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August 29, 2021

Lesson Plan: Native American boarding schools and human rights

Ciricahua Apaches at the Carlisle Indian School, Penna., 188-?: as they looked upon arrival at the School. , 1885. [or 1886] Photograph. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

 

For a Google doc version of this lesson, click here (you will be prompted to make a copy).

Note for instructors: This is a difficult and painful topic. Please carefully review all the material ahead of time to assess whether or not it is appropriate for your classroom.

Note for students, before starting this lesson: This is a difficult and painful topic. We will be examining materials that may be triggering or upsetting. If you would like to opt-out of this lesson, at any time, please feel free to.

Overview

Students will examine primary source photos before and after learning about Native American boarding schools in the U.S. and the long-term effects of such policies. Students will then examine the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the “Definition of Genocide” and “Elements of the Crime” from The United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect. Students will use these resources to determine if the ways in which the United States government treated Indigenous peoples in the creation and implementation of Native American boarding schools upheld or violated children’s rights and if this treatment fits the definition of genocide.

Subjects

U.S. History, Civics

Estimated time

One 50-to-60 minute class period, plus extension activities

Grade level

 9-12

Objectives: Students will be able to:

  • Use historical context to help make sense of primary source photos
  • Understand the rights of children
  • Understand what constitutes genocide
  • Use evidence to support their conclusions about Native American boarding schools
  • Understand the effects that Native American boarding schools had on Indigenous peoples 
  • Learn about the Carlisle School and the impact it had on Indigenous peoples of the past and today (extension)

Main activities:

Introduce students to the topic: Native American boarding schools. 

1. Examine (10 min) primary source photos:

Source: Library of Congress

Source: Library of Congress

Source: Library of Congress

Ask students:

  • What do you see in these photos?
  • What do you think is happening?
  • What questions do you have?

All students should record their responses to each of the questions. Students who wish to can share their responses aloud to the class. 

2. Provide (5 min) brief historical context. Let students know that this is a difficult and upsetting subject to examine. 

For more than 150 years, Indigenous children in the United States were taken from their families and forced into far away boarding schools. From the 1870s to as late as the 1960s, nearly 300 boarding schools, many government-run, operated around the country. Native languages, religion and customs were forbidden. The goal, to separate Indian children from their homes and strip away their indigenous cultures (PBS NewsHour).

3. Watch this PBS NewsHour segment (10 mins):

4. Reexamine (10 min) primary photos, and ask the same three questions:

  • What do you see in these photos?
  • What do you think is happening?
  • What questions do you have?

5. Distribute United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child and the United Nations definition of genocide. (15 min)

Students read the “Preamble” + “Article 29” of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the “Definition of Genocide” and “Elements of the Crime” from The United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect. Have students highlight and annotate segments that relate to the Native American boarding schools.

6. Ask students to respond in writing to the questions (20 min):

  • How were Indigenous people affected by how the United States government treated them in Native American boarding schools?
  • How do the ways in which the United States government treated Indigenous peoples in the creation and implementation of Native American boarding schools uphold or violate children’s rights? Which rights were upheld? Which rights were violated?
  • Do the ways in which these boarding schools functioned fit any of the components in the definition of genocide? Which one(s)?

Students who wish to can share their responses aloud to the class.

Extensions:

1. Research & writing activity: Take a deeper dive into The Carlisle Indian School and its founder Captain Richard Henry Pratt’s speech in which he used the now well-known phrase to describe his philosophy of assimilation: “Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.” The following links may be helpful:

The Carlisle Indian School Project

Dickinson College biography of Henry Pratt

Full text of Pratt’s speech from Dickinson College

United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child

United Nations definition of genocide

Write an essay that addresses:

  1. What the Carlisle Indian School was, its purpose, and how it operated
  2. The philosophy behind its creation
  3. The impact on Indigenous peoples then and now
  4. The rights of children
  5. Genocide

2. Dive into the Library of Congress with this primary source research challenge.

    1. Find 2 primary sources from the time period during which Native American boarding schools existed (1870–1960) that justifies or condemns behaviors that would be considered genocide according to the U.N.’s definition.
    2. Write an essay that first identifies and describes your 2 primary sources. Then expand your thinking by writing about how these sources directly relate to the U.S. government’s behaviors towards indigenous people.

3. PBS NewsHour Weekend aired a series of short stories from the Indigenous community in Yellowknife, Canada exploring alcohol use, addiction, resilience and healing. Many of these issues stem in part from the trauma caused by the residential schools that Canada also had in place for decades.

The “Turning Points” project, from the Global Reporting Center, is a series produced, directed and written by Indigenous people who wanted to share their stories. Be sure to check out EXTRA’s lesson plans on the series: One elder’s survival story at Indigenous residential boarding school and One Indigenous man’s journey in fatherhood, addiction and healing.


For 25 years, Dina Weinberg has worked in many capacities with children and teens in public and private schools. She taught middle school English, worked as a teaching artist on large scale collaborative mural projects and created and taught a Seed to Table Garden program. Dina has also taught fine art to groups of children for the last 20 years. Her approach to teaching and learning stems from her belief that every person has the right to grow in a fulfilling, enjoyable, safe way. Her methodology is rooted in a trauma-informed perspective. Dina currently works one-on-one with students on expository, personal and historical writing skills; computational and organizational skills and teaches yoga to children and adults and trains yoga teachers in New York and nationwide. She is the mother of two grown daughters and lives in Bronx, N.Y., with her husband and two cats.

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  • Standards

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    Relevant National Standards:
      Common Core CCSS
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.1: Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.2: Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.7: Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.9: Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources.

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