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Lesson Plan Exploring the Stories Behind Native American Boarding Schools


In the late 1800s, the United States began an educational experiment that the government hoped would change the traditions and customs of Native Americans. Special boarding schools were created in locations all over the United States with the purpose of educating American Indian youth. Most of these schools sought to suppress any sign of students’ tribal heritage and to “Americanize” them. Thousands of Native American children were sent far from their homes to live in these schools and learn the ways of white culture. Many struggled with loneliness and fear away from their tribal homes and familiar customs. Some lost their lives to the influenza, tuberculosis, and measles outbreaks that spread quickly through the schools. Others thrived despite the hardships, formed lifelong friendships, and preserved their tribal identities.

Through primary source documents, students explore the experiences and perspectives of individuals involved in Native American boarding schools.


Students will be able to:

  • analyze primary source documents;
  • develop an understanding of issues related to the forced acculturation of Native Americans through government-run boarding schools; and
  • examine different perspectives on the education of Native American children.

Lesson Preparation



  • Native American Boarding Schools Primary Source Set
  • People for research: The following people had experiences with Native American boarding schools. Each link leads to a search for their name on the Chronicling America collection of historic newspapers. Students may also conduct research in the Library’s online collections and in secondary sources. Students may instead conduct research on an individual of their choosing.
    • Fred Lookout, tribal chief; student at Native American boarding school
    • Zitkala-Sa, musician and writer; teacher at Native American boarding school
    • Charles Eastman, physician and lecturer; recruiter for Native American boarding school
    • Richard Henry Pratt, founder and superintendent of Native American boarding school
    • Jim Thorpe, athlete; student at Native American boarding school

Lesson Procedure

In this lesson, students investigate an individual or group of individuals who participated in Native American boarding schools. After exploring newspaper articles or other primary sources related to the people chosen, students assume the identity of the person and write in a journal, and exchange their journals with other students who respond as their person would have responded.

  1. Read definitions of primary and secondary sources in Using Primary Sources and discuss with students as necessary. Model printed text analysis as necessary, using the Library's Primary Source Analysis Tool and teacher's guides and your choice of primary source materials from the Library's online collections.
  2. Assign students to research one person from the “People for research” list or other people involved in Native American boarding schools at teacher’s discretion. Group students by research subjects to compare notes. Jigsaw into small groups that include a variety of research subjects.
  3. Students select a newspaper article from Chronicling America or another document from the Library’s online collections related to their chosen research subject and analyze it using the Primary Source Analysis Tool. Before the students begin, select questions from the teachers guide Analyzing Books and Other Printed Texts to focus and prompt analysis and discussion.
  4. After completing the text analysis, students may also search the Library’s online collections and the historic newspapers in Chronicling America further for more information.
  5. To record the language, opinions, and beliefs of their person students may reflect on and answer these questions:
    • What experiences did your person have with Native American boarding schools?
    • Did their lives change because of Native American boarding schools?
    • List words or phrases used by the selected person(s).
    • List this person's thoughts or opinions on Native American boarding schools.
    • List the words or phrases this person used to reveal his/her biases.
    • List words used that have different spellings today.
    • List words that have different meanings today.
  6. Students assume the role of their character and write in a journal responding to a teacher selected question. Possible questions include:
    • Why is there a need for Native American boarding schools?
    • Have you ever been to a Native American boarding school? Describe your experience.
    • Respond to the statement, "Indian children should attend Indian boarding schools so that they may be 'civilized'."
    • Respond to the statement, "The education Indian children receive will enable them to lead a useful, productive life."
    • Respond to the statement, "English is the only language to be spoken at the boarding school."
    • Recommend at least one change in the Native American boarding school system that would improve the schools.
    • Predict how the life of a Native American student would be different without the boarding schools.
  7. Students must stay 'in character' as they write.
  8. It is helpful for students to have their research materials and reflections on the language, opinions and beliefs of their person available to use as reference when they write.
  9. Allow students time to reflect and compose.
  10. After writing, students exchange their journals with another classmate and respond to each other's journal entry.
  11. Exchange as many times and with as many different individuals as time allows. It is more interesting if new questions are introduced periodically during the exchange.
  12. On the final entry each student steps out of character and writes his or her own opinion of this attempt to educate Native American children.

Lesson Evaluation

Evaluate writing and student participation in class activities according to criteria you identify or generate with the class.