A Complete Lesson Plan on the 2020 United States Census as a Teachable Moment

OK, because I’m not working at the moment, I have had some time–in addition to working at publishing 30-50 posts a week on this blog–to think about writing new material that parents, students, and teachers working at a digital distance from their students could profitably use during this public health crisis. After a week or so of unemployment, I started to realize that the 2020 Census of the United States presented a perfect teachable moment; there are a lot of big social studies concepts at work during the census. Moreover, as I started to think through the lesson plan, I realized that I could write something big, in the sense that it would contain a lot of documents, but also flexible, in sense that parents and teachers could expand or contract it as their children, students, and circumstances require. Now that I’ve said that, let me point out that every document in this post is in Microsoft Word, so they are flexible and adaptable to help you best respond to the needs of the kids in front of you.

Now, about a month after starting work on this, it is time to publish it. As I am wont to do, I have allowed the perfect to become the enemy of the good here. I know that new ideas and therefore new questions for this lesson plan will continue to occur to me. Better to get this out than wait to get every last detail into these documents. In any case, I am confident those same thoughts will occur to users of this material; that said, if you have any questions about it, please leave a comment.

So, here is a lesson plan on using the 2020 United States census as a teachable moment. I’ve worked on this document for some time, but like most lesson plans, it may never be either completely coherent, or, indeed, complete. But for the moment, I think it’s sound.

In my classrooms, I always begin every lesson with a short exercise that I learned, while teaching in New York City, to call a “do-now.” I’ve assembled a large number of do-now worksheets for this lesson, all of them adapted from The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2002) by E.D. Hirsch et al. For this lesson, the four most salient are–in order of relevance, I think–E Pluribus Unum, the Latin for “out of many, one.” The census, if nothing else, is an exercise in affirming that out of many places, one; as we’ve learned during the COVID19 crisis, we really are in this all together. One important dimension of the census is determining population figures for apportionment of congressional reputation. This worksheet on the Lockean concept of consent of the governed strikes me as especially important to understand in the context of the census. Given the role the census plays in our democratic elections, this worksheet on equal protection of law is undeniably germane here. In reiterating that we are all in this together, whether in stopping the spread of coronavirus or participating in civic processes like the census, this short exercise on the concept of esprit de corps also strikes me as pertinent to this lesson.

Should you need more Cultural Literacy worksheets for this lesson, or just in general, here, in basic list form, are the rest of the documents I selected as relevant to varying degrees to this lesson, to with these Cultural Literacy worksheets on: absolute monarchy; aristocracy; class; class consciousness; class structure; constitutional convention; faction; incumbent; individualism; meritocracy; nepotism; power elite; Roosevelt’s scheme to pack the Supreme Court, and vested interest. This selection ranges from quite relevant (faction, vested interest) to marginally relevant (class, class consciousness, etc.). If you need guidance on how to use these in the context of the larger lesson, drop a comment and I’ll see if I can help you make the connection and you can help your child or student understand that connection more clearly.

The census, structurally and in terms of the work performing it, is a large scale exercise in demography. That’s a word that means “the statistical study of human populations esp. with reference to size and density, distribution, and vital statistics” (Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition (Kindle Locations 118895-118896). Merriam-Webster, Inc.. Kindle Edition). That study always concludes in the issuance of a report. Demography is writing about people. Here are two word root worksheets that call upon students, in the context for this lesson, to perform a synthesis. The first is on the Greek roots demo and demi, which mean people; the second is on the Latin roots graph and graphy, which mean writing, written, recording, drawing, and science. If students complete these two worksheets, a simple question should suffice to assess understanding: “Now that you know what these word roots mean, what do you suppose demography is?” In fact, as you’ll see if you use these materials, that is the first question on the worksheet.

Finally, here is the reading and comprehension worksheet for this lesson. Now that I have that finished and posted, I do want to comment on the fact of gerrymandering, and how it might be used to extend this lesson a bit further–and raise students’ critical awareness of that current problem in our electoral system. To that end, here is a supplemental list of critical questions on gerrymandering to round out this lesson.

That’s it.

If you find typos in these documents, I would appreciate a notification. And, as always, if you find this material useful in your practice, I would be grateful to hear what you think of it. I seek your peer review.

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