chosen/assigned. The group will decide how to address all the themes by dividing up the themes and topics fairly, for example:

Theme #2: What have been the processes and consequences of migration for the peopling of the United States?
Sample Relevant topics: Race/ethnicity; Gender roles; Family; Socio-economic class.

Core Historical Themes

These themes will help to structure our investigations of U. S. history during 1890-1941. Please keep this sheet in your notebook because we will make reference to it often during our work together.

  1. How have diverse groups in the U. S. population participated in the institutions of democratic life?
  2. What have been the processes and consequences of migration for the peopling of the United States?
  3. How has the United States changed from an agrarian, rural society to an industrial, urban society?
  4. How have guarantees of fundamental human rights been expanded to include diverse groups within the United States?
  5. What have been the processes and consequences of the growth of capitalism as the dominant economic model in the United States?
  6. How has the United States emerged as a world power influencing global events, conflicts and trends?

Core Historical Topics

Select the topics that relate to your chosen or assigned theme. Not every topic relates to every theme.

  • Mass media
  • Religion
  • Work
  • Family
  • Race/ethnicity
  • Education
  • Socio-economic class
  • Entertainment
  • Political behavior
  • Health and medicine
  • Gender roles
  • Adults and children

Week 2 - Questions for Investigation

Essential Question: What patterns of change affected the lives of individuals and groups in the United States between 1890-1941?

I. State your Core Historical Theme:

II. Based upon this theme, what are three important questions that you want to investigate to understand this theme in relation to the essential question?

III. Relevant topics for searching/finding information about your questions:

Using the list of Core Topics, identify four which you believe will be helpful in locating information in the Library's digital collections and in other resources. Describe the types of sources you expect or hope to find using those topics.

Topic #1:________________________

Topic #2:________________________

Topic #3:________________________

Topic #4:________________________

Week 3 - Requirements

Group Responsibility

  1. Develop a work plan for equitable sharing of group responsibilities and tasks.
  2. Create a presentation to share results of your research with the entire class.
  3. Identify essential findings about your research, and present them in a format of your choice during the presentation.
  4. Complete a final work product that represents the findings of your research. This is separate from the presentation, but can be used in the presentation. This work product must demonstrate that the group has used the sources in its annotated bibliography, with the proper citation format. (See Citing Primary Sources for suggestions.) The segments of the work product completed by individuals within the group should be identified by the author’s name in the table of contents.

Individual Responsibility

  1. Complete an annotated bibliography with a minimum of 25 sources: 10 secondary sources; 15 primary sources (10 from the Library's digital collections).
  2. Complete your section of the final work product. Include documention for your sources in the final product.
  3. Complete Peer Review Forms for a minimum of 2 other work products in first draft form.
  4. Do a peer critique of each presentation as it occurs.
  5. Complete Making Sense of What We've Studied to develop understanding of change over time for each theme, based upon group presentations.

Mode of Expression Product Ideas

Discuss criteria for each possible mode of expression with the entire class or with small groups of students involved in each expression.

  • Multimedia presentation
  • Mass circulation magazine or newspaper
  • Family scrapbook
  • Series of letters or correspondence
  • Illustrated children's book
  • Historic mural/museum exhibition

Week 4 - From Concept to Completion

You've done quite a bit of work so far, and we still have a distance to travel to create your project. Now it's time to move towards your goal by developing ideas from your Questions for Investigation, Themes, and Topics into a manageable, achievable final product.

From Concept to Completion (PDF 28KB)

Week 5 - Preliminary Bibliography

Locate 10 secondary sources related to the theme, questions and topics you are investigating. Remember that a secondary source is not an eyewitness account of an event, person's life, or pattern of change. These sources must be different from others used by your research group.

Good places to start are:

  • specialized encyclopedias and dictionaries
  • journals and magazines
  • books about the era/time period you are studying
  • books about the specific topics you are emphasizing
  • online sources (historical web sites, archives of topical articles)
  • literature (novels, short stories, poetry, essays about the period/topics)

Week 6 - Peer Review Form

Review/critique another project using the form below or another specified by your teacher. Do not review the project of someone in your group.

Project Reviewed:
Student's Name:

Highlights and interesting features Questions posed or concerns raised
Content: Content:
Design: Design:

Historical Biography - Resume




Title and Responsibilities:




(political parties, unions, secret or fraternal societies, clubs):


Week 7 - Strategy for Sharing

Develop a strategy for sharing your essential findings with other members of the class. Do this in collaboration with other members of your group.

For example:

  • Have a press conference where the editorial board of a magazine "introduces" their new magazine to the public and other journalists.
  • Stage a family reunion where the family "scrapbook" is displayed and discussed with others attending the event.
  • Have a "meeting of the minds" of important people from your decade. Have them discuss the major issues of the time, and respond to questions from the audience.

Sharing Strategy

Essential Findings:
State 5 essential findings that emerged from research of your Questions for Investigation. State your findings as generalizations with broad significance, and avoid the repetition of minute facts or data.

Week 8 - Making Sense of What We've Studied

Instructions: As you participate in this week's presentations, either as an audience member or a presenter, examine the results of our research over time. What long-term trends have emerged in response to each of the 6 thematic questions studied by our groups during the period from 1890 to 1941? Listen carefully to the presenters, ask them questions, clarify their comments for your understanding, discuss your observations with the class, and note your conclusions below.

Refer to the six thematic questions as each group makes its presentation:

  1. How have diverse groups in the U. S. population participated in the institutions of democratic life?
  2. What have been the causes, processes and consequences of migration for the peopling of the United States?
  3. How has the United States changed from an agrarian, rural society to an industrial urban society?
  4. How have guarantees of fundamental human rights been expanded to include diverse groups within the United States?
  5. What have been the causes, processes and consequences of the growth of capitalism as the dominant economic model in the United States?
  6. How has the United States emerged as a world power influencing global events, conflicts and trends?
Theme 1890-1899 1900-1909 1910-1919 1920-1929 1930-1941