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Teaching Guide

Teaching the 1950s

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TV might have warped everyone's perceptions of the 1950s as a time of happy days, family values, and big dinners around the dining room table every night. But…uh…none of those shows were exploring nuclear anxiety or the subversive Beat culture. That's where the good stuff is.

In this guide you will find

  • activities analyzing the dangerous-to-children's-welfare pop culture of the time, like comic books and Elvis Presley's gyrating hips.
  • lessons creating a timeline of public anxieties.
  • discussion questions on politics, the economy, and that American life.

And much more.

What's Inside Shmoop's History Teaching Guides

Shmoop is a labor of love from folks who love to teach. Our teaching guides will help you supplement in-classroom learning with fun, engaging, and relatable learning materials that bring history to life.

Inside each guide you'll find quizzes, activity ideas, discussion questions, and more—all written by experts and designed to save you time. Here are the deets on what you get with your teaching guide:

  • 3-5 Common Core-aligned activities (including quotation, image, and document analysis) to complete in class with your students, with detailed instructions for you and your students. 
  • Discussion and essay questions for all levels of students.
  • Reading quizzes to be sure students are looking at the material through various lenses.
  • Resources to help make the topic feel more relevant to your 21st-century students.
  • A note from Shmoop's teachers to you, telling you what to expect from teaching the topic and how you can overcome the hurdles.

Instructions for You

Objective: There's so much to love about television, and we love it all—really, we do. But there's also a lot to question when it comes to the notorious tube, and here at Shmoop, we're big on questions, too. 

Television was introduced into the American household during the 1950s, and life just hasn't been the same since. TV has had such a big impact on the way we view both entertainment and news that it's hard to imagine what our lives would be like without it... but that's exactly what we're going to ask your students to do. 

In this counterfactual exercise, your students will consider how Americans' lives and history would be different had the television never been invented. They'll review statistics, participate in a class brainstorming session, and then complete a freewrite to help them reflect upon everything that has been discussed. You can follow this activity up with an optional essay assignment if you like.

Length of Lesson: One class period.

Materials Needed: 

  • Access to the stats we've provided below (most of which were compiled by TV Free America and can be found here)
  • Whiteboard or chart paper to record ideas during brainstorming 
  • Writing materials for the freewrite in Step Four

Step One: Share the statistics below with your students. If possible, project them on a SmartBoard or monitor in addition to having students view them on individual devices. Take the time to read each stat aloud to make sure everyone has a chance to hear them and react.

  • Number of television sets in the US in 1946: 7,000 
  • Number of television sets in the US in 1960: 50 million
  • Number of television sets per household in 2009: 2.86
  • Percentage of households with at least one television set in 2009: 99
  • Average number of hours that the television is on daily in US homes: 6.75
  • Percentage of Americans that watch television while eating: 66
  • Number of hours spent by average child watching television weekly: 28
  • Number of hours spent by average child in school weekly: 25
  • Number of commercials seen annually by average child: 20,000
  • Number one product in advertising seen by children: fast food

Step Two: After you've finished going through the list (and your students have stopped reacting to it), ask them to brainstorm all of the ways in which Americans' private lives would be different had the television not been invented. Ask them to sort their observations into these categories:

  • Families
  • Communities
  • Health
  • Entertainment
  • Personal consumption

You can write each category at the top of a separate column on your whiteboard or on chart paper and ask for volunteers to help you add items to the list as they are mentioned if you like. 

Step Three: Next ask your students to brainstorm ways in which American public life would be different without the television. Sort their observations into these categories:

  • Politics
  • History

Step Four: Time for a little reflection. Give your students 10-minutes to respond in writing to the following prompt.

Explain why you agree or disagree with the following statement. America would be better off if television had never been invented. Use specific examples to support your reasoning.

They should approach this as a freewrite—writing quickly and continuously without worrying about spelling or grammar. 

Step Five: Wrap things up with a quick poll by asking how many people agreed with the statement and how many disagreed.

Step Six (Optional): Have your students refine their freewrites into essays (persuasive, analytical, or argumentative—all three could work) to be turned in during a future class.

Instructions for Your Students

How many hours a week do you watch TV? How many commercials do you think you see in a year? 

Keep in mind that a person asked these questions less than a century ago, in the early 1940s, would have answered "zero" to both of them. But the 1950s brought television into the American household and our lives have not been the same since.

How would your life be different without the television?

How would America be different without the television?

That's what we're going to try to figure out today. 

Step One: Review the statistics below with your classmates and your teacher.

  • Number of television sets in the US in 1946: 7,000 
  • Number of television sets in the US in 1960: 50 million
  • Number of television sets per household in 2009: 2.86
  • Percentage of households with at least one television set in 2009: 99
  • Average number of hours that the television is on daily in US homes: 6.75
  • Percentage of Americans that watch television while eating: 66
  • Number of hours spent by average child watching television weekly: 28
  • Number of hours spent by average child in school weekly: 25
  • Number of commercials seen annually by average child: 20,000
  • Number one product in advertising seen by children: fast food

Anything surprise you? Any particular statistics seem especially interesting?

Step Two: After you've finished going through the list, work with your classmates to brainstorm all of the ways in which Americans' private lives would be different had the television not been invented. You can sort your observations into the following categories on the board or on chart paper (or just in your notebook):

  • Families
  • Communities
  • Health
  • Entertainment
  • Personal consumption

Step Three: Next, take a few more minutes (ten, maybe?) to brainstorm the ways in which American public life would be different without the television. This time, sort your observations into these categories:

  • Politics
  • History

Step Four: Time for a little reflection. Take 10-minutes to respond in writing to the following prompt.

Explain why you agree or disagree with the following statement. America would be better off if television had never been invented. As much as possibile, use specific examples to support your reasoning.

You should approach this as a freewrite—writing quickly and continuously without worrying about spelling or grammar. Just get your ideas down on paper and resist editing them.

Step Five: Wrap things up by participating in a quick poll. How many of your classmates agreed with the statement? How many disagreed? Are you surprised? Why or why not?

WANT MORE HELP TEACHING THE 1950S?

Check out all the different parts of our corresponding learning guide.

Intro    Summary & Analysis    Timeline    People    Facts    Photos    Best of the Web    Citations    
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