Ken Burns Classroom

Johnson, Louis, Ali


Students will:

  • Research the lives of three sports legends and develop a presentation.
  • Discuss whether sports figures can and should use their positions to advocate for social or political change.

Educator note: You may wish to consider ahead of time the best way to approach the assignment. If students have access to presentation software such as Microsoft PowerPoint, the teacher may want students to create multimedia presentations with information about a particular fighter. Otherwise, you may simply assign the students to create traditional posters with the information about their boxer.

Lesson Procedure

  1. Begin by asking students to consider instances when a sporting event transcended competition and inspired national pride. Past examples of this may include the visit of the United States “table tennis” team to China in the early 1970s, the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team, Billie Jean King’s tennis victory over Bobby Riggs, or the 1999 World Cup victory by the US Women’s Soccer Team.
  2. Next lead the class in a discussion of whether sports can be an instrument of social, cultural, or political change. Questions the teacher may wish to pose with this discussion include the following:
    • “Should athletes use their position in society as sports figures to advocate social or political change?”
    • “Are athletes placed on a higher social, moral or ethical pedestal or standard because of their position?”
  3. Explain to students that Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, and Muhammad Ali became well known because of their athletic ability and the impact they made on American society. Explain to students that they will research the lives, careers, and impact of these three boxing legends.
  4. Divide the class into three groups of approximately equal size. Explain that each group will investigate one of the three boxers to determine their inclusion in a special museum exhibit to highlight their impact in American life beyond the boxing ring. It will be the responsibility of each group to successfully show that their subject merits inclusion in this fictional museum exhibit.
  5. If you plan to have students complete multimedia projects, you should determine specific requirements for the multimedia projects in advance. These may include length of the presentation, how many pictures of the subject are required, use of sound files, submission of a bibliography, as well as any other requirements you may wish to include. While each individual teacher will probably have specific requirements for projects, a sample “requirement sheet” is provided at the end of this lesson.
  6. Allow sufficient time for students to collect information. For the purposes of this lesson, an outline of information to be collected is provided. Students may either complete this sheet, or the teacher may adapt another outline form. A sample outline form is provided at the end of the lesson.
  7. Students will be considering the following issues while researching:
    • A biography of the boxer, including childhood and professional career.
    • What event(s) occurred during the boxer’s career that was significant INSIDE the ring? (Examples: championships won, significant matches against other boxers, etc.)
    • What event(s) occurred during the boxer’s career that was significant OUTSIDE the ring?
    • Tributes or criticisms of the boxer by others during the time period.
    • Conclusions of the group on how the boxer is viewed today as far as contributions to society and/or their sport.
  8. After students have collected their information, they should either create their multimedia presentations or make their group posters. The deadline for finishing the actual development of the presentation will depend on the availability of computer hardware as well as the amount of time the teacher has budgeted for the lesson.
  9. Once the lesson is completed, the teacher should evaluate the finished product based on a rubric developed prior to the start of the project. While each teacher may have individual criteria, objectives, and standards they wish to meet with the lesson, a sample rubric is provided as a framework, and may be adapted to a particular teacher’s needs or objectives.

National Standards

Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McRel)


  • Civics Standard 28, Level III, Benchmark 4: Knows historical and contemporary examples of citizen movements seeking to expand liberty, to insure the equal rights of all citizens, and/or to realize other values fundamental to American constitutional democracy (e.g., the suffrage and civil rights movements)
  • Civics Standard 11, Level III, Benchmark 3: Knows major conflicts in American society that have arisen from diversity (e.g., North/South conflict; conflict about land, suffrage, and other rights of Native Americans; Catholic/Protestant conflicts in the nineteenth century; conflict about civil rights of minorities and women; present day ethnic conflict in urban setting Civics Standard 14, Level III, Benchmark 4: Knows some of the efforts that have been put forth to reduce discrepancies between ideals and the reality of American public life (e.g., abolition, suffrage, civil rights, environmental protection movements)
  • Civics Standard 27, Level II, Benchmark 3: Knows public character traits that contribute to the health of American democracy such as civility, respect for the rights of other individuals, respect for the law, open mindedness, critical mindedness, negotiation and compromise, civic mindedness, and patriotism

About The Authors

Joan Brodsky Schur

Joan Brodsky Schur is Social Studies Curriculum Consultant for the Village Community School in New York City where she has taught Social Studies and English for over 20 years.

Handout: Sample Multimedia Requirements

Each group will develop a multimedia presentation on one of the three assigned boxers, Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, or Muhammad Ali.

  • The presentation MUST run at least four minutes in length.
  • The final presentation MUST include the following:
    • A title slide with the full names of each group member. The title slide should also include the class period, name of the class.
    • At least five pictures within the presentation, dealing with or related to the boxer the group researched. One picture related to the boxer must be on the title slide.
    • Sound and video clips, if available.
    • Each presentation must include information from the collection sheet that you used to find evidence about your subject.
    • At the end of the presentation, the group must include a bibliography slide listing all sources the group used for your presentation, including pictures and sound files used. The group should also submit their completed collection sheet.

Handout: Sample Evidence Collection Sheet

Name of boxer:






Career Events in the Ring:




Significant Events OUTSIDE the Ring:




Tributes or Criticisms:




How Boxer is viewed TODAY:





Handout: Sample Evaluation Rubric

Full names of group members:


Name of boxer researched:

Completed presentation (does the presentation last at least four minutes?) (10 points possible)

_____points awarded

Collection sheet (Did the group submit a completed Evidence Collection sheet as part of their presentation?) (10 points possible)

_____points awarded

Creativity (What the group did to create a unique project. Includes use of pictures, sound clips, other creative forms of media.) (25 points total)

_____points awarded

Following of presentation requirements (Review all criteria set in the project sheets distributed prior at the start of the project.) (25 points total)

_____points awarded

Final evaluation score (Addition of all points listed above) (70 points total)

_____points awarded


Group Project letter grade: _____________________