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Teaching Guide

Teaching World War I

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World War I was called the Great War until World War II came along...and you don't get a nickname like that for nothing.

In this guide you'll find

  • an activity asking students to create a timeline of the war.
  • lessons analyzing historical documents, like the Sedition Act of 1918.
  • modern resources, like accounts of long-living World War I veterans.

Our teaching guide immerses your class in World War I without putting them on the front lines.

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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.
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Instructions for You

Opposition to World War I in the United States led to the passage of the Sedition Act in 1918 and raised questions about the government's authority to curb speech during wartime. In this exercise your students will examine the texts of both the Sedition Act and the First Amendment, then consider whether the two are in contradiction of one another.

1. Show your students the text of the First Amendment and remind them that it was added to the Constitution to protect individuals against encroachments on their rights of speech by the federal government.  But also remind your students that the legal tradition inherited by Americans, and fleshed out in American courts, allowed for certain restrictions on speech. Libel and slander were not protected, for example. Nor was obscenity.

First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

2. Show your students the text of the Sedition Act and ask them to work carefully through the document, identifying those lines which may be at odds with the First Amendment. Insist that they not pass judgment (one way or the other) on the entire bill, but that they examine individual provisions. For example, they may conclude that is to justifiable to punish someone who incites mutiny, but not someone who encourages people to refuse military service.

Sedition Act, 1918

Whoever, when the United States is at war, shall willfully make or convey false reports or false statements with intent to interfere with the operation or success of the military or naval forces of the United States, or to promote the success of its enemies, or shall willfully make or convey false reports, or false statements,... or incite insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, or refusal of duty, in the military or naval forces of the United States, or shall willfully obstruct... the recruiting or enlistment service of the United States, or... shall willfully utter, print, write, or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States, or the Constitution of the United States, or the military or naval forces of the United States... or shall willfully display the flag of any foreign enemy, or shall willfully... urge, incite, or advocate any curtailment of production... or advocate, teach, defend, or suggest the doing of any of the acts or things in this section enumerated and whoever shall by word or act support or favor the cause of any country with which the United States is at war or by word or act oppose the cause of the United States therein, shall be punished by a fine of not more than $10,000 or imprisonment for not more than twenty years, or both....

3. Debrief and debate your students' conclusions.

Instructions for Your Students

The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech. But no right is absolute. As Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, the First Amendment "would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic."

What about during times of war? Does the government's authority to curb anti-government speech increase? How far can a protestor go in condemning the military effort? At some point, does criticism become sedition?

Take a look at the Sedition Act passed in 1918 and think about whether it violated the First Amendment.

Sedition Act, 1918:

Whoever, when the United States is at war, shall willfully make or convey false reports or false statements with intent to interfere with the operation or success of the military or naval forces of the United States, or to promote the success of its enemies, or shall willfully make or convey false reports, or false statements,... or incite insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, or refusal of duty, in the military or naval forces of the United States, or shall willfully obstruct... the recruiting or enlistment service of the United States, or... shall willfully utter, print, write, or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States, or the Constitution of the United States, or the military or naval forces of the United States... or shall willfully display the flag of any foreign enemy, or shall willfully... urge, incite, or advocate any curtailment of production... or advocate, teach, defend, or suggest the doing of any of the acts or things in this section enumerated and whoever shall by word or act support or favor the cause of any country with which the United States is at war or by word or act oppose the cause of the United States therein, shall be punished by a fine of not more than $10,000 or imprisonment for not more than twenty years, or both....

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

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