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Lesson Plans

These lesson plans have been developed to help teachers bring Ken Burns’s THE WAR into the classroom.  Classroom activities are appropriate for students in grades 9-12 and cover major themes addressed in the film.  Many of the lessons also incorporate video clips from the film and other resources found on this site.

Double Victory Double V (PDF) »

Subjects: American History, Media Literacy, Civics, Language Arts
Grade level: 9 - 12

During World War II African Americans found themselves with conflicting feelings about supporting the war effort when their own country did not offer them the freedom America was fighting for overseas.   The Double Victory - Double V - campaign, begun by the Pittsburgh Courier newspaper in 1942, helped to address this issue.  It encouraged African Americans to participate at every level in winning the war abroad, while simultaneously fighting for their civil rights at home. 

In this lesson students wage their own Double V campaign in their classroom and/or school through writing news articles, mounting photographic exhibits, producing radio programs and generating banners, slogans and songs.

Video clips incorporated into this lesson:
Video Icon Mobile Shipyards »
On Tuesday morning, May 25, 1943, tensions explode at the Alabama Dry Dock shipyard.
Video Icon African-American Troops Training »
Despite the bravery of African Americans in all of America’s previous wars, despite the argument made by the NAACP and others that “a Jim Crow army cannot fight for a free world,” the armed forces of the United States remained strictly segregated.
Al McIntoshThe War Through the Eyes of Al McIntosh (PDF) »

Subjects: U.S. History, World History, Sociology, Psychology, Creative Writing, Journalism (Mass Media)
Grade level: 9 - 12

While big-name journalists like Edward R. Murrow and Ernie Pyle traveled with the troops and reported on the “big picture,” local newspaper editors like Al McIntosh of the Rock County Star-Herald in Luverne, Minnesota, frequently wrote about the effect of the war on local subscribers, including those who were fighting overseas.

In this lesson, students will role-play correspondents whose job it is not only to report to the “folks back home” about the major news stories of World War II, but about how those stories impacted those folks back home.

Video clips incorporated into this lesson:
Video Icon The War Comes Home to Luverne »
Al McIntosh writes of personal losses the war brought to those in Luverne.
Video Icon D-Day in Luverne »
Al McIntosh writes about D-Day in the Rock County Star Herald.
On the Home Front On the Home Front (PDF) »

Subjects: Social Studies, American History, World History, Civics
Grade level: 9 - 12

By 1945, the United States had produced nearly 300,000 warplanes, more than 100,000 tanks, 87,000 warships and nearly 6 million tons of aircraft bombs. The government rationed everything from gasoline to silk. The civilian population chipped in as well, growing victory gardens and saving rubber from tires and grease from cooking stoves.

In this lesson, students will examine and get a sense of life in small-town America prior to its entry into the war. Then they will explore the changes brought on by wartime industry and how the people adjusted to life in the industrial boomtowns and reflect on socioeconomic changes in the character of these towns and the reasons for them.

Video clips incorporated into this lesson:
Video Icon The Four Towns »
An introduction to the four towns featured in THE WAR – Mobile, Alabama; Sacramento, California; Waterbury, Connecticut; and Luverne, Minnesota.
Video Icon Wartown »
The chronic unemployment that had eaten at Mobile and every other American town for more than a decade during the Depression was over.
Video Icon Rationing and Recycling »
During the war everything seemed to be rationed or in short supply: gasoline and fuel oil and rubber; bobby pins and zippers and tin foil; shoes and whiskey and chewing gum; butter and coffee and nylons and tomato ketchup and sugar; canned goods and cigarettes and the matches needed to light them.
The Hispanic Experience in World War II The Hispanic Experience in World War II
(PDF) »

Subjects: Language Arts, Social Studies
Grade level: 9 - 12

For Hispanics in particular, World War II led to considerable progress in desegregating public institutions and reducing racial tensions. As defense industries boomed and many workers went off to war, Hispanics gained entry to jobs that had been virtually closed to them in the past and were able to move away from traditional occupations.

In this lesson students will explore and present oral histories about the Hispanic experience in America during World War II. 

Video clips incorporated into this lesson:
Video Icon Carlson's Raiders »
Bill Lansford and Pete Arias talk about being part of "Carlson's Raiders"
Letters from the Front Line Letters from the Front Line (PDF) »

Subjects: American History, English
Grade level: 9 - 12

Soldiers and military personnel on the battlefronts of World War II stayed connected to their loved ones through letter writing. Because the U.S. military was concerned that intercepted letters would provide the enemy with detailed information about the location of troops and battle plans, all mail sent home was censored before it was mailed as V-Mail, or Victory Mail.

In this letter-writing activity, students examine the writing of one witness to war before writing their own letters.

Video clips incorporated into this lesson:
Video Icon Babe Ciarlo in Anzio »
Serving on the front lines at Anzio beach, Babe Ciarlo never revealed his experiences in his letters home.
The Holocaust The Holocaust (PDF) »

Subjects: History, Social Studies, Humanities
Grade level: 9 - 12

Between 1933 and 1945, Nazi Germany and its collaborators pursued a program to systematically persecute and destroy six million Jews. Nazi ideology identified other enemies; they were targeted for racial, ethnic or political reasons.

During this lesson, high school students will understand the German National Socialism (Nazi) extermination campaign against European Jewry and other targeted groups within the context of World War II history; appraise responses to the Holocaust by governments and individuals; reflect on racism and stereotyping; and reflect on responsibility and remembrance.

Resources incorporated into this lesson:
Video Icon See a collections of photos, interviews, and letters available for classroom use: Search & Explore »
D-Day: June 6, 1944 D-Day: June 6, 1944 (PDF) »

Subjects: US History, World History
Grade level: 9 - 12

General Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote his “order of the day” on D-Day, the Allied invasion of France, which spelled the beginning of the end of the Third Reich and Nazi domination of Europe.  These confident words were given to every person involved in the operation.  However, very few, including Eisenhower himself, had absolute confidence in the mission.  In fact, unknown even to Eisenhower’s inner circle, Ike had already written an announcement the invasion had failed, and that he accepted the blame.

In this lesson, students will investigate the complex aspects of Operation Overlord, including the commanders, geography and history, political, and technological challenges that made this one of the most difficult military operations in history.

Video clips incorporated into this lesson:
Video Icon D-Day Invasion »
On June 6, 1944, D-Day in the European Theater, a million and a half Allied troops embark on one of the greatest invasions in history: the invasion of France.
Censorship Censorship (PDF) »

Subjects: US History, World History, US Government and Civics;
Language Arts; Speech (Forensics)
Grade level: 9 - 12

In this lesson, students will review the historic significance of a controversy involving the Chicago Tribune, which published a series of stories inferring that the US had broken a secret Japanese code, which significantly assisted the US Navy in winning one of the biggest battles of the Pacific Theater of World War II, the Battle of Midway.  Did the Tribune go beyond the First Amendment right of freedom of the press in this instance? 

Video clips incorporated into this lesson:
Video Icon Here Lie Three Americans »
In the September 20, 1943 issue of LIFE magazine published the first image of dead American servicemen that American civilians had been allowed to see in the twenty-one months since Pearl Harbor.
Just War Just War (PDF) »

Subjects: American History, Political Science, Ethics and Philosophy
Grade level: 9 - 12

This lesson introduces students to the principles of just war theory, the basis of international agreements such as the Geneva Conventions that regulate the conduct of nations in wartime. The lesson asks students to consider the six principles of jus ad bellum, or what makes a war just, as applied to World War II. 

In this lesson students will read Roosevelt’s Joint Address to Congress Leading to a Declaration of War Against Japan (the “day that will live in infamy” speech) in order to assess whether or not Roosevelt spelled out the case for a just war. 

Video clips incorporated into this lesson:
Video Icon Pearl Harbor: The attack »
Daniel Inouye was preparing to go to church with his family when the attack on Pearl Harbor began.
Video Icon FDR: Day of Infamy »
President Franklin D. Roosevelt speaks to the country following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
The Battle of the BulgeThe Battle of the Bulge (PDF) »
Subjects:  US History, World History
Grade level: 9 - 12

By December, 1944, it appeared the Allies were on the verge of victory in the European Theater, with troops massed in Belgium ready to invade Germany.  However, on December 16, the German army launched a massive, last-ditch counterattack on a thinly defended area in the Ardennes Forest in Belgium. One of the largest atrocities of World War II occurred early in the battle when German troops massacred approximately 125 American troops which had surrendered during the German advance. In this lesson, students will analyze various online and video resources dealing with the battle, collecting information about weather conditions, the battle itself, and other conditions the soldiers endured during the period. 

Video clips incorporated into this lesson:
Video Icon Battle of the Bulge »
Mobile’s Tom Galloway finds himself on the frozen front lines as the shells start falling in the Battle of the Bulge.
Combat and WarCombat and War (PDF) »
Subjects:  American History, Civics, Language Arts
Grade level: 9 - 12

The experience of combat is perhaps the ultimate test for human beings. No other human activity creates such heightened emotions. No other human activity is so potentially final in its results. Humans have an often paradoxical relationship with combat and war; sometimes it is revered and other times despised. We use its euphemisms in describing athletic events (check out the headlines on any sports page). We see it glorified in our literature and condemned in our political speeches. In this activity, students will explore the testimonies of several different people who experienced combat, some of whom suffered physical or psychological injuries in the process.

Video clips incorporated into this lesson:
Video Icon That's War »
Young soldier Daniel Inouye comes face-to-face with the enemy.
Video Icon Knew I'd Killed Men »
Fighter pilot Quentin Aanenson recalls the first time he knew he'd "killed men."
Video Icon Kinship »
Marines Pete Arias and Bill Lansford land on Iwo Jima.
Japanese-American InternmentJapanese-American Internment (PDF) »
Subjects: History, English, Social Studies
Grade level: 9 - 12

On February 19, 1942, just two months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066.  Its tone was carefully neutral: it authorized the War Department to designate “military areas” that excluded people considered to be a danger to the United States. But, the order actually had a specific target: 110,000 Japanese Americans living along the West Coast of the United States.

In this lesson students will understand the history of relations between Japanese immigrants, naturalized Japanese-American citizens, and the United States Government in the 20th Century.

Video clips incorporated into this lesson:
Video Icon Made into an enemy »
In Sacramento, soon after Order 9066 was issued, hand-lettered signs went up all over town, saying “Japs must go.”
Gaining Insight into the WWII Era through Electronic RecordsGaining Insight into the WWII Era through Electronic Records (PDF) »

Subjects: US History, World History, US Government and Civics; Language Arts
Grade level: 9 - 12

Through the National Archives web site, you and your students have access to millions of electronic records that provide insight into the World War II era.  On the surface, the Access to Archival Databases (AAD) resource seems a bit intimidating, as it provides online access to electronic records that are highly structured, such as in databases.  But two of the archival series available through AAD in particular provide a wealth of information about WWII that students and teachers will find fascinating. 

Art and Propaganda Art and Propaganda (PDF) »

Subjects: U.S.  History, World History
Grade level: 9 - 12

Poster propaganda is an old method of solidifying the hearts and minds of the public, but in the 20th century with advances in photography and color printing, it became an effective art form and weapon in waging war.

In this activity, students will use THE WAR Search and Explore database to focus on key themes and examine how these themes were reflected in propaganda posters. 

Resources incorporated into this lesson:
Video Icon Historic propaganda posters »
See a collection of 50 historic posters in our Search & Explore database
Video Icon Radio broadcasts and News Reels »
Listen to clips of FDR radio speech and see clips of archival News Reels and government films