John Brown: Hero or Villain?

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TSWBAT read informational text on John Brown, the abolitionist, and judge for themselves whether he's a hero or villain.

Big Idea

Most go 'round when it comes to John Brown...hero or villain? The answer's not sound.

Warm Up

15 minutes

Students in 5th grade generally aren't familiar with John Brown.  His name is as basic as it gets, but his legacy is the opposite.  I'm offended that there are but two paragraphs about this historical figure in our textbook, and dedicate an entire lesson to helping the kids understand his role in history and ultimately, how his actions sparked the Civil War (John Brown Perspectives). His story is a perfect one to use as the kids practice RI.5.6 analyzing multiple accounts of the same event as they note important similarities and differences in the points of view.  They are presented with both sides of this figure and his life events, and use that information to judge for themselves.

This information must come from supplementary text.  I found a page of informational text to share with the class from American Heritage New History of the Civil War.  Initially, we read this together although in the next section they will read it again, independently. 

I show an excellent two minute video clip about John Brown from the History Channel that expertly provides equal representation to both sides of the contoversy, to reinforce. John Brown video clip The kids are captivated, and I'm so happy I found this particular clip (Watching the video clip).


20 minutes

Using the informational text I've taken from American Heritage New History of the Civil War pg. 57, the students complete the Analyzing: Two Opinions of Abolitionist, John Brown page (Using text to write about John Brown). Their task is to identify at least three reasons John Brown was considered a hero and three that support why he was thought of as a villain. 

With a more complete picture of the story of John Brown, they decide for themselves whether he was a villain or hero and support the reasons for their answer in a pararaph.

Student examples

Student examples


15 minutes

Once they've given a lot of thought to the man and his cause- righteous or evil -it's time to create a scrapbook page about him. I pass out his picture, and they're able to use the one on the text, which shows him hanging. As they consider what to write on the page, they use the worksheet completed during the Application section to give them ideas. 

I need to recognize my own influence with this particular lesson.  As much as we try to remain neutral, our students do know us. I absolutely presented both perspectives and didn't profess support either way. I questioned this as I looked for written examples of each point of view to share on the site, but couldn't find any. Perhaps it's because I'm a Pennsylvania native, maybe it's the great outrage I've instilled in the kids about slavery, hopefully it's just the way they feel- but not one child would label John Brown a villain.  I didn't have one solid villain example to share.  The closest the class got was labeling him as both.

John Brown scrapbook page- Pro John Brown

John Brown scrapbook page Hero and Villain

John Brown scrapbook page Pro John Brown

Having said that, it makes me wonder how a lesson like this would be presented by a teacher in the South, I mean by a Southern native. Certainly the regional point of view can influence the teaching with such a delicate subject.