Teaching and Learning History - 051016

Classroom Applications


Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society
& the War on Poverty Lesson Plan

by Jennifer Staysniak
Mount Alvernia High School
Boston, MA

Too often teachers find themselves in a time crunch toward the end of the year, just when it is time to discuss Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Already under pressure to cover as much material as possible, teachers must also consider state curriculum standards concerning Johnson and his ambitious domestic agenda. Curriculum frameworks in social studies tend to emphasize Johnson’s presidency in relation to Kennedy, Nixon, and Reagan, with a particular emphasis on his deepening involvement in Vietnam. All too frequently, this means the incredible amount of legislation, social reforms, and program initiatives from his presidency are overlooked and passed by.

Johnson’s Great Society provides a unique opportunity for students to reflect on legislation and social welfare reforms that are still relevant today. Indeed, many students may already have some exposure to programs from this time period. Yet rarely do they have a full understanding of the War on Poverty's successes, failures, limitations, and legacy. If one goal of teaching social studies is to allow students space to see themselves within the grand narrative of U.S. history, we must take time to reflect on Johnson’s vision for an America without poverty.

New advances in scholarship on the War on Poverty are quite welcome. But while these studies are a boon to professors and academics, the new grassroots perspectives make the task of the teacher that much more complicated. The question is then, how do we effectively teach the Great Society and the War on Poverty within a two-day lesson? With the amount of information available, teaching such a content-rich time period is no easy task. There are important elements to highlight however, and I hope that this lesson plan provides your students with a hands-on, front row seat to a critical time period in our nation’s history. 

Learning Objectives:
    1.  Students will be able to identify the goals of Johnson’s Great Society and the War on Poverty.
    2.  Students will be able to illustrate the successes and failures of the War on Poverty.
    3.  Students will be able to compare the War on Poverty’s political and on-the-ground legacies.
    4.  Students will be able to construct and design their own War on Poverty program applicable to current issues.

Language Objectives:
    1.    Students will be able to identify and discuss major legislation and initiatives from Johnson’s administration. This includes the 1964 Civil Rights Act, 1965 Civil Rights Act, 1968 Civil Rights Act, Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, Higher Education Act, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of Transportation, Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 and the Office of Economic Opportunity, Medicare, Medicaid, Job Corps, VISTA, Model Cities, Upward Bound, Food Stamps, and Head Start.

    1.    Johnson’s Great Society Speech Worksheet (Homework due on Day One of Lesson)
    2.    The Other America Worksheet (Homework due on Day Two of Lesson)
    3.    War on Poverty Program Activity (In-Class)

Day One Procedure:
    1.    Review homework due today (Johnson’s Great Society Speech Worksheet)
              a.  Options: Put students into groups to discuss their answers; Partner discussion; Students may volunteer answers; Cold call
    2.    Collect homework.
    3.    Clarify the goals of Johnson’s Great Society based on the homework assignment and briefly explain how the War on Poverty fit into his vision.
    4.    Partner Discussion: After you have provided a lead-in to the War on Poverty, put students into groups of 2-3 people and have them discuss and write down answers in their notebooks for the following questions:
              a.    What does it mean to go to war against something or someone?
              b.    How can one conclude the victors from the losers at the end of a war?
              c.    When is a war over?
    5.   Whole Group Discussion: Have one member from each group volunteer to share his or her thoughts with the class. You may choose to have one group share their response to only one of the three questions to save time.
    6.   Individual Reflection: In their notebooks, have students reflect on the following question:
             a.   Can a war against poverty be won? Explain why or why not.
    7.    Video: Show the five-minute video “The Great Society” to students: http://www.lbjlibrary.org/lyndon-baines-johnson/speeches-films#!prettyPhoto/7/
             a.    This video is available at www.lbjlibrary.org, under “Speeches and Films”
    8.    Group Discussion: After watching the clip, clarify any programs mentioned in the film that are necessary for students to understand. Then discuss with students:
             a.    How does the video portray Johnson’s Great Society and the War on Poverty?
             b.    Who or what do you think is left out of this narrative?
                        i.    Suggestion: Ruby Duncan and Operation Life is a great example of grassroots social action during the War on Poverty. For more information browse Storming Caesar’s Palace by Annelise Orleck
             c.    What roadblocks do you believe the War on Poverty and Johnson’s initiatives faced?
    9.    Distribute and explain homework. If time allows, students may begin. You may also choose, similar to the homework due today, to upload the assignment to your teacher website to save paper. 

Day Two Procedure:
    1.    Discussion: Using knowledge from last night’s homework and yesterday’s lesson, discuss with students successes of, and roadblocks to, the War on Poverty.
    2.    Homework: Have students take out their homework and review their answer to question #5. Ask students to choose what problem they believe is the most important to solve today. Go around the room one-by-one and have each student share that one problem. As they share, make a list on the board (or have a student volunteer to write on the board). If there are repeats, put a checkmark next to each one. Use this list to transition into the activity.
    3.    Collect homework.
    4.    Activity: Arrange students into groups of 4-5 and give each group one piece of blank white paper (computer or construction), then explain the activity. As you explain, write the main components of the activity on the board. You may also choose to have the activity directions on a handout, or to save paper, on a power point slide. Say to students:
              a.    Using your knowledge of Johnson’s Great Society initiatives and his War on Poverty programs, create your own War on Poverty program that addresses a major concern of today. As a group, you will prepare a “report” that will be turned in. On this report, you must have a program:
                        i.    Description (3-4 sentences)
                        ii.   Defense (Why is this necessary?) (3-4 sentences)
                        iii.  Goals (At least 3)
                        iv.   Plan of Action (How is this going to work?) (5-6 sentences)
                        v.    Possible Problems (At least 3)
                        vi.   Logo and Slogan (hand-drawn, approximately the size of your hand)
              b.    Your report must use complete sentences and each group member must write at least one of the sections. Only one report per group needs to be turned in, so pass it around as you write out your report so I see everyone’s handwriting. The logo and slogan should be completed on the blank paper. 
    5.    Have students share with the class and post their logo and slogan somewhere in your classroom.
    6.    Reflection/Exit Ticket: Have student reflect on the following questions. You may choose to have them write it as an exit ticket and collect it from them as they leave class, or write in their notebooks:
              a.    How were the programs your created today similar to Johnson’s War on Poverty initiatives? How were they different? Do you believe these programs could be successful if put into action today? Why or why not?

Additional Resources:
“LBJ.” The American Experience. PBS. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/lbj/
“Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library.” http://www.lbjlibrary.org/


About NCHE

The National Council for History Education promotes historical literacy by creating opportunities for teachers and students to benefit from more history, better taught.