PBS Premiere: July 2, 2002Check the broadcast schedule »

Lesson Plan: Evolving Concepts of Civil Rights: An Analysis of Views

Download the Lesson Plan

Jump to:


Three different films, three different stories! The lesson can be used for all three or for each film alone. The first film, Boomtown (53:00 min.), follows several Suquamish entrepreneurs during fireworks season. The second, Sweet Old Song, (56:40 min.) is the story of the relationship and life of the musicians and artists, Howard Armstrong and Barbara Ward. And the third, Brother Outsider, is the story of the life of activist Bayard Rustin (83:24 min.). Seen alone students will gain a greater understanding of civil rights. Seen together, however, these three appearing disparate tales invite the viewer to consider the changing nature of our understanding of civil rights. Stimulated by these films, students will examine Americans' changing attitudes about Native Americans, the aged, and, the rights of African-Americans and homosexuals as they seek answers to the questions:

1.What are civil rights?
2.Where do our ideas of "rights" originate?
3.How have our ideas of rights evolved?
4.How have the life experiences of the activists, artists, and entrepreneurs depicted in the films helped to shape our attitudes about civil rights for all Americans?

Grade Level: 9-12

Subject Areas: United States History and Government

Estimated Time of Completion: 4-5 class hours, some homework time

Note: POV documentaries can be taped off-the-air and used for educational purposes for up to one year from the initial broadcast.

Educational copies of Boomtown can be purchased from the University of California Extension Center for Media.

Lesson One: The Evolving Nature of Civil Rights

1.Learn the chronology of Civil Rights in the United States
2.Consider how civil rights get "created" in our society
3.Examine how different people respond to the loss of their rights
4.Begin to develop an understanding of how our sense of what ought to be a civil right has evolved over time and through personal experiences

Materials Needed:
1.Copies for each student of the following worksheets (PDFs):

* What Are Civil Rights and Where Do They Come From?
* Is It A Right?
* Viewing Notes

2.Computers with internet access
3.Access to 3 VCR's, monitors and videotapes of the POV/PBS programs

4.Board for class notes

Background before viewing the films: History of Civil Rights in the United States

Approx. Time Class Activity

5 min

Ask students to suggest a working definition for "civil rights". Accept several. Write them on the board. (A simple definition is offered at:

2 min

Hand out the chart "What Are Civil Rights and Where Do They Come From?" Ask students to write the working definition that they like best on their chart. Remind them that it is just a working definition. After some research, you will return to the definition and refine it.

20 min

Review the headings of the chart with students and check that they understand each heading. In the columns below are examples of sources of civil rights in the United States. Using the website, ask your students to write what each example contributed to our evolving concept of civil rights. Encourage students to add other examples as they think of them, or encounter them in their research. [If time is short, you can print out the 12 pages of information; give each student one page; and then compile a class chart, using the overhead projector and the chart copied on a transparency.]

20 min

Using the information gathered in their charts from the website have students create a timeline of major events connected with the history of developing civil rights in the United States. Hang the timeline across the board for future reference. [see for recommendations for creating timelines for easy reference.]


Hand out the worksheet ">Is It A Right? Ask students to read each statement, and to decide whether they believe it is a right or should be a right, or whether it is not a right or should not be a right.

Second Class Session

Approx. Time Class Activities:

10 min
Ask students to discuss in small groups the worksheet Is It A Right? Then take a few minutes as an entire class to chart the class┬╣s areas of agreement and areas of controversy. Let students know that some of these issues will come up in the films that they will be watching. Ask them to watch for the reactions of various personalities in the film. Let them know that after watching and talking about the films they will return to these issues.

1 hour - 1.5 hours
Now the class is ready to view the films. Since most classes will not have the time for all students to see all three films, rather than lose the integrity of the stories, it is suggested that the teacher divide the class into 3 groups, assigning a different film to each group. Since the Rustin film is longer that the others and contains some adult scenes depicting a homosexual relationship, the teacher may want to be selective in which parts are shared with the class, or which students are assigned to that film. Hand out to students the worksheet Viewing Notes. Ask students to make note of the major events portrayed in each film. Ask them to consider which civil rights were important to the protagonists of the film? Which ones did they feel were lacking? Note what events or statements support each statement. After viewing the film, ask each student group to prepare a brief summary of their film, and to decide which 3 segments (or about 10-15 minutes of film) show a concern about a civil right that needed to be protected or denied. Students are to prepare to show their selected segments to the class, and explain their choice.

Third Class Session

Approx. Time Class Activity

30 - 40 min
Share summaries and film clips with the class. Discuss as a class areas of similarity and difference among the films. Return now to the questions:

  • What are civil rights?
  • Where do our ideas of "rights" originate?
  • How have our ideas of rights evolved?
  • How have the life experiences of the activists, artists, and entrepreneurs depicted in the films helped to shape our attitudes about civil rights for all Americans?


Ask to students to share their insights into the evolving nature of civil rights in the United States in an essay, poem, drawing or song for the next class. In the next class allow students to share their work.


Worksheet #1: What Are Civil Rights and Where Do They Come From?

Worksheet #2: Is it a Right?

Worksheet #3: