Investigative Question

In what ways have issues such as education; civil rights for people of color, immigrants, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans, and disabled Americans; economic policy; the environment; and the status of women remain unchanged over time? In what ways have they changed?

The modern conservative movement, which had started well before Reagan’s election in 1980 and extended beyond the presidency of George W. Bush in the 2000s, echoed populist voices from the prior century with its criticism of “establishment elites” and support of a smaller government that would advocate social programs that promoted what they termed “traditional family values.” This movement built a part of its base through evangelical churches, televangelism, and other media outlets. Its leaders formed their ideology through organizations like the Young Americans for Freedom and went on to found a variety of think tanks and lobbying organizations. Students can extend their studies of Reagan by exploring political developments of the 1990s and 2000s; they may chart how conservative principles from the 1980s influenced the nation around the turn of the millennium. . . . Another key topic that Americans wrestled with in recent decades has been immigration. Students can examine census data to identify basic demographic changes: How has the composition of the US shifted between 1950 and 1980 and between 1980 and today, for example? By exploring quantitative immigration information, students notice significant changes in the national origins of immigrants to the United States. As with their studies of immigration from the beginning of the twentieth century, students can analyze push-and-pull factors that contributed to shifting immigration patterns, but they should also learn about changes in immigration policy. Starting with the Immigration Act of 1965, laws have liberalized country-of-origin policies, emphasizing family reunification, and rejecting same-sex partners of American citizens. Students can explain how these policies have affected American society. In California, Propositions 187, 209, and 227 attacked illegal immigration, affirmative action, and bilingual education, respectively. While all provisions of Proposition 187 were blocked by federal courts except one, throughout the 1990s and even more so after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, Congress provided for increased border enforcement. By the 2000s, the status of Mexican Americans and Mexican immigration became a national political discussion. In California, Latino/as became the largest ethnic group in 2010, and Latino/a children comprised more than 51 percent of public schools. It was in this context that the Latino/a community became increasingly politically active. In addition, students analyze the impact and experience of refugees who fled Southeast Asia after the Vietnam War or Iranians after the Islamic Revolution. To synthesize these developments, students can address this question: Why is the United States more diverse now than it was in the middle of the twentieth century? Students can also explore how the immigrant experience has changed over time by considering the following questions: How does the life of a new immigrant to the United States today compare with what it was in 1900? How do policies from the second half of the twentieth century compare with those of the early twenty-first century? . . . Finally, consideration should be given to the major social and political challenges of contemporary America. Issues inherent in contemporary challenges can be debated, and experts from the community may be invited as speakers. The following questions can guide students’ explorations of these varied topics: In what ways have issues such as education; civil rights for people of color, immigrants, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Americans, and disabled Americans; economic policy; recognition of economic, social and cultural rights; the environment; and the status of women remained unchanged over time? In what ways have they changed? The growth of the LGBT rights movement, for example, led to the pioneering role of gay politicians such as Elaine Noble, who was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1974, and Harvey Milk, elected in 1977 to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
This inquiry set is designed to provide eleventh-grade students with an overview of recent social and cultural developments. This context provides a springboard for students to begin to make broader historical connections between social and political dynamics in their own lifetime and in the recent and more distant past. This inquiry set — and the questions that are embedded in it — is intended to be a culmination, one that is undertaken at the end of the course when students can compare these current topics with their evolution over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The following topics are essential for students to make sense of current domestic dynamics: (1) education, (2) civil rights, (3) economic policy, (4) the environment, and (5) the status of women. These five topics have evolved considerably over the past 150 years, and they continue to shape Americans' lives in meaningful ways. They are also topics that Americans often wrestle with in personal and political ways. The documents chosen to illustrate these topics in this inquiry set are by no means comprehensive; instead, they provide a foundation for students to consider the multiple ways that a topic like education has impacted most people. This inquiry set uses education as the lens through which the other recent histories are explored. Education is an institution and an idea that all students in California have experienced. It has been instituted in ways that many Americans consider imperfect, and it is an arena in which there has been no consensus about how to apply it fairly to all Americans. Each one of these documents could be a jumping-off point for a student to begin a larger research project on any one of these topics. However, with a very limited amount of time at the end of the school year, teachers could also use these documents to provide necessary background for students to address the topic of why the world they are inheriting is structured the way it is. Two documents in this collection — one about the fight for disability rights and another about bathrooms for transgender students — seek to illustrate some of the complexities in topics that touch our students so directly. The literacy activity in this set asks students to synthesize information in multiple sources in order to engage in comparing and contrasting the sources related to gender equity, immigration, and civil rights activism.
Teacher background: One challenge of this unit is helping students draw conclusions about how a diverse but related set of issues (and approaches to these issues) have / have not changed over time. This literacy activity provides a structure for students to synthesize and make meaning across various texts. It pairs up six of the unit's texts: two related to gender equity laws, two related to immigration policies, and two related to civil rights activism. Students will go through a process of (1) analyzing each individual text, (2) comparing observations with the other text on the same theme, and (3) looking across all three themes to draw larger conclusions about how issues and our approaches to them have evolved. Directions:
  1. Provide context.
    • a. As this activity will unfold over time, preview the process and charts with students and help them to understand that this structure will help them keep track of their ideas and, ultimately, draw overarching takeaways from the unit texts.
    • b. Along the way, use the descriptions accompanying the various texts to provide students context about them and the topics they depict.
  2. Interpret and discuss text.
    • a. For the first theme, "Gender Equity Laws," you may wish to model each piece of the process, leading the class in a collaborative process to complete the first chart comparison. This involves describing each individual source and what it suggests about a topic at a point in history, and then comparing across the two sources.
    • b. For the second two themes, "Immigration Policy" and "Civil Rights Activism," if students are ready, ask them to tackle more aspects of the chart in pairs, small groups, or individually, ensuring there are always opportunities for all students to verbally process their ideas and listen to the ideas of others and that there is always some opportunity for whole-class debriefing.
    • c. Ask students to talk and then write (or write and then talk) about the overarching question that asks them to reflect across all three themes.
  3. Extend the learning. Students could find (or be provided with) even more sources to help with their comparing/contrasting of issues over time. For example, they could find (or be given) an earlier perspective on climate change to put into conversation with the Juliana v. United States text.
Handouts 11.11 Contemporary Issues in American Society Student Handout 11.11 Contemporary Issues in American Society Teacher Key
  • The Library of Congress. The Library of Congress’ Primary Source Analysis Tool supports an inquiry model of instruction by asking students to first observe, then reflect, then question. Their customizable tool includes specific prompts for student interrogation of books and other printed materials, maps, oral recordings, photographs and paintings, and many other types of primary sources.
  • The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). NARA has developed a vast collection of document analysis worksheets, ready for classroom use. Their website offers teachers a wide collection of customizable tools – appropriate for working with photographs, maps, written documents, and more. NARA has also customized their tools to meet the needs of young learners, and intermediate or secondary students.
Struggles that have occurred in students' own lifetime around topics of disability, immigration, gender identity, educational opportunity.