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Scopes Trial: 1 Day Lesson


In this lesson, you will use primary source documents and a movie to prompt students to think about why many Tennesseans supported the Butler Act, which forbade the teaching of evolution. Students will formulate hypotheses, fill in a graphic organizer, and support their ideas with evidence from historical documents.

Learning Goal:

Students will consider the broader historical context for the Butler Act, including the rise of a modern urban culture, the emergence of mass media, the persistence of racial bigotry, and the growth of Christian Fundamentalism.

Students will connect the broader historical context with popular support for the Butler Act, using evidence to show that some people were afraid of what they perceived to be the immoral and destructive forces associated with modernity and materialism.


Plan of Instruction:

DAY ONE (approximately 50 minutes)
Step 1: 8 minutes: Introduction

Write the following on the board:

1925 Butler Act:

It shall be unlawful for any teacher . . . to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.

Explain that the Butler Act was passed by the Tennessee Legislature in 1925.

    Ask students:
  • What “theory” is this law forbidding?

Hand out the graphic organizer.

Ask students to brainstorm reasons why many people in Tennessee might have supported the Butler Act and fill in initial hypotheses in graphic organizer.

Have several students share their responses.

Step 2: 12 minutes: Read, analyze, discuss

Pass out "Textbook" document.

Explain that the passage comes from the textbook that was widely used in 1925 in Tennessee. Students read the textbook passage silently.

    After reading, ask students:
  • Does anything in the textbook help you understand why people in Tennessee would have supported the Butler Act?

Students should fill in graphic organizer under "Textbook."

Step 3: 10 minutes: Show movie, discuss

Show Scopes movie.

    Students write down answers in response to the question:
  • What else was happening in America in the 1920s?
  • How do you think some people in Tennessee felt about the changes that were happening in America in the 1920s?
  • How does the Butler Act address some of their concerns?
  • What is the relationship between the larger context of the 1920s and the Butler Act?
  • Why might many people in Tennessee have supported the Butler Act in 1925?

Students should fill in graphic organizer under "Scopes Movie."

Step 4: 15 minutes: Read, analyze, discuss

Pass out "Sparks" document. Students read the letter silently.

After reading, ask students to underline parts of the Sparks letter that refer to the issues mentioned in the Scopes movie.

Students fill in graphic organizer under "Sparks."

Step 5: 5 minutes: Whole class discussion
  • What are the possible reasons, other than their belief in creationism, that Tennesseans might have supported the Butler Act?
  • What evidence do you have for your reasons? Give an example from the documents or the movie.
  • Why is it important to think about historical context?
Step 6: Assessment

Writing prompt: Write 1-2 paragraphs that answer the mini-inquiry question:

Why did many people in Tennessee support the Butler Act, which forbade the teaching of evolution? Use evidence from both the "Textbook" document and the "Sparks" document.