Social Security: 3 Day Lesson


In these lessons, students learn about the rivaling policy proposals for aid to the aged in the early 1930s. They examine a poster for the Social Security Act that was created by the Social Security Board. Then, they design posters for the different policies proposed by Huey Long and Francis Townsend. Finally, students analyze posters from other eras of American history.

Learning Goals:

  • Students will understand the different policy proposals that preceded the passage of the Social Security Act.
  • Students will begin to read posters critically.
  • Students will begin to identify the tone and rhetorical emphasis in speeches by analyzing repeated words and images.

Notes to teacher: When using the lessons off-line use the document packet for easy printing. This lesson includes several series of questions that you may want to cut and paste and hand out to your students.

Plan of Instruction:

DAY ONE (approximately 50 minutes)
Step 1: 10 minutes: Show movie

Watch Social Security movie.

Ask students: Based on the information in the movie, what was FDRís goal? Why did he think Social Security was important?

Step 2: 20 minutes: Read document

Pass out "FDR" document.

    Ask students to read FDR document individually and to answer the following questions in pairs:
  • Count the number of times FDR used the words "protection" and "structure." Why do you think these words are repeated so many times?
  • Why did FDR think the Social Security Act would be historic and important? Support your answer with evidence from the document.
  • Why did FDR think that the Social Security Act was limited? Support your answer with evidence for the document.
Step 3: 20 minutes: Analyze poster

Pass out "Poster" document.

    Still in pairs, ask students to answer the following questions:
  • Based on this poster, what can you tell about how Social Security works?
  • What is the purpose of this poster?
  • Who designed the poster? Who is the intended audience?
  • What objects/symbols do you see in the poster? What do those objects/symbols represent?
  • How do the symbols in the poster support the image of Social Security that FDR paints in his speech?

Have students examine the WPA posters on the Library of Congress' American Memory Site [http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/wpaposters/highlights.html]. Ask them to choose one poster to analyze.

    Students answer the following questions:
  • What is the url/location of the poster you selected?
  • What is the purpose of this poster?
  • Who designed the poster? Who is the intended audience?
  • What objects/symbols do you see in the poster? What do those objects/symbols represent?
  • In what ways is this poster similar to or different from the Social Security poster?
DAY TWO (approximately 50 minutes)
Step 1: 10 minutes: Share homework

Ask a few students to share the poster they selected and their analysis of it.

Ask the class: In general, what do these posters share? How would you describe their style?

Step 2: 30 minutes: Read documents

Pass out "Long" and "Townsend" documents.

Explain to students that FDRís version of the Social Security Act was one of several options proposed. Huey Long and Francis Townsend (whom they might remember from the movie) also proposed plans for aid to the aged.

    In pairs, students read the two documents and answer the following questions for each document:
  1. What words and images are emphasized or repeated in this document?
  2. What is the major goal of this plan?
  3. What are the specific ways that the plan will work?
  4. How is this plan attempting to address the specific problems that Americans were facing in the 1930s?
  5. How does this plan differ from FDRís Social Security Act?
  6. If you were to make a poster for this plan, what images or symbols would you use to convince Americans in the 1930s that it was the best option?
Step 3: 10 minutes: Discussion (whole class)
    Review student answers about the Long and Townsend documents. In particular discuss:
  • Which plan do students think better addresses the economic problems of the 1930s? Why?
  • Why might have some Americans opposed or supported Longís plan? Townsendís plan?
    Brainstorm ideas for posters for both the Long and Townsend campaigns. Each poster should include images and text that
  1. explain your plan to Americans in the 1930s and
  2. convince them to support your plan.
DAY THREE (approximately 50 minutes)
  • Poster paper and markers
  • Class set of handouts with homework questions
Step 1: 5 minutes: Share homework

In pairs, have students share their ideas for posters. Pairs should choose either Long or Townsend to focus on and design one poster using the best elements from their homework.

Step 2: 30 minutes: Poster design

Students make posters.

Step 3: 15 minutes: Share posters

Students present their posters. Classmates give feedback on why they do or do not think the posters would have convinced Americans in the 1930s to support the specific plan.


Have students visit the History Matters, Making Sense of Advertisement guide at home: http://historymatters.gmu.edu/mse/ads/

    Once on the site, they should complete the following:
  • Read the "Introduction" and "American Advertising: A Brief History"
  • Complete the "What do Ads Reveal or Conceal about an Era?" section
  • Choose 1 poster from the site and analyze its images and text:
    • What is the message of the advertisement?
    • What images are used? How are they intended to influence you?
    • What words are used repeatedly? How are they intended to influence you?
    • How can you use this advertisement to learn about the year it was produced?