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Lincoln's Legend and Legacy

This lesson is designed for use in Social Studies and English classrooms, grades 7-12.

Lesson Objectives

By the end of this lesson, students will:

  • Access prior knowledge by briefly reflecting and writing on the impact of Abraham Lincoln on America.
  • Watch and interpret video clips of an actor reading poetry and prose on Lincoln by influential American writers.
  • Write an original poem or one-page speech on a contemporary American or on someone that students have studied in class.
  • Compare and contrast their writing pieces with those of their classmates.
Estimated Time

One and a half 50-minute class periods

Materials Needed

Relevant Standards

These standards are drawn from "Content Knowledge," a compilation of content standards and benchmarks for K-12 curriculum by McRel (Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning) at

Language Arts, Standard 1: Uses the general skills and strategies of the writing process.

Language Arts, Standard 4: Gathers and uses information for research purposes.

Level IV, Benchmark 4: Uses a variety of criteria to evaluate the validity and reliability of primary and secondary source information (e.g., the motives, credibility, and perspectives of the author; date of publication; use of logic, propaganda, bias, and language; comprehensiveness of evidence)
Language Arts, Standard 9: Uses viewing skills and strategies to understand and interpret visual media.

Historical Understanding, Standard 1: Understands and knows how to analyze chronological relationships and patterns.

Historical Understanding, Standard 2: Understands the historical perspective.

U.S. History, Standard 14: Understands the course and character of the Civil War and its effects on the American people.
Level IV, Benchmark 2: Understands the influence of Abraham Lincoln's ideas on the Civil War.
U.S. History, Standard 29: Understands the struggle for racial and gender equality and for the extension of civil liberties.

Assumed Student Prior Knowledge

This lesson assumes that students have previously studied the life of Abraham Lincoln and have an understanding of American society in the mid-19th century. For free multimedia resources that can provide this background, please see the Related Resources section. It would also be helpful if students are familiar with the some of the writers featured in the lesson.

Teaching Strategy

1. To prepare for this lesson, it is strongly recommended that you first read the full transcript of the program from which the video clips in this lesson are excerpted. (You could also watch the full program online.) In the program, historian Howard Holzer provides helpful context for each writer's quotation that may be useful to reference in class discussions.

2. Begin the lesson by asking students to spend five minutes responding in writing to the prompt, "What impact has Abraham Lincoln had on America?" Invite a few students to share their ideas with the rest of the class and explain their thinking. Compare and contrast what they've written.

3. Explain that many writers have tried to define Lincoln's place in history, but they have often drawn different conclusions about him. To illustrate this point, show students a selection of video clips that show actor Sam Waterston reading poetry and prose about Lincoln from some influential American writers. Choose at least two clips that best support your curricular goals and the abilities of your students. Explain that students should focus more on listening than watching each clip, and should use the provided handout to take notes. Focus their listening by asking them to jot down key words that help reveal the author's perspective on Lincoln. Replay any clips as needed.

4. After each clip, define any new vocabulary words and ensure that students understand what the author is saying. Then, ask students to interpret the writer's core message about Lincoln in the quotation and record that on the handout.

5. Discuss the similarities and differences among the writers' views of Lincoln. What does each writer's perspective reveal about his motives, values, hopes, or fears? (e.g., Ginsberg's views on the destructive forces of materialism) How might each writer's words be shaped by the era in which he lived? (Depending on your students' prior knowledge, you may need to tell students some details about each writer.) How do their words reflect our ever-changing views of ourselves as Americans? Finally, what value, if any, do students think these writer's perspectives bring to our understanding of Lincoln's legacy?

6. Have students write a poem or one-page speech that illustrates how they see either a contemporary American or a person that students have studied together in class. Ask all students to write about the same person. Allow an appropriate amount of time to complete the assignment outside of class.

7. Conclude the lesson by comparing and contrasting student writing pieces, either as a class or in small groups. Discuss any factors that could have influenced the perspectives that students shared in their writing. How do these student poems and speeches collectively affect how the person they wrote about is perceived?

Assessment Recommendations

Check student understanding of the concepts in this lesson by:

  • Collecting and grading the handout.
  • Assessing participation in class discussions.
  • Evaluating the content of student poems or speeches.
Extension Ideas

1. Explore and analyze popular uses of Lincoln's image through the ages with this BILL MOYERS JOURNAL slideshow ( Ask student pairs to select an image, describe its contents in writing, explain if and how any propaganda techniques are used, and who benefits from the image. Discuss as a class how such images might harm or enhance Lincoln's legend and legacy. Also, how do these images compare with writings on Lincoln from that time? How has his image evolved?

2. Determine how credible the writers quoted in this lesson are. Are their words merely opinion? Or are they grounded in historical evidence? Have small groups choose one of the writers and conduct research to find primary sources that support or refute his perspective. For example, which of Lincoln's actions or statements may have caused Douglass to conclude that, from an abolitionist's standpoint, the president was "tardy, dull, cold, and indifferent"? Have each group report its findings to the class.

3. Discover how Lincoln not only inspired poetry, but wrote poetry of his own. The Library of Congress article, "Lincoln as Poet" ( provides a sampling of Lincoln's poems. The first three poems on the page are read by Sam Waterston in this lesson's featured program. Students can also look at the original writings and transcript of the poem, "My Childhood Home I See Again." Review Lincoln's notes on the circumstances that led him to write the poem, and then guide students through a reading of it. What do we learn about Lincoln from this poem?

Related Resources

The Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress?
This collection of some 20,000 primary source documents are from the 1850s through Lincoln's presidential years, 1860-65.

The February 2009 episode, "The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln" ( can be seen online in its entirety and is accompanied by a transcript, timeline, and educator resources. To explore what American life was like in the mid-19th century, see "The Time of the Lincolns" Web site (

This February 2009 PBS special features the work of historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. as he addresses some of the controversies surrounding Lincoln through his interpretation of evidence from those who knew him and those who study him today. The Web site provides the program online in its entirety and includes maps of Lincoln sites in the U.S., a Lincoln knowledge quiz, and an interactive timeline.

About the Author

Cari Ladd, M.Ed., is an educational writer with a background in secondary education and media development. Previously, she served as PBS Interactive's Director of Education, overseeing the development of curricular resources tied to PBS programs, the PBS TeacherSource Web site (now PBS Teachers), and online teacher professional development services. She has also taught in Maryland and Northern Virginia.

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