Student Empowerment in a Digital Era

Students today face an incredible challenge.

Smartphones, social media, and the internet provide students with an inexhaustible stream of content. Whether it be in the form of advertisements, news, or pure entertainment, consumable media is seldom out of reach. The ease at which this content can be produced heightens the threat of misinformation and the spread of false narratives. In order to responsibly engage with the abundance of digital content at our disposal, the need for critical, reflective thought is paramount.

Students also face an incredible opportunity.

With the amount of online resources at their disposal, the speed and efficiency of communication and the ability to use these tools via a mobile, handheld platform, students have unprecedented access to the world around them and the capacity to learn from it. Not only is it important for students to think critically about the ideas they encounter in the digital realm, they should also come to know and understand the platforms that supply them.

My goal as a social studies teacher is to provide students with many opportunities to learn and engage with the mediums that shape their worldviews. As more individuals begin to embrace digital lifestyles, our notions of literacy will continue to develop to reflect these patterns in digital consumption. We should equip our students with the necessary skills to navigate these changes with proficiency and critical minds.

As you explore this site you will find a number of activities I have designed for students to engage with various forms of media. Each activity prompts higher-order thinking and reflection, encouraging students to find connections with the material and their own lives.

Project Showcase

This first assignment features National Park Posters from the New Deal Era. After providing some necessary background knowledge, students are asked to explore the image and reflect on the relationship between art styles and production methods. This is an opportunity for students to discuss how a medium can influence the final product – in this case, a silkscreen print. How do other platforms, like Instagram or Twitter, shape the outcome of their content? This assignment features a Google Form to collect student responses, which can be exported to an excel document for further review and assessment.

This post features a method, Visual Scribing, which can be used both as an instructional tool and a form of student assessment. Scribing is a strategy for taking large quantities of information and arranging it, artistically, in visual space. It’s great for visual learners, and adds an additional layer of planning for students who are assigned to scribe as an assessment. How do we represent ideas visually? How can I incorporate symbolism and imagery into my work? Scribing deepens understanding by prompting students to think about ways in which ideas connect in both logical and visual space.

This third assignment was developed as a final portfolio piece: a complete unit in which students can explore a social studies phenomenon through documents, videos, cartoons, and audio clips. Each document is accompanied with background information and questions to prompt critical thinking. This assignment explores an enduring question through the time period of the McCarthy era. Students will use history as a lens for engaging with problems that are just as relevant today as they were during the Red Scare.

The goal of these assignments is a common one: to present students with opportunities to ask questions, by developing historical thinking skills such as contextualization, sourcing, corroborating, and by using these skills to perform effective, thorough historical analysis.

We teach to the times we live in. By providing students with the means to become responsible consumers of information, make informed decisions, and deepen their understandings of themselves and the world around them, we can help ensure that future generations are better equipped to face the challenges of the 21st century. My goal is to help students see that “history”, while rooted in the past is not confined to it; rather, that history is a constantly evolving dialogue, influenced by the present as much as the past.

McCarthy & the Media


The end of WWII, two world powers emerged: the United States of America and the Russian Soviet Union. Politics for the remainder of the 20th century would be dominated by the opposing ideologies of the Communist East, and Democratic West. 

Despite the powerful position held by the United States in this era, the post-war period was full of anxiety and fear that communism would spread across the globe. In addition to the external threat of communism, Americans began to fear the possibility that communist spies had already infiltrated the very fabric of American democracy. Beginning in the late 1940’s committees were formed to seek out and identify any potential spies working on behalf of communist Russia. These committees investigated radio stations, newspapers, movie studios and performers, schools, universities, even the government itself. 

While the term “McCarthyism” today is nearly synonymous with the anti-communist frenzy of the post WWII era, Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin was not a major figure in the anti-communist movement until 1950 when the “Red Scare” was already at its peak. Yet no other figure would achieve such widespread recognition and infamy as a result of their role in the anti-communist movements of the 1940’s and 50’s. 

Check out this TedEd video for more information on McCarthyism and the Red Scare:

  • Some say McCarthy’s infamy was largely due to the press who, through bad reporting, brought the senator’s persona to a national audience and further contributed to the hysteria of the Red Scare. 
  • Others say it was the press who ultimately brought about his downfall in 1954, by exposing him as an liar who abused his power for personal gains. 

Making Connections

Today, as we continue to evaluate the role of the press in politics and as a reliable source of information, it is important for us to question how media can shape our perception of the world around us. Where do we get our news? What sources of information do we rely on, and are they reliable? Is the duty of the press to report “straight facts” or should the media provide interpretation and analysis as well? 

Essential Question

How did the American media contribute to the rise and fall of Senator Joseph McCarthy? Did McCarthy manipulate the press to serve his own anti-communist agenda? Or was the press ultimately responsible for bringing about McCarthy’s downfall?

Roy Cohn, McCarthy’s aide, acknowledged that the senator’s primary goal was to influence public opinion through the press.

“The basic problem, as seen by a small but informed group in and out of government, was the need to reach the public. Nobody, so far, had been able to make America listen.”

Excerpt: Joe McCarthy and the Press

Historical Thinking Skills

Corroborating – Throughout this Document Based Lesson, students will read selections from various primary sources including newspaper clippings, telegrams, and political cartoons; students will review television clips and radio segments as well. Students will then compare evidence from various sources to gain a more complete understanding of how Senator McCarthy was portrayed in media.

Close Reading – Students will pay close attention to the use of language across several publications from the McCarthy era. Students will then reflect on the message conveyed by these various forms of media, including the portrayal of Senator McCarthy and other key figures.

Primary Source Documents

Document 1:

Above is the first published account of Senator McCarthy’s speech in West Virginia. During his speech, McCarthy claimed to have a list of all the known Communists in the state department.

  • Pay close attention to the senator’s response when an interviewer asked to see the actual list of names. Does it seem like McCarthy is making an excuse here?
  • How does this article seem to portray McCarthy? Is he confident? Aggressive?

Compare your notes from from this article to a telegram sent to President Harry S. Truman the following day:

Document 2:

Source: National Archive

How does McCarthy come up with his number of “card-carrying communists” in the state department? What sources does he refer to as evidence for his claim?

Notice McCarthy’s tone in this telegram. Remember, he is addressing the President of the United States. What is he asking the President to do for him? Is this an appropriate way to speak to the President? Why or why not?

Below is a draft from President Truman in response to McCarthy’s telegram. It was likely never sent, though it provides us with a clear sense of the President’s feelings toward McCarthy.

Take note of President Truman’s statements about McCarthy’s character in particular. What are his main accusations?

Document 3:

Source: National Archive

Document 4:

Several days after his speech in West Virginia, the state department issues McCarthy an order to submit the list of names he claims to possess.

Based on McCarthy’s demands for the state department to make their loyalty files public, how do you think McCarthy will respond to this request?

Why do you think the newspaper chose to publish the comment about McCarthy’s accusations being “without foundation in fact?”

Source: California Digital Newspaper Collection

Drew Pearson was a columnist for the Washington Post and one of the most well-known, often controversial American journalists in during the McCarthy era. Pearson’s column, “Washington Merry-Go-Round,” was known for its colorful depictions of politicians and other public figures around Washington DC. Pearson’s style of journalism combined factual reporting with a considerable amount of celebrity gossip and rumor; because of his tendency to blur the line of what could be considered “factual reporting” Pearson drew a lot of criticism during his time.

Pearson was also one of the first reporters to engage with McCarthy head-on. As a result of his attacks on McCarthy, the Senator directed many of his speeches against the reporter, claiming he was a “communist tool” and urging readers to boycott any newspapers that published his column.

Below is an excerpt from Pearson’s column dated February 18th, 1950.

Document 5:

Source: California Digital Newspaper Collection

How does Pearson use evidence to counter Senator McCarthy’s claims about communists in the US government?

Some people have described Pearson as a “muckraker” – what does this term imply, and how does this passage from his column support or deny his role as one?

Compare Pearson’s statements about McCarthy with the cartoon below. The cartoon was published in May of 1950 by cartoonist Herbert Block. What does the cartoon suggest about McCarthy’s reliability?

Document 6:

Source: Library of Congress

How might you describe McCarthy’s appearance in the above cartoon? Is he angry, confident, nervous? How does this compare with other representations of McCarthy in the media?

Next we will hear a recording of Senator McCarthy himself, as a guest on a live radio talk show. Pay close attention to McCarthy’s tactics when talking about newspapers he accuses of being under communist influence. How does he support his claims? What evidence does he use? How does he respond to President Truman’s use of the term “McCarthyism?”

Document 7:

In 1954 Senator McCarthy turned his attention to the possibility of a communist infiltration of the US Army. In order to investigate conflicting accusations on both sides, the Senate initiated a series of hearings from April to June of 1954.

In the television segment below, watch as Joseph Welch (chief legal counsel for the US Army) reprimands Senator McCarthy for his insensitive and reckless accusations.

During this confrontation (around 1:10 in the video) Welch famously asks McCarthy:

“Have you no sense of decency, sir?”

Document 8:

Joseph Welch’s responses to McCarthy signaled the beginning of a decline in the Senator’s career. Watch as television news anchor Edward Murrow offers a special report on Senator McCarthy in his evening documentary news segment: See It Now. The report included recordings of McCarthy’s speeches, which Murrow used to point out inconsistencies and contradictions in the Senator’s arguments.

Document 9:

Reflect on this line from Edward Murrow’s report on McCarthy:

“the line between investigating and persecuting is a very fine one and the junior Senator from Wisconsin has stepped over it repeatedly”

How would you describe Murrow’s approach to investigative journalism? Does he provide enough supporting evidence for his critique of Senator McCarthy? Would you consider McCarthy’s portrayal in the media a form of investigation or persecution? Support your thinking with evidence from the video or the transcript below.

Link to Transcript of the entire report.

Teaching With Data

For this activity students will explore internet trends and pose questions about the nature of human curiosity with the help of Google Trends.

Students will compare two people, topics, or themes using google trends. After reviewing the data students will use prior knowledge to form a list of possible explanations for the changes in search trends over time.

Students will then search for connections between changes in trends and current events to explain the fluctuations over time. For example: the release of Hollywood biopics depicting the lives of The Notorious B.I.G. (Notorious, 2009) and Tupac Shakur (All Eyez on Me, 2017).

Using data from Google Trends and results from their research, students will then answer the question: “What aspects of American Culture have the greatest impact on our interests and curiosity?”

Discussion Methods

“Taking Sides”

During few of our class discussions students have found themselves at odds about a particular topic or issue. Students have also expressed wanting to learn more about their peers by exploring one another’s thoughts and perspectives. I felt there was an opportunity here to introduce a discussion strategy that would allow them to share thoughts and perspectives in a controlled, respectful manner.

I chose to try a “Taking Sides” activity in which students would physically take sides in the classroom between the “Agree” and “Disagree” sides of the room. Before we began, I introduced a few ground rules:

  • One person speaks at a time. Allow your classmate to finish their thought before raising your hand to speak.
  • Responses must be respectful and show evidence of listening. “I agree with what you are saying about ______, however I feel…” or “I hear your point about _____, but I also think…”
  • Students can change sides whenever they feel compelled to

Once we practiced a few light questions like, “Coffee is the best beverage in the world” and “Books are more engaging than movies,” we pursued discussions such as, “I believe my education is valuable,” and, “School encourages me to be the person I want to be.” Students really seemed to get engaged with topics they felt strongly about. I saw a number of students struggling to hold back their responses, but they did a good job of listening to the speaker and holding their responses overall. Once we had worked through a few discussion prompts, I asked the students to think about how they would feel about a “Middle” or “I don’t know” section, and how it might change their perception of the discussions. The students wrote their responses as a reflection, which I collected as an exit ticket.

Most of the students responded well to the activity. Those who were not direct participants said they enjoyed hearing their classmates’ perspectives, and it prompted all of the students to reflect on their own views. A number of students changed sides throughout the activity, and found it was important for them to be able to adjust their position as the conversation evolved. I think it helped them see the value of working through a problem as a group, helping one another clarify what exactly they are talking about, and coming to the realization that they may agree on more things than they realize (though they may perceive themselves to be on opposite sides). It was a rewarding activity, and the students have been asking to do it again almost every day.