Disunion: Inquiry Middle School Lesson Plan

This photograph depicts an up-close portrait of John Brown.

Grades: Middle School

Approximate Length of Time: 3.5 hours, broken into 4 sections

Goal:  Students will develop an argument for the major source of disagreement that leads to the outbreak of the American Civil War, supporting their argument with evidence-based research.


  1. Students will be able to answer questions related to the content of primary and secondary source documents.
  2. Students will be able to complete a graphic organizer, finding key information within primary and secondary sources.
  3. Students will be able to address a question about a historic event, providing evidence from primary and secondary sources.

Common Core:

Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources.

Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of the source distinct from prior knowledge or opinions.

Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including vocabulary specific to domains related to history/social studies.

Integrate visual information (e.g., in charts, graphs, photographs, videos, or maps) with other information in print and digital texts.

Analyze the relationship between a primary and secondary source on the same topic.

Conduct short research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question), drawing on several sources and generating additional related, focused questions that allow for multiple avenues of exploration.

NCSS Standards for Social Studies:

2—Time, Continuity, and Change
3—People, Places, and Environment
5—Individuals, Groups, and Institutions
6—Power, Authority, and Governance
10—Civic, Ideals, and Practices


This is an inquiry lesson where students will perform research to answer the main, inquiry question about the Cause of the American Civil War. Students will develop a hypothesis, search for evidence in multiple primary and secondary sources, and complete a graphic organizer. Through this process students will develop a strong answer to the inquiry question posed at the beginning.

Inquiry Question:

What is the major source of disagreement which ultimately leads to the conflict known as the American Civil War?



Section One, Timeline (45 min)

  1. Post the Inquiry Question where it can easily be seen through this lesson. It is important that students continue to refer back to this often, so they remember the direction of their research.
  2. Provide students with the Vocabulary page.
  3. Have students begin with a hypothesis to answer the inquiry question.
  4. View the maps in the Western Expansion video.  
  5. Hand out the Disunion Timeline Information Cards.
    1. Provide each student with a long sheet of paper or poster board – something they can write on.
    2. Have students cut out the events and place them in chronological order, leaving some place between each for notes.
    3. Students should use this as their timeline to add events and notes as they do their research.
  6. Watch How One Piece of Legislation Divided Nation video.
  7. Watch The War Between the States In4 video until minute 2.19. Students can add to their timeline with information from this video.

Section Two, Document Study (60 min)

  1. Students will then read through the Document Packet, filling out the Graphic Organizer as they progress.
    1. For each document, the students should complete the National Archives Document Analysis form.
    2. At the end of Document D, students will be asked to watch The Coming of the Civil War In4 video.

Section Three, Culture & Economy (30 min)

  1. Watch the US Economics History video.
  2. Hand out the Culture and Economies Charts; review the information with your students.  Explain that while we cannot identify what every single person thought or did at the time, these charts (created from the 1860 census data) help us create a snapshot of what the country was like.
  3. Hand out the Culture and Economies Worksheet, and have students complete independently.

Conclusion (60-90 min):

Students will answer the inquiry question either orally or in essay form. They should use evidence from their primary and secondary sources. They can use the documents, their notes, the videos, and their graphic organizer. Students can do additional research to bolster their argument.

Students can share their responses with the class.

Classmates are free to discuss each person’s work (peer review) and can amend or make notes to their own essays after their work has been assessed by the teacher. This is something real historians do; historians are always looking at research related to their own work, from this they learn about the latest developments, discoveries, and ideas. Just like in science, history can have new discoveries and new theories.

Assessment in this Lesson:

  1. Completed Timeline
  2. Completed Culture and Economies Worksheet
  3. A completed graphic organizer
  4. Notes taken on graphic organizer, documents, timeline or other notes sheets
  5. A complete answer to the inquiry question with quotes from the provided documents