Ken Burns Classroom

Living in Jim Crow America

Ken Burns Film: Jackie Robinson

Collections: Postwar United States (1945-1970s)

Subject: US History

Grade Level: 9-12

Run Time: 1-2 class periods

Overview: In this lesson, students analyze how experiences of discrimination and prejudice in Jackie Robinson’s early life shaped his character and values. Moreover, students consider how discrimination and prejudice affect people’s lives and develop strategies through which the resulting attitudes and actions can be addressed.

Lesson Objectives: In this lesson, students will do the following:

  • Understand living conditions for African-Americans under Jim Crow segregation in post- Reconstruction America.
  • Analyze the reasons for the Great Migration of African-Americans in the South to cities in the North and West.
  • Evaluate the differences between implicit and explicit racism.
  • Identify and assess the efficacy of various value characteristics in addressing discrimination and prejudice.


  1. Before showing the “Pasadena” clip from Jackie Robinson, familiarize students with these terms: Jim Crow (its symbolism and its application), the Great Migration, tenant farmer, lynched, and sharecropper.
  2. Distribute the 3-2-1 Strategy Chart to all students and have them complete their charts as they watch the clip.
  3. After watching the clip, have students complete the 3-2-1 Strategy Chart. Then organize a “four squares activity” with a quarter of the class in each of the four corners of the room. Have students share the facts they gathered by going to at least two people in other groups to give a fact and get a fact. They can also clarify details of the facts.
  4. Bring the class together and have students ask the questions they generated in the second section of the chart. Hold a general class discussion to find answers to their questions. Then have students share the moments of the video clip they found most interesting or memorable.
  5. Teacher Tip: During the discussions, keep in mind several key points:
    • Living conditions and access to opportunities for African-Americans under Jim Crow segregation
    • The Great Migration in the early 20th century
    • The forms and impact of racism (implicit and explicit) Jackie Robinson and countless others experienced across the United States
    • The character values Jackie Robinson displayed on and off the sports fields in the face of racism, prejudice, discrimination, and aggression
  1. Post-Viewing Discussion/Activity: Place students in small working groups to discuss the following questions. Then have each group prepare a brief plan addressing the last two questions.
    • How does treatment such as that which Jackie Robinson experienced in his youth shape a person’s identity? How may it have impacted Robinson’s character?
    • What are the lasting cross-generational effects of such discrimination?
    • Do you feel African-Americans and other minorities more often face implicit discrimination or explicit discrimination in America today? Explain your answer.
    • How can discrimination of any kind, against anyone, be addressed? What types of value characteristics might be utilized in addressing discrimination?
    • What would you do to address discrimination if you witnessed or experienced it?

Assessment Suggestions: At the conclusion of the activity, evaluate students on the following:

  • Active participation during discussions and activities
  • Completion of graphic organizer from the activity
  • Quality and viability of plan to address discrimination

Extension Activity: Have students think of an incident in their school when they believe someone or a group was discriminated against because of their race/ethnicity, cultural background, gender or gender identity, sexual orientation, cognitive or developmental difference, appearance, or other similar factor. Have them re-ask the questions in the post-viewing discussion activity as they pertain to their example. Have them consider possible ways to address such discrimination and develop a policy proposal drafted for review by school administration.

Standards: McREL

United States History

  • Standard 17: Understands massive immigration after 1870 and how new social patterns, conflicts, and ideas of national unity developed amid growing cultural diversity
  • Level IV (9–12): Understands the challenges diverse peoples encountered in late 19th century American society
  • Standard 21: Understands the changing role of the United States in world affairs through World War I
  • Level IV (Grade 9–12): Understands how the home front influenced and was influenced by U.S. involvement in World War I

Historical Understanding

  • Understands and knows how to analyze chronological relationships and patterns
  • Understands the historical perspective

 Common Core

  • CSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.1: Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.2: Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.3: Evaluate various explanations for actions or events and determine which explanation best accords with textual evidence, acknowledging where the text leaves matters uncertain.

About The Authors

Greg Timmons

Greg Timmons has been a social studies teacher for over 30 years. He has written lessons for several PBS productions including The NewsHour, FRONTLINE, and various Ken Burns’s productions including The War, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea Baseball, Prohibition and The Dust Bowl.” He resides in Montana and Washington state.

Handout: 3-2-1 Strategy Chart Activity


NAME: _________________________                        DATE:  __________________


List three facts you didn’t know about the early life of Jackie Robinson from watching the video clip.






Create two questions you have after watching all the video clips.





Describe one memorable moment you remember from the video clip and why it made an impression on you.