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Biography and Writing
Social Studies, ELA
2 - 3 class periods
- Investigate primary source material to learn biographical information.
- Demonstrate that letters are written for different purposes and audiences. The tone and style of a letter depend on its purpose and audience.
How can historical evidence be used to learn about a person’s character? What makes an effective persuasive letter?
Students will be able to:
- analyze and interpret an historical document.
- write an effective persuasive letter that demonstrates an understanding of audience and purpose.
Connections to Curriculum (Standards)
National History Standards Historical Thinking:
3. Historical Analysis and Interpretation
4. Historical Research Capabilities
National Council for History Education:
History’s Habits of the Mind 10
Recognize the importance of individuals who have made a difference in history, and the significance of personal character for both good and ill.
NCTE/ IRA Standards for the English Language Arts:
3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts.
5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.
6. Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and non-print texts.
12. Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).
Prior Knowledge and Skills
Students should be familiar with letter writing, understand what it means to persuade, and have some context for the subject of the letter.
Historical Background and Context
The archives at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum include more than 8.4 million pages of documents related to JFK’s family, his pre-presidential years, and his time as president. Among the wealth of primary source material are thousands of letters, some of which can be used with elementary-age students.
Family letters are of special interest to students and allow them to learn about a historical figure’s personality, relationships, and values. “A Plea for a Raise” was written when JFK was ten-years-old. By analyzing this document, students discover some clever techniques that JFK used to convince his father to increase his allowance.
“A Plea” may be used in several ways. Students may analyze it to learn about John F. Kennedy’s personality and character, and make connections to the leadership skills he displayed later in life. They may also study it as an example of persuasive writing and use it as a model to prepare their own persuasive letters.
- Biography of John F. Kennedy
- Document, “Plea for a Raise” (included in downloadable pdf)
- Graphic Organizer: Analyzing a Persuasive Letter (included in downloadable pdf)
- Graphic Organizer: Preparing a Persuasive Letter (included in downloadable pdf)
- Photograph, John F. Kennedy and his family (included in downloadable pdf)
- Chart paper
- Examples of letters (friendly, formal, business)
In this lesson, students read and analyze a document written by ten-year-old John F. Kennedy for the purpose of convincing his father to increase his allowance. They use the graphic organizer, “Analyzing a Persuasive Letter,” to identify components of a persuasive letter. The graphic organizer, “Preparing a Persuasive Letter,” will help students prepare their own persuasive letter.
Activity One: “A Plea for a Raise”
1. Invite students to share their knowledge of letter-writing. What types of letters have they written or received? Record their responses on chart paper, noting the purpose of the letters they have written or received.
2. Ask students, “Have you ever written a letter to try to change someone’s mind, or convince that person to take a particular action or position?” Explain that this is called a persuasive letter. What makes a persuasive letter effective? (Strong arguments, good reasons that will persuade the reader.)
3. Show students the photograph of John F. Kennedy as a young boy and elicit students’ prior knowledge of John F. Kennedy. In 1928, when this future president was ten-years-old, he wrote a persuasive letter. Let’s read it to find out why he wrote it and who he was trying to persuade.
4. Pass out copies of “Plea for a Raise.”
5. Guide students to analyze the various components of the document. Here are some suggested questions:
- To whom is JFK writing? How do you know?
- What is the purpose of the piece? Why is he writing it?
- What words and sentences does he use to support his purpose?
- How has he organized it?
- Why do you think he chose to make it look like a book?
- What do you notice about his spelling, grammar, vocabulary?
- Do you think the quality of his writing supports his purpose?
- How would you have responded if you were his father?
- What else do you notice about the document?
- What questions do you have about it?
6. Students may use the graphic organizer, "Analyzing a Persuasive Letter", to summarize their findings.
7. Explain that biographers study historical evidence such as photographs and documents to try to learn more about someone’s personality, character, and special qualities, and to learn more details about that person’s life. Ask students to reflect on the document, its effectiveness, and what it reveals about JFK’s personality and character.
Activity Two: Writing Your Own Persuasive Letter
1. Explain that students will have a chance to write their own persuasive letter.
2. Brainstorm a list of things that they would like to obtain, change, or convince someone to do.
3. Once students have selected something they want, ask who it is they need to write to--who will be the “audience”? Have them use a blank “Preparing a Persuasive Letter” to plan their own letter. They should pay special attention to the second part of the hand-out in which they write convincing reasons to persuade their audience. They may need to do some research to find out who should receive their letter.
4. Provide models of letter formats for students according to the audience of their letter (informal, formal, business).
5. Have students write a letter using the information from the handout. Help students find addresses for their letter’s recipient and make sure students include their own address in their letter so that they may receive a response.
6. Have students share their letters before posting.
7. Post any responses on a bulletin board.
Have students write a response to JFK as if they were his father, Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. The response should refer to details about “A Plea for a Raise” (such as the format of the request, the arguments provided, spelling, grammar, etc.) and explain why or why not the request is granted.
1. Discuss the role of president and what qualities one might need to be an effective president. How does “Plea for a Raise” demonstrate JFK’s potential as a leader, and specifically as president?
2. Have students read JFK’s biography, either individually or as a read aloud. Ask them to look for evidence of JFK’s personal qualities as they read (or listen to) the biography. Have them consider whether these qualities are consistent with those identified in analyzing “Plea for a Raise.” Are they surprised by any decisions or actions in the biography? Is there biographical information provided in “Plea for a Raise” that is not included in the biography? (JFK was a boy scout.)
3. Discuss ways in which a president might need to be persuasive. You may follow up this discussion with excerpts from some of JFK’s landmark speeches:
- Remarks of Senator John F. Kennedy at the University of Michigan, Student Union Building Steps, Ann Arbor, Michigan, October 14, 1960
- Address of Senator John F. Kennedy to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, September 12, 1960
- Address at Rice University on the Nation's Space Effort, September 12, 1962
- Radio and Television Report to the American People on Civil Rights, White House, June 11, 1963
Complete the graphic organizers as a whole class. Write a persuasive letter as a whole class or in small groups.