Seabiscuit offers insights into American history topics including the Great Depression, sports, folk heroes, the rise of radio and creation of a national media audience, American success stories, regional rivalries, the rise of the automobile and decline of the horse, and the legalization of gambling. You can use part or all of the film, or delve into the rich resources available on this website to learn more, either in a classroom or on your own.
The following activities are grouped into 4 categories:
Read about racing and radio broadcasts. The fact that Seabiscuit’s races were broadcast live on radio made them exciting, memorable events for millions of Americans. What major public events do you recall hearing about or watching on television as they were happening? Select one and write a description of your experience of the event. (You may choose a sporting event, a political event such as an election, a natural disaster, or some other public event.) Describe where you were and what you were doing when the event took place, whether the event was a surprise or something you had planned to “attend” by television or some other medium, and your reaction while the event unfolded; also state whether the memory is happy, painful, etc. To help your audience see the event through your eyes, be as specific as possible in your description. When you are done, read your account to the class.
How different was life in the United States of Seabiscuit’s era from life in the United States of today? Divide the class into two groups, a “Then” group and a “Now” group. As a class, brainstorm a list of questions each group must answer about “its” time period, such as: What kind of music is popular? What other forms of entertainment are popular? At what age do most people marry? Do most married women work outside the home? What government programs help those who are unable to support themselves? What diseases and other medical problems are most feared? After the class has agreed on a list of questions, each group should research the answers. When groups have finished their research, show the results in a chart on the board.
Read about Seabiscuit-itis. The marketing of athletes has expanded enormously in the decades since Seabiscuit. Find as many examples as you can — from television, newspapers, magazines, retail stores, websites, and other sources — of celebrity endorsements of consumer products or other items or organizations. Do not restrict yourself to athletes from one particular sport or of one particular gender or nationality. Assemble your examples in a poster, scrapbook, or other form and present them to the class.
As a class, prepare a radio broadcast entitled “Seabiscuit: An Inspiring Story in a Troubled World.” The broadcast, which would be aired on New Year’s Day 1939, should explain how the exploits of Seabiscuit were a welcome diversion at a time of economic depression at home and trouble overseas. Divide the class into seven groups: one to write the narrator’s script on Seabiscuit’s accomplishments in 1938, and one each to provide coverage of recent events in the United States, Germany, Austria, Ethiopia, Soviet Union, and China. Each country’s report should be approximately 250 words and should briefly summarize important developments in that country. After each group has written its script, the other groups should comment on it and suggest improvements. When all scripts have been revised, practice and then record the broadcast.
Review the timeline. Then on a map of the United States mark the places that in your opinion were the most important in Seabiscuit’s career. Label each place with the relevant event. When everyone is finished, post the maps around the room and compare them. Did everyone mark the same locations?
Read about racing in the Depression. As the reading and the film explain, a number of states that had banned gambling on horse racing in the early part of the 1900s reversed those bans during the Great Depression because they needed the tax revenue that legalized gambling could bring. Today, states are facing their largest fiscal crisis since the Great Depression, and many are voting to adopt or expand gambling as a way of increasing revenues without raising taxes. As a class, find out whether your state recently has taken, or is considering taking, such a step, and the details of the proposed measure. (If no such proposal has been adopted or proposed in your state, choose a neighboring state that is considering one.) Form two groups, one in favor of the proposal and one against it. Then hold a class debate on whether the state should adopt (or should have adopted) the proposal. As a “visual aid” for the debate, each group should prepare two or more posters summarizing its views of the issue.
As the film notes, Seabiscuit’s fans compared him to a hero in one of the books of Horatio Alger. A number of celebrated Americans emerged from a humble background and/or overcame significant hurdles to achieve success — including, to name just a few, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Andrew Carnegie, Helen Keller, Jim Thorpe, Lou Gehrig, Franklin Roosevelt, Wilma Rudolph, and Christopher Reeve. Why is this image of a person succeeding through individual effort and often against great odds so appealing to Americans? Select one American, living or dead, who in your view fits this description, and write an essay explaining what you admire about him or her.
After students have made their presentations, you might compare the accounts of any students who described the same event. Another way to conduct the activity would be to have all students write about their memories of the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Another way to present the results of groups’ research would be through “Then and Now” displays comparing typical homes, cars, or fashions, recordings of music from the two eras, graphs and charts on economic or demographic topics, or even excerpts from “typical” Hollywood films of the two eras.
You might point out that some pro athletes have their own websites; some also have used the celebrity they gained from sports to market themselves in other professional areas, such as recording music or acting.
You may wish to add or subtract countries from the list provided. Events that you might want to cover include the continuation of the Great Depression in the United States, Austria’s annexation by Germany, the German government’s actions to deprive German Jews of their civil rights, mass arrests by the Stalin government in the Soviet Union, Italy’s aggression against Ethiopia, and the Japanese invasion of China.
In addition to obvious places like Pimlico and Santa Anita, you also might include places like Suffolk Downs, where Seabiscuit first met Tom Smith. At the end of the activity, you might ask students to identify the locations of the three legs of the Triple Crown.
Supporters of gambling might argue that it would help states maintain vital programs and services without increasing taxes. Opponents might argue that it would cause an increase in crime and disproportionately harm lower-income individuals. For information on recent state gambling initiatives, students might want to consult materials located at the National Conference of State Legislatures, as well as major state newspapers.
This activity could be used as the springboard for a class discussion of the differences between a hero and a celebrity — how do the personal qualities required of the two differ?
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