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Lessons

Scopes Trial: Textbook

Historians arrive at historical knowledge by carefully reading and interpreting sources from the past. Yet most high school textbooks hide this process by presenting history as a series of uncontested, fixed events. Textbooks covering large periods of history often fail to examine the multiple perspectives that constitute historical events. Reading and analyzing additional documents can “open up” the textbook and introduce students to the contested and interpretive nature of historical knowledge.

Textbooks can be “opened up” in a number of ways. This lesson focuses on the following method: Expansion – bringing primary evidence to develop the incomplete account offered by the textbook.

Overview:

In this lesson students use a statement from the American Federation of Teachers and an editorial from the Chicago Defender to expand upon the textbook’s depiction of the Scopes trial as a clash between “creationists” and “evolutionists.” First, students read and analyze a passage from a selected textbook. Then they read documents showing different perspectives on the Scopes trial. Finally, each student writes a letter to the textbook publisher suggesting ways to edit the textbook using evidence from these primary documents.

Learning Goal:

  • Students will be able to use information from primary documents to enrich and expand upon a textbook account of an historical event.
  • Students learn that the Scopes trial reflected facets of American culture and society in the 1920s, including concerns about academic freedom and racial tension.

Materials:

    Additional:
  • Textbook: The American Vision. (2003) Eds. Joyce Appleby, Alan Brinkley, Albert Broussard, James McPherson, Donald Ritchie. Glencoe McGraw-Hill.
  • Questions for textbook excerpt and questions for documents.

Before the Lesson:

Students read the textbook section.

The Scopes Trial Evolutionists and creationists eventually clashed in a historic trial.

In 1925 Tennessee passed the Butler Act, which outlawed any teaching that denied “the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible,” and taught instead that “man descended from a lower order of animals.” The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) advertised for a teacher who would be willing to be arrested for teaching evolution. John T. Scopes, a high school biology teacher in Dayton, Tennessee, volunteered to be the test case. He taught evolution and was subsequently arrested and put on trial. The trial took place in the summer of 1925. William Jennings Bryan, a three-time Democratic presidential candidate, was the prosecutor and represented the creationists. Clarence Darrow, one of the country’s most celebrated trial lawyers, defended Scopes. After eight days of trial, Scopes was found guilty and fined $100, although the conviction was later overturned on a technicality. Parts of the trial had been broadcast over the radio, and Darrow’s blistering cross-examination of Bryan did little for the Fundamentalist cause. Fundamentalists found themselves isolated from mainstream Protestantism, and their commitment to political activism declined.

The American Vision. (2003) Eds. Joyce Appleby, Alan Brinkley, Albert Broussard, James McPherson, Donald Ritchie. Glencoe McGraw-Hill. p. 615.

Ask students to answer the following questions:

    According to the textbook:
  • What were the two groups that “clashed” in the Scopes trial?
  • Briefly describe why John Scopes was put on trial.
  • Who were the two primary lawyers in the case? Who did they represent?
  • What was one of the results of the trial? What evidence does the textbook use to back this assertion?

Plan of Instruction (approximately 50 minutes)

DAY ONE (approximately 50 minutes)
Step 1: 10 minutes: Discuss (pair share)

Review homework and have students share responses. Drawing from student responses to the homework questions, list on the board what, according to the textbook, were the major details of the Scopes trial.

Tell students that they are going to read two documents that challenge the textbook’s opening claim that the Scopes trial was a fight between evolutionists and creationists. Explain that the documents are a statement from the American Federation of Teachers and an editorial from the Chicago Defender. Using the headers on the documents, provide a brief introduction to these sources. As a way to get students to make some predictions about these documents, ask:

  • What information do you think these documents will contain? What verdict do you think they would favor in the Scopes trial? Why?
  • In what ways might these documents help us to better understand the Scopes trial?
Step 2: 25 minutes: Read documents
    Students read “Teachers” document. Ask them to answer the following questions:
  • Why do you think the American Federation of Teachers supported Scopes? Use evidence from their statement to back your answer.
  • How does this document support or contest the textbook’s claim that the Scopes trial was a fight between "creationists" and "evolutionists"?
    Students read “Defender” document. Ask them to answer the following questions:
  • According to this editorial, why did the South oppose the theory of evolution?
  • Why did the Chicago Defender oppose the Butler Act?
  • How does this document support or contest the textbook’s claim that the Scopes trial was a fight between "creationists" and "evolutionists"?
Step 3: 10 minutes: Check student thinking
    Briefly discuss the following questions:
  • What do these documents add to your understanding of the Scopes trial?
  • What additional information and sources, beyond the textbook and these documents, would you need to get a better understanding of the Scopes trial?
Step 4: 5 minutes: Assessment: Explain homework

For homework, students re-read the textbook account of the Scopes trial and respond to the following prompt:

Write a letter to the publisher of this textbook making suggestions for ways that they might change the passage on the Scopes trial for the textbook’s next edition. Your letter should include evidence to make your case; that is, you must incorporate specific examples from the textbook, the teachers’ statement, and the newspaper editorial in your recommendations.