Stealing from CNN Makes for Good Lessons

Monday’s lesson went like gangbusters.

In case you don’t know what we’re talking about, it’s this lesson.

Students read aloud comments from CNN which ostensibly reacted to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s “God Damn America” sermon and what most-famous-parishioner and Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama should do about him. Then, they watch the sermon and argue amongst themselves.

The first period loved it. Half of the class thought Wright’s phrasing was outrageous and should not be tolerated under any circumstances. The other half thought that it was reasonable, given the context. There was arguing even before we got to the comments read aloud.

Once the comments were read aloud, students were required to write their response to that comment on a sheet of binder paper, noting how effective and how fair that comment was.

Second period was more sedate, but most of the really high performing kids were absent. Fortunately, even though there wasn’t much talking or arguing — we finished a two-hour block with half an hour to spare, while the first period went into the passing period — their written responses were just as insightful as the first period.

Next time, I’ll get students to volunteer to read the comments aloud. Those who were handed the comments read them grudgingly and unenthusiastically — hardly the effect for which I had hoped.

Next up: a timeline of the Civil Rights movement since the Dred Scott decision. Naturally, we’ll bookend this by listening to Sen. Obama’s well-spoken response to the criticism of the Rev. Wright.

I expect nothing but good things from this class this week.

Moral of the story? If you, the history teacher, has trouble finding standardized content relevant to students’ everyday lives, read a newspaper once a month. You’ll find something.


  1. TeacherMom


    I’m preparing a Civil Rights unit and lesson plan also for my curriculum and assessment class. I’m exactly one year behind you – student teaching next Spring.

    Will you be posting details of your civil rights unit or lesson plans? I am very curious to see what you are doing as I loved your idea on Rev. Wright/freedom of speech.

  2. I don’t have anything written out, but here are the details as I remember them.

    I downloaded the clip from YouTube using DownloadHelper, a Firefox extension.

    First, we watched just the six-second clip. I asked them to write down three things:

    What is your immediate reaction?
    Could this be acceptable in any circumstance?
    This man is the former pastor and close friend of Barack Obama. Should the candidate denounce his pastor?

    Some students read aloud comments I randomly pulled from CNN’s Web site. I had students assess, on their piece of paper, each comment for fairness, accuracy and how much they agreed with it.

    Then we watched the fuller clip of the sermon. Students then answered these questions on their own piece of paper:

    What history does the pastor mention?
    What is the context for “God Damn America?”
    Is this sentiment acceptable?
    Has your reaction changed?

    Once the bitter and spiteful arguments between students started getting uninteresting, we freshened up the discussion with some more CNN comments. Students continued to assess them.

    We acknowledged the anger of many members of the black community, and decided to learn more about the reason why this anger exists. This segued into discussion of the Civil Rights movement since the Dred Scott case.

  3. If you have 50-minute periods, this would take a good 2 to 4 days, depending on how you work it.

    Oh, and, if you would, please spread the word about this blog among your peers. I’m aiming for mainstream status.

  4. TeacherMom

    Will do and thanks for the details! I subscribe to your blog and it gives me great insight – sometimes too much:) about what I’ll soon be facing.

  5. Glad I could help; I appreciate any and all feedback.

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