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Lessons

Social Security: 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. 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: Vivification, breathing life into a text.

Overview:

In this lesson, students use two letters to the Roosevelts to breathe life into the textbook's account of the New Deal and public responses to it. First, students read a selected textbook passage and begin to analyze its story. They then consider what the letters to the Roosevelts might contribute to their understanding of how Americans responded to the Social Security Act. In pairs students write a dialogue, set in the 1930s, between two people about the value of the Social Security Act. Finally, students return to the textbook account and rewrite it including more details gleaned from the documents.

Learning Goal:

Students will be able to use information from primary documents to understand opposition to and support for the Social Security Act.

Materials:

    Additional:
  • Textbook excerpt from American Anthem: Modern American History (2007) Holt.
  • Questions for textbook excerpt (see below)
Before the Lesson:

Students should have read the following textbook excerpt:

In general, the New Deal changed the link between the American people and their government. The leaders of the 1920s had promoted business as the best way to achieve progress, and they generally viewed government as a barrier to progress. Roosevelt believed that government could help businesses and individuals achieve a greater level of economic security.

The new role for government meant a much bigger government. Dozens of new programs and agencies put people in contact with their government in ways they had not experienced before. Americans now began to look regularly to government for help. Roosevelt and the New Deal were both praised and hated for this. For some, this change brought a welcome shift from the laissez-faire policies of the 1920s. To others, it threatened the basic character that had always held the country together. [excerpt from Holt, American Anthem: Modern American History, 2007, Chapter 12, Section 4: Analyzing the New Deal. 372-373.]

Ask them to answer the following questions:

    According to the textbook,
  • How did the New Deal change Americans' relationship with their government?
  • Why were some people unhappy with the government's new role? Explain what you think the textbook means when it says, "To others, it threatened the basic character that had always held the country together."
  • Why were some people happy about the government's new role? Explain what you think the textbook means when it says, "For some, this change brought a welcome shift from the laissez-faire policies of the 1920s."

Plan of Instruction (approximately 50 minutes)

DAY ONE
Step 1: 15 minutes: Discuss (whole class)

Review homework and have students share responses.

    Tell students that one of the most important pieces of legislation that came out of the New Deal was the Social Security Act. The main parts of the Social Security Act included:
  • A monthly check that people could collect when they retired at age 65.
  • Temporary unemployment insurance.
  • Some welfare payments to those with disabilities and poor families with children.

Be sure to tell students that Social Security money came from payroll taxes imposed on workers and employers.

    Ask students:
  • How did the people who supported or opposed the New Deal, in general, probably feel about the Social Security Act, in particular?
  • What might have been their reasons for supporting or opposing the Social Security Act?
Step 2: 15 minutes: Read documents

Give each student a packet with "Stealing," "Mirage," and "Townsend."

Split the class in half, into Group A and B. Assign Group A "Stealing" and Group B "Mirage" and "Townsend." Explain to Group B that "Townsend" is just a reference document to help them better understand "Mirage."

Have students in Group A individually complete the notebook questions for "Stealing." Have students in Group B individually complete the notebook questions for "Mirage."

Step 3: 15 minutes: Pair-Share

Pair a student in Group A with a student in Group B. Have each explain the letter they just read to their partner.

    Together, the pair should answer:
  • On what points do the authors of the letters agree?
  • On what points do the authors of the letters disagree?
Step 4: 15 minutes: Assessment

In pairs, students write a dialogue between the two letter-writers. In the dialogue, both people should answer the question: Do you support the passage of the Social Security Act? Why or why not?

If time remains, have a few pairs of students perform their dialogue.

Homework:

Ask students to revisit the last three sentences of the textbook passage:

Roosevelt and the New Deal were both praised and hated for this. For some, this change brought a welcome shift from the laissez-faire policies of the 1920s. To others, it threatened the basic character that had always held the country together.

Using both "Stealing" and "Mirage," students should re-write the textbook section and provide specific examples of why people supported or opposed the New Deal.