The Beginning of Advocacy – Social Reformers React to Change

This lesson was designed specifically for 8th grade students that complete the Student Advocacy CAPSSL Project, to help them connect historical information with to their large project. Students are asked to become advocates on issues that they feel passionate about. They spent countless hours researching the issues and collecting data. Once they have found enough data they are asked to find a solution to the problem. The project culminates with a final product, typically a letter to a government official, advocating for change on their topic. Sample topics students have chosen are gun control, immigration laws, and bullying in and outside of school. Many students could not connect what they were doing to actual change, and sometimes questioned what their purpose was, or what difference they would make. This lesson gives students the opportunity to look at the reform movements of the 1800’s in an advocacy way. So examining not just how their advocacy has impacted society, but also as a way for them to examine what specific avenues of advocacy led to these outcomes. For teachers that do not complete this in-depth project, this lesson can serve as an extension to the curriculum guide as students will take what they have learned and connect it to a modern day issue by completing a current event assignment. This lesson focuses only on four reform movements, treatment of the mentally ill, women’s rights, temperance, and educational reform. Students will not only analyze primary source documents from different reform movements but will be able to extend their knowledge and connect it to a current issue.

Historical Background

Throughout the 1800’s the United States was undergoing massive changes. The country was growing, changing our geographic setting as we expanded our national boundaries. With this expansion came a changing economy, the United States went from a small country of farmers to a booming industrial nation. With this new economy came amazing inventions that revolutionized industry and farming. The cotton gin expanded the slave-based plantations and the need for slavery. These inventions and changes led to the rise of cities, and an increased number of immigrants coming into the United States, searching for a better life. Transportation was also expanding connecting markets throughout the United States. Although the growth of the country should be viewed with pride, with it came many negative side effects. For example, it created sectional economies, dividing the north and the south. Growing cities led to increased crime and poverty, upsetting many Americans. Here sparks the growth of the reform movements of the 19th century. Reformers respond to the change created by the changing economy and geographic landscape. Some reformers simply gained speed during this time, such as the abolitionist movement. Others, such as women’s rights and educational reforms got their start. A fueling factor of the reform movement should be noted, as the Second Great Awakening, a time of Christian revival in which preachers encouraged people to reestablish their faith in God. This influences the reform movements because religious institutions encouraged people that they needed to do something about problems in society. It also gave women a voice they may not have known they had. The 1800’s was a wonderful and exciting time for this country, that brought on serious change and reform in certain areas of American life.

Lesson Objective

Students will be able to: (a) Define advocacy and describe how it was used by early social reform groups; (b) Analyze primary source documents to see how reform movements attempted to change society and interpret their success (c) Find a modern day example of advocacy to connect back to the advocacy created by the early reform groups.



  1. Day 1
  2. Warm up discussion. On the board have three guiding questions that the students first fill out on their own in their SSJ and then share out as a class. The questions are as follows: (5 minutes) What is Advocacy? What types of issues today interest you enough that you would want to advocate for them?
  3. Introduce the idea of Social Reform Groups of the 1800s by modeling one with the class. Give each student a copy of Documents A, B & C from the Treatment of the Mentally Disabled document as well as the capture sheet. Do not front load anything, simply let them brain storm for about 15-20 minutes and answer the questions on the capture sheet.
  4. Come together as a class and discuss what students learned. Give a short lecture on Dorothea Dix with the Flip Chart and explain the purpose of her advocacy.
  5. Give students a copy of Document D & E from the Treatment of the Mentally Disabled word document and give them 5 minutes to analyze and answer the final questions on their capture sheet.
  6. Come together once again as a class and discuss what they have found using the primary source documents.
  7. Explain to students that in the next class they will be divided into pairs and they will be analyzing one set of primary source documents from a different reform movement of the 1800. They will become experts on that reform movement and be able to answer the following questions to teach to the other classmates. (a) What methods of Advocacy did the reformers use (b) Where they successful?
  8. Students will then be given assigned pairs/groups. If time, begin with analysis.
  9. Day 2 This day could extend into a 3rd
  10. As students come in, instruct them to sit in a specific portion of the room with their assigned partners. Each desk already has a manila folder on it that includes one of the document sets.
  11. Students will be given 30 minutes to complete their analysis of the primary source document & time to complete their capture sheet.
  12. Instruct students to get into groups of three, each person in a group should have a different document from his or her partners. In their new groups, students will complete the final graphic organizer (Beginning of Advocacy) that gives them the big picture on reform movements of the 1800’s.
  13. After students are completed, share out their findings as a class
  14. Debrief with the students by asking them the following questions: What similarities and differences were there among the social reform groups? Why are social reform movements an important part of a democratic society?
  15. There are two options for completing the lesson: Option 1- CAPSSL Project Participants – Tie this back to the CAPSSL Project; OR Option 2 – Introduce Current Event Assignment – connecting reform movements of the 1800’s to a modern day issue (Advocacy Current Event).


Final Day: Students should complete current event on a political or social issue that is currently happening in the United States. They should connect this issue and the ways people are advocating to the avenues used by the reformers in the 1800’s.


Option 1 Students will be assessed of their knowledge by their CAPSSL project. This is a drawn out project that occurs from 3-4th quarters, where students pick a topic to advocate for. The hope is that they are creative with their advocacy technique and are able to make a difference for their topic of choice.

Option 2 Students will be assessed on their current event assignment


Students will be placed into groups determined by reading level (per MAP-R testing) this way we have a group of varied level readers that will be able to help each other get through the assignment.


An American Time Capsule: Three Centuries of Broadsides and Other printed Ephemera, Library of Congress, American Memory Collection,

“Benjamin Rush’s Tranquilizing Chair,” illustrative sketch, April 8, 1976, University of Pennsylvania Archives

“Diseases of the Mind: Highlights of American Psychiatry through 1900,” U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health,

“Resources – The Age of Reform: Temperance,” The Victim of the Ardent Spirits (image), c.1837-1841,

Section of Thomas Nast Cartoon, Harper’s Weekly, February 26, 1870, The Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Collection,

“The Drunkard’s Progress, 1846,” blog posted on January 31, 2012, The History Project at the University of California, Davis

“The First Age of Reform,” The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History,

Votes for Women: Selections from the National American Women Suffrage Association, 1848-1921, Library of Congress, American Memory Collection,

William Bourne, History of the Public Society of the City of New York,

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