Teaching with Primary Sources

The Civil Rights Movement: How Civil was it?

Instructional Design

For Teachers

This lesson should be taught after students have a good understanding of the following strategies that are utilized within this lesson: asking questions, making inferences, and making connections. The students should also have background knowledge about the Civil Rights. The purpose of this lesson is for students to identify with people during the Civil Rights and gain a better understanding of that time period.

Author: Amy Duhig

Subject(s) and Grade Level(s):
Social Studies, Writing, and Reading; grades 3-5

Time Required:
About six 45-minute sessions.  Different grade levels may move through the material and activities at a quicker rate.
Day One: Activate prior knowledge/First hand experience (Connect)
Day Two: Additional background knowledge about specific Civil Rights events (Connect/Wonder)
Day Three: Analyze primary sources (Investigate)
Day Four: Locate more information (Construct/Express)
Day Five: Journal/Story/Essay (Express)

Lesson Overview:This lesson is designed for intermediate aged students; it focuses on analyzing pictures through asking and answering questions, making connections, and utilizing inferring skills about given pictures from the Civil rights era, i.e. important events and key people.  It encourages students to explore topics that interest them, provide the opportunity to utilize higher order thinking skills, and expand their knowledge about this time period.

Goal of the Lesson:
The goal is for students to discover information about living during the civil rights era by using The Library of Congress, a variety of pictures books, and different websites and activities that interactively engage and immerse them in this topic.  The purpose is for the students to have a better understanding of what the civil rights means to them today.

Objectives: After completing this lesson, students will be able to:

  • Identify different events and people that were significant to the civil rights;
  • Recognize primary sources throughout their exploration of this topic;
  • Analyze different primary source pictures using the strategies: asking questions, making connections, and inferring;
  • Record observations about information found on a graphic organizers provided; and
  • Create a journal entry, story, or an essay about one aspect of the civil rights era to share with their classmates based on a specific picture or primary source.

Investigative Questions:

  • What are civil rights?  What does it mean to you?  How is it different today?  How is it the same?
  • Who were three key people important in obtaining civil rights for African Americans?  How and why were they important?
  • How was an African American life different then as compared to now?
  • What event do you think was most important and why?
  • Which primary source do you most identify with? Why?

Primary Source Learning Practices:

Inquiry Cycle
Connect- Students will gain background knowledge about the civil rights period; connect new information to themselves and other knowledge about this topic; observe, record, and experience different events.
Wonder- Students will analyze primary sources from the civil rights era by answering and constructing questions.
Investigate- Find and evaluate primary sources to create an understanding of the questions developed.
Construct- Students construct their understandings of the civil rights by connecting to previous knowledge and information learned from primary sources.
Express- Apply their knowledge by drawing conclusions and inferring about a specific primary source.  Share their findings with a partner using the think-pair-share model.  Then students will compose a journal entry, story, or essay about one aspect of the civil rights era to share with their classmates based on a specific picture or primary source.
Reflect- Reflect on their learning; students will develop new questions they still have on this topic.

Alignment with Standards:
Illinois State Standards
1.B.2a Establish purposes for reading; survey materials; ask questions; make predictions; connect, clarify and extend ideas.
1.C.2a Use information to form and refine questions and predications.
1.C.2b Make and support inferences and form interpretations about main themes and topics.
1.C.2e Explain how authors and illustrators use text and art to express their ideas (e.g., points of view, design hues, metaphor)
3.B.2d  Edit documents for clarity, subjectivity, pronoun-antecedent agreement, adverb and adjective agreement and verb tense; proofread for spelling, capitalization and punctuation; and ensure that documents are formatted in final form for submission and/or publication.
3.C.2a  Write for a variety of purposes and for specified audiences in a variety of forms including narrative (e.g., fiction, autobiography), expository (e.g., reports, essays) and persua­sive writings (e.g., editorials, advertisements).
5.A.2a  Formulate questions and construct a basic research plan.
5.A.2b  Organize and integrate information from a variety of sources (e.g., books, interviews, library reference materials, web- sites, CD/ROMs).
5.C.2b  Prepare and deliver oral presentations based on inquiry or research.
Social Studies
14.C.2 Describe and evaluate why rights and responsibilities are important to the individual, family, community, workplace, state and nation (e.g., voting, protection under the law).
14.D.2 Explain ways that individuals and groups influence and shape public policy.
14.F.2 Identify consistencies and inconsistencies between expressed United States political traditions and ideas and actual practices (e.g., freedom of speech, right to bear arms, slavery, voting rights).
16.A.2a Read historical stories and determine events which influenced their writing.
16.A.2c Ask questions and seek answers by collecting and analyzing data from historic documents, images and other literary and non-literary sources.
16.C.2a (US) Describe how slavery and indentured servitude influenced the early economy of the United States.
16.D.2c (US) Describe the influence of key individuals and groups, including Susan B. Anthony/suffrage and Martin Luther King, Jr./civil rights, in the historical eras of Illinois and the United States.


*Students should have background knowledge on the different strategies utilized in this lesson.  The teacher should refer to the different artifacts/posters posted in the classroom that focus on questioning, making connections, and inferring; the artifacts should consist of a brief explanation of the strategy and prompts used to support it.  The following sites and books can provide the teacher with lessons and information that students should have a good understanding of before beginning this lesson.

Asking questions:
Newingham Website: Thick or Thin?
Lesson: Sharing Your Own Questions About Books

Making inferences:

Inferring cards
Inferring prompts
Movement cards
Mystery bags

Making connections:

Making connection prompts
Predicting outcome task cards
Thick and thin questions
(contains posters and thick question prompts)

Harvey, S. & Goudvis, A. (2000). Strategies that work: Teaching comprehension to
enhance understanding. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.
Miller, D. (2002). Reading with meaning: Teaching comprehension in the primary
grades. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.
Oczkus, L. (2009). Interactive think-aloud lessons: 25 surefire ways to engage students and improve comprehension. New York, NY: Scholastic.  (This book provides mini-lessons on the different strategy that are appropriate for elementary students.)

Day 1: Activate prior knowledge/First hand experience (Connect)

  1. Activity
    • Prior to students entering in the morning, on the desks of the students who wear glasses (pick some attribute), have a new pencil, a compliment on a sticky note, juice, granola bar (or other items like those).  Do not explain to students why; the teacher might say, ”This is just how it is.”
    • Throughout the morning (or day depending on how long you want this to go on), give the students who wear glasses advantages over other students, i.e. call on first, always in the front part of the line, extra recess/computer time, be teacher’s helpers, and constantly praised.  Other students may be ignored and not helped as often. 
    • After you consider the activity has gone on long enough and the students are thinking or even verbalizing how unfair it is, have each child take out a journal or piece of notebook paper and reflect on the morning’s events.  They should answer questions like:
        • * How did this make you feel? 
        • * Why do you think some students had special privileges?  Why do you think others did not?
        • * What caused the teacher to give some students special privileges?
        • * Do you think you would feel differently if you were on the opposite side?  Why?
        • * Can you think of a time in history when this might have occurred?
        • * Do you think this was fair?  Why or why not?
  1. The teacher should activate background knowledge of the strategies and civil rights by reading a book about civil rights and modeling the different strategies used. Possible book ideas and websites are found in the resource section. Review the anchor charts during read aloud. 
  2. After reading about half the book, students should make connections, question, and make inferences throughout the rest of the book.  The teacher can scaffold this activity by providing thick questions for students to ponder.  Provide the students with clipboards and paper to record observations, connections, and questions.

Day 2: Additional background knowledge about specific Civil Rights events (Connect/Wonder)

  1. Review yesterday’s activity through a discussion.  Then have students fill out the graphic organizer (KWHL-Know, Want to Know, How I can Learn more, What I Learned).  Think-pair-share activity and then discuss as a whole class what was said with partner. 
  2. The students will view the following websites either as a whole class or individually (during a computer lab time) for additional background knowledge. Create questions based on prior knowledge gained from books, websites, and own background knowledge on the Civil Rights using the Thick Questions Prompts.

Day 3: Analyze primary sources (Investigate)

  1. The students will analyze different primary sources using the graphic organizer provided
    (Inferential Questioning).  The teacher may want to analyze one picture as a class so the students have a clear understanding of what is expected of them.  Use the question graphic organizer with given questions (Analyze Primary Resource).
  2. Then the students will view the PowerPoint and record at least two questions or connections they made from the different primary sources shown in the PowerPoint.  They can pick the graphic organizer to record their observations (Making Connections Intermediate, Making Connections Primary, Make Inferences).
  3. Each student will pick one picture to analyze using the graphic organizer (Imagery Tree/ 5w’s Question Mark).  They should also record any additional questions they have about the picture (what do they want to know more about it).

Day 4: Locate more information (Construct/Express)

  1. The students will pick a specific event during the Civil Rights Era to find more information about using the primary resources and websites provided.  They should develop at least three questions they want to answer.  These should be thick questions, not thin.  Use the graphic organizer provided. (Primary Source Questions)
  2. From the questions they developed, they will search for answers by connecting and making inferences about the pictures.  They should choose one or more of the graphic organizers provided and record their findings.  (Making Connections Intermediate, Making Connections Primary, Make Inferences)  Share connections and inferences with a partner.

Day 5: Journal/Story/Essay (Express)

  1. Students will create a journal entry, story, or essay about the specific event they located more information about. 
    * They could pretend to be someone living during that time and write about what the experience was like; OR
    * They could create a historical fiction story providing details of what they learned and how it felt.
  2. If this is too difficult, students could base their journal, story, or essay on primary resource.

Day 6:  Share and Reflect (Reflect)

  1. After reading over their journal, story, or essay and sharing it with the class, have students write down any new questions they still have or new observations made.  (What questions do you still have about this time period or specific event?) 
  2. Provide each student with the time to reflect on what they learned and how they feel about this lesson.  What did they learn from the past?


The students will have the choice of creating one of the following:

  • A journal or diary entry
  • A historical fiction story
  • An essay/editorial
  • An expository paragraph about their person/event researched (younger students)

Essay Rubic
(Essay or expository paragraph)
Journal/Story (Journal entry or historical fiction story)

How will the teachers evaluate student learning and performance?
The teacher will utilize the following graphic organizers and final writing project as ongoing assessment throughout this lesson:

Materials Used:

  • Primary sources obtained from the library of congress to develop a deeper understanding about the civil rights.
  • Graphic organizers and rubrics
  • SmartBoard
  • Computers
  • Picture books
  • PowerPoint

Click on the link to go to the resources.


    • Read about Melba's experience and then write how you would feel in her situation.  Students have the option of  publishing it online.
  • Civil Rights Movement-Segregation
    • Read true stories from the Civil Rights Era.  Then think-pair-share laws that are unfair and state why.  Have students partner up and create a plan for changing that law.
  • Civil Rights: How Far Have We Come? by Kathy Wilmore
    • Read the article and write a response to one of the questions posed throughout the article:
      • * Government officials and civil-rights leaders are still looking for solutions to the twin housing problems of poverty and racism. If you had to come up with a plan, what would it be?
      • * How equal is education for blacks and whites where you live? If it works well, why? If it doesn't, how might it be fixed?
      • * So what comes next? Should we be satisfied with the progress already made? Or should Americans — black and white together — work harder to achieve the 1963 march's goals of jobs, justice, and peace?
  • Martin Luther King’s Speech
    • After viewing his speech, write a persuasive argument for desegregation.  Try to include personal knowledge learned from this time period.  Use the Master Class:  The Power to Persuade for more help or information.

Student management:

  • Cooperative learning groups,
  • Partners (think-pair-share),
  • Whole class discussion, and
  • Independently



Governors State University - Teaching with Primary Sources Partner
Ms. Duhig
Washington Elementary School
Last Updated on March 5, 2011