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(H)our History Lesson: Teaching Engaged Citizenship, First Amendment Freedoms

Men typing on machines

This lesson was written by Talia Brenner and edited by Katie McCarthy.

Grade Level:

This lesson is intended for middle school learners, but can easily be adapted for use by learners of all ages.

Lesson Objectives:

Learners will be able to...

  1. Understand what rights are protected by the First Amendment.

  1. Explore examples of these rights.

  1. Cite specific textual evidence to support their analysis of First Amendment photographs.

Inquiry Question:

When you imagine a First Amendment freedom, what do you picture?

Reading:

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution reads,

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

This amendment ensures the freedoms of speech, press, religion, petition, and assembly. Over time, laws and court decisions have determined exactly what these freedoms mean, and when they do and do not apply. One thing has remained the same, though: people in the United States use these freedoms to express themselves, connect with others, and advocate for causes that they believe are right.

Activity: The First Amendment in Historical Photos

Show learners the following historic photos. For each one, participants should identify who the people in the photo are, what is happening, and which First Amendment freedoms are being depicted (there are often multiple!). You might display the captions along with the photos, or have learners try to deduce what is happening in the photos before they see the caption.


Photo 1

Men typing on machines
Linotype operators at the Chicago Defender, a Black newspaper, April 1941. Photograph by Lee Russell.

Library of Congress, Farm Security Administration - Office of War Information Photograph Collection, sa 8c00825 //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8c00825, https://lccn.loc.gov/2017788930.

Photo 2
Men standing at a table. Some wear Jewish religious clothing.
Crew members celebrate the Jewish holiday of Passover aboard the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, April 7, 1985.

Combined Military Service Digital Photographic Files, 1982-2007, National Archives, https://catalog.archives.gov/id/6417837.

Photo 3
A man talking to people holding signs
Boston Mayor Kevin White addressing protesters at City Hall, March 15, 1968.

Brearley Collection, Boston Public Library, https://ark.digitalcommonwealth.org/ark:/50959/0v838d722.

Photo 4
Political cartoon depicting Andrew Jackson as a donkey
Political cartoon mocking Andrew Jackson and his administration, 1833. Drawing by Anthony Imbert.

Library of Congress, American cartoon print filing series, cph 3a08876 //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3a08876, https://lccn.loc.gov/2008661756.

Photo 5
People marching in a Pride Parade. They have a sign that says, "LGBTQ Muslims and Friends."
Members of the Al-Fatiha Foundation at the San Francisco LGBT Pride Parade, June 29, 2008. Photo by Franco Folini.

“Al-Fatiha Muslim Gays - Gay Parade 2008 in San Francisco (2626954534),” WikiMedia Commons, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Al-Fatiha_Foundation#/media/File:Al-Fatiha_Muslim_Gays_-_Gay_Parade_2008_in_San_Francisco_(2626954534).jpg.

Wrap-up:

  1. Think of a moment where you used a right guaranteed in the First Amendment. What was it?

  1. Why do you think these rights are important in a democracy?

  1. What does learning about the First Amendment make you curious about?

Additional Resources:

There are many excellent teaching resources about First Amendment freedoms, including full lesson plans. The following resources are all available online at no cost.

Bill of Rights Institute 
The Bill of Rights Institute has a page of educator resources on the topics of Freedom of Assembly, Freedom of Religion, Freedom of Speech, and Freedom of the Press. There is also a Student Rights page, includes First Amendment freedoms. Each page includes “eLessons” in a variety of formats as well as links to high-quality articles about relevant current events.

National Constitution Center
The National Constitution Center’s lesson plans include First Amendment topics. There are First Amendment lesson plans available for middle and high school grades.

National Archives
The National Archives’ DocsTeach program has activities about the First Amendment for upper elementary and middle school students. The Archives website also has a free eWorkbook, Putting the Bill of Rights to the Test, about the Bill of Rights, and an eBook, Congress Creates the Bill of Rights, about the history of the Bill of Rights’ passage.

First Amendment Freedoms in History

  • Marchers watched by law enforcement.

    The Selma to Montgomery March

    Learn how people in Selma, Alabama worked together to end the unconstitutional denial of voting rights to African Americans.

  • Group of suffragists picketing.

    Lafayette Park

    Learn how a group of determined women selected Lafayette Park, across from the White House, to demonstrate for their right to vote.

  • Photo of a colonel in the army.

    Colonel Young's Protest Ride

    Learn about Colonel Charles Young's protest ride from Wilberforce, Ohio to Washington, D.C.

  • A group of women standing in front of the U.S. Capitol

    The Sewall-Belmont House

    Learn about how American women organized to increase their political rights in the 20th century.

  • A black woman's face and the outside of a brick building

    The Mary Ann Shadd Cary House

    Learn how activist, journalist, and lawyer Mary Ann Shadd Cary worked to bring new opportunities for African Americans freedom seekers.

  • A streetcar outside an amusement park entrance

    Glen Echo Park

    Trace the evolution of this Maryland site from a chapter of the Chautauqua movement, to an amusement park, to a national park.

Part of a series of articles titled Teaching Engaged Citizenship.

Last updated: February 23, 2021