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Teacher's Guide: Suggestions for Active Learning

Pool scene at the Riviera Hotel. 1950s. Las Vegas: An Unconventional History offers insights into American history topics including: organized crime, the economics of casinos, the legal and moral issues of gambling, the history of nuclear energy, and what the image of Las Vegas means in American society. The site has biographies of key figures in the development of Las Vegas, various scaled maps of its growth, and primary sources from the era of atomic tourism. Other topics include how federal projects contributed to the growth of the area and the usage of water in the desert city. You can use part or all of the film, or delve into the rich resources available on this Web site to learn more, either in a classroom or on your own.

You can access all of the statistical facts from the Trivia Slots on the Las Vegas Trivia Payout page, presented in the style of Harper's Index.

The following activities are grouped into four categories: history, economics, civics, and geography. You can also read a few helpful hints for completing the activities.

History | Economics | Civics | Geography

  1. "Atomic City."
    Las Vegas's history is closely connected with the history of nuclear energy, as the city capitalized on the tourist value of the nearby atomic tests.

    Find out more about the history of nuclear energy -- in both its military and peaceful forms -- by preparing a timeline of major events on this topic since 1940. Divide the class into small groups and assign each group a different time period. Groups should find the major events related to nuclear energy during their assigned time period, such as the first successful tests of the atomic and hydrogen bombs, the dropping of the atomic bomb, the first nuclear-powered ship, the first nuclear energy plants (and major accidents involving these plants), the spread of nuclear technology to new countries, major international agreements on nuclear testing or nuclear weapons stockpiles, and so on.

    When the groups have finished, assemble the findings into a single timeline.

  2. The history of the mob.
    Members of organized crime like "Bugsy" Siegel played a key role in building modern Las Vegas. Find out more about the history of organized crime in the United States by researching the lives, crimes, and (often violent) deaths of Siegel and other key mob figures. Present your findings in posters similar to the FBI's "Ten Most Wanted" list.

History | Economics | Civics | Geography

  1. Gambling's pros and cons.
    Las Vegas is perhaps best known for its many gambling opportunities, such as slot machines and poker. But gambling remains controversial. To some people it is an enjoyable diversion that helps boost the economy, while to others it attracts crime and can ruin lives.

    Hold a class debate on whether gambling should be illegal. Begin by dividing the class into three groups: one for each side of this question and a third group to act as the audience. Each of the debating groups should research arguments that have been made in support of their assigned side. When the debating groups are ready, each group should give a three-minute presentation of its main arguments; each group then has three minutes to respond to arguments raised by the other group. Finally, each member of the audience is allowed to ask a question of any member of either debating group. Have the audience vote on which of the debating groups was more persuasive.

  2. "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas."
    Over the years, Las Vegas has sought to attract visitors with distinctive architecture, flashing neon signs, and ad campaigns that capitalize on the city's reputation for fun (and sin). A well-known recent series of ads by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitor's Authority featured the slogan "What happens here, stays here."

    Discuss this slogan as a class. What messages does it send? How does it play off of the city's reputation? Who might find it effective, and who might not? Do you find it effective?

    Then, working in groups of two or three students each, see if you can come up with an advertising slogan you think would be effective for Las Vegas, and an advertising slogan you think would be effective for your own community.

History | Economics | Civics | Geography

  1. Las Vegas and the American dream.
    The film discusses the relationship between Las Vegas and the "American dream" and looks at how the city resembles (or contrasts with) American society generally. First, hold a class discussion on the meaning of the American dream and see if you can come up with a definition that the entire class can agree on. Then write a 500-word essay giving your personal view on whether Las Vegas represents the American dream in an especially pure form, or the drawbacks of the American dream.

  2. "Ol' Blue Eyes" vs. "the King of Rock 'n' Roll."
    Among the many well-known singers, dancers, and other entertainers who have performed in Las Vegas, Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley stand out. Years after their deaths, both still have millions of loyal fans. In your opinion, how do these two legends stack up against one another?

    Hold a class investigation into this question. Assemble basic information on both men's lives, careers, and achievements (as well as any scandals with which they were associated); listen to some of their greatest hits; and evaluate their acting talent by viewing portions of their films. (Both men made films that featured Las Vegas: Sinatra's Ocean's Eleven from 1960 and Presley's Viva Las Vegas from 1964.) Then vote as a class on these questions: Which man was the better performer? Which man was the better person? Which man made a greater contribution to American culture? Which man's music is more enjoyable today?

History | Economics | Civics | Geography

  1. A desert oasis?
    Obtaining adequate water for its fast-growing population is a serious concern for Las Vegas, which receives very little rainfall and suffers serious droughts. Working with a partner, find out more about the drought, the restrictions that have been imposed on water usage to help cope with it, and the voluntary steps that people can take to reduce their water usage. Using this information, prepare a public-service advertisement informing people about the drought and/or what they can do about it; your advertisement can take the form of a radio or television ad, a billboard (poster), or some other form. Present your ad to the class.

  2. The growth of the Sun Belt.
    The explosive growth in Las Vegas's population over the past century is part of a larger shift in the U.S. population toward the Sun Belt states of the South and West. Illustrate this shift, and some of the reasons behind it, in a series of graphics.

    Divide the class into small groups and assign each group to prepare one of the following: a graph of the growth in Las Vegas's population over the city's 100-year history; a map of the United States showing the change in each state's population over recent decades; a map of the United States showing the change in the number of each state's representatives in Congress over the recent decades; and several graphs comparing the climate in Las Vegas -- the amount of sunshine, average temperature, rainfall, etc. -- with that of other, non-Sun Belt cities. (You may want to choose other topics instead of or in addition to these.) When the groups are done, post the graphics around the room.

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Las Vegas: An Unconventional History American Experience

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