Eleanor Roosevelt, First Lady for Social Justice: A Common Core Unit (Grades 9–12)


Students will be asked to read and analyze primary and secondary sources about Eleanor Roosevelt and the work she did to support social justice issues both in the United States and around the world. They will look at the role of first lady and see how Mrs. Roosevelt expanded that role to influence the political, social, and economic issues of the twentieth century. 

Students will increase their literacy skills as outlined in the Common Core Standards as they explore the social justice actions taken by Eleanor Roosevelt, which at times changed the course of world events.



Other Handouts

Links to Secondary Sources

Links to Primary Sources


Each lesson is for a 75-minute block.

Lesson Day 1


Ask the students, "When you think of a ‘first lady’ what image comes to mind?" Conduct a brief discussion about the role first ladies have played throughout US history by showing students the attached PowerPoint, "First Ladies of the US: What Role Shall I Play?" Suggest that the last quotation in the PowerPoint from Eleanor Roosevelt did not truly reflect the impact she had as first lady, nor the work she did before or after her time in the White House. Define the term social justice and tell students that you will be exploring ways that Eleanor Roosevelt worked toward attaining social justice for many, both within the United States and for people around the world.

Document Study

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948)

  1. Play the two brief video podcasts from Facing History and Ourselves (Historian Allida Black) entitled "Eleanor Roosevelt and Human Rights," which will introduce students to Eleanor Roosevelt and the work she did for human rights.
  2. Conduct a brief lecture: Use the two secondary sources from the United Nations website to provide students with the background for the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
  1. Handout copies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Do not reveal too much to the students about the information in the document. The point will be to let the students discover the information through careful reading of the text, discussion with their classmates, and using the text to construct their own meaning. Guide students as they briefly look through the document to notice how it is organized: a preamble and thirty brief articles.

    Explain to the students that you will next "share read" the preamble together. This is done by having the students follow along silently while the teacher begins reading aloud. The teacher models prosody, inflection, and punctuation. The teacher then asks the class to join in with the reading after a few sentences while the teacher continues to read along with the students, still serving as the model for the class. This technique will support struggling readers as well as English Language Learners (ELL).

    Divide the class into pairs and handout out Worksheet A: The Preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Instruct students to reread the preamble, this time looking for eight to ten Key Words. Tell them to think of these Key Words as very important contributors to understanding the paragraph and without these words the selection would not make sense. These words are usually nouns or verbs. Don’t pick "connector" words (are, is, the, and, so, etc.). The other Key Words rule is that we cannot pick words if we don’t know what they mean. Have them write the eight to ten Key Words in the box on the worksheet.

    Survey the class to find out what the most popular choices of Key Words were and decide, as a class, which Key Words most capture the important meaning of the preamble. Have students write in these Key Words on their worksheet.

    Explain that as a class you will now create a sentence that gets at the main idea of the preamble by using these Key Words with whatever connectors are needed. You do not have to use all of the Key Words to do this. Have students write this sentence on their worksheet. 

    Explain that as a class you will now put this summary sentence into your own words. Ask for volunteers and then have the class decide which sentence best captures the main idea and write the sentence on their worksheet. This will model for the students what you will expect them to do with the rest of the document. 

Lesson Day 2

  1. Handout Worksheets B, C, D, and E, and explain to students that they will now be reading the rest of the document, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Divide the class into eight groups of three or four students and tell them that each group will be reading only some of the articles to become experts on the rights discussed in their part of the Declaration. Each worksheet will have two groups working on it. Instruct them to read their assigned articles and then in the column on the right to note Key Words for each passage that help to understand the rights granted by the Declaration.

    Have students share their work with the full class in a jigsaw, where each group reports out and each student takes notes to complete the worksheets as other groups share their information.
  1. Discussion Questions:

1.  What purpose(s) are stated in the preamble for the creation of this document?

2.  How could the rights discussed in the articles be categorized or grouped? Create a chart where you organize the rights listed into these categories.

3.  Why do you think this document was written in 1948?

4.  What does it tell you about the state of the world at the time it was written?

5.  Which right(s) mentioned in the document do you feel were the most important to include in 1948? Why?

6.  Which right(s) mentioned in the document do you feel are the most important today? Why?

7.  What further information would you like to know after reading this document?

8.  What do you see as a problem with the United Nations creating this human rights document? (Enforcement?)

9.  We looked at a variety of sources in this lesson, both primary and secondary. Which sources better enabled you to answer these questions and to understand the work done by Eleanor Roosevelt and the United Nations around human rights? (Students should come to realize that both types of sources are valuable.)

  1. Comparative Document Study

Have students read our Bill of Rights (1791) and compare the rights in both documents. Ask them to note similarities and differences.

  1. Enrichment

Have students read the excerpt from Eleanor Roosevelt, "The Promise of Human Rights," Foreign Affairs (April 1948) to see why Eleanor Roosevelt thought this work was so  important.

  1. Culminating Activity/Homework

Have students create a thesis paragraph of eight to ten sentences as if they were to use this paragraph as an introduction to an essay discussing the importance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the leadership of Eleanor Roosevelt as she worked with the United Nations Commission to create this document. Have them use the Thesis Paragraph Checklist as a guide when creating their paragraph.

Have students use the Thesis Paragraph Checklist in a peer review of one another’s thesis paragraphs before turning them in for a grade.

Lesson Day 3

  1. Explain to students that they will be exploring other areas of social justice that Eleanor Roosevelt valued. Handout the "Eleanor Roosevelt: First Lady for Social Justice" reading and the "Bloom Questions for Readings" worksheet. Have students read the excerpts and then work in pairs to answer the questions.
  2. Debrief by going over the Bloom Questions worksheet and then asking the students to each create one more question on their own that requires higher-order thinking skills to answer. Show them the list of Bloom’s Taxonomy stems and have them create their question from one of the higher levels of thinking (Apply, Analyze, Evaluate, or Create).
  3. Culminating Activites for Evaluation

The Main Prompt: Students should convey why Eleanor Roosevelt could be considered the "First Lady for Social Justice" by completing one or more of the following activities:

  1. Say it in a few words: Write a Poem for Two Voices, a Haiku, or a Rap that incorporates at least three to five pieces of information from the three lessons and conveys the students’ response to the prompt above.

Poem for Two Voices

This strategy is a wonderful way to present two perspectives or opposing points of view. Students can write a poem individually or in pairs, but either way the poem is a dialogue between two people and is best read aloud by two people. Each voice speaks individually and then the two voices speak together, commenting on something about which they agree or about which they agree to disagree. It is best to arrange the lines in three columns with the speeches moving down the page in the sequence in which they will read aloud.


A Haiku is a Japanese poem that does not rhyme consisting of seventeen words on three lines. The first and third lines have five words while the second line has seven words.

  1. Visualization: Visualize yourself as a social activist during the 1930s and 1940s and describe what aspects of Eleanor Roosevelt’s work and leadership qualities, as learned in Lessons 1–3, you would borrow or adopt as you fought for your cause. Demonstrate your knowledge and application of these qualities of Eleanor Roosevelt by:
  • Writing a two-paragraph diary entry of a day in your life as an activist
  • Locating two photographs from the 1930s and 1940s that deal with some aspect of this cause and writing captions that reflect the work you would be doing for this cause
  • Creating a recruitment poster where you would be seeking assistance of others to help you work for this social justice cause
  • Drawing a political cartoon that reflects your beliefs about how this cause should be resolved.

Make sure whichever task you select from this menu includes information about the cause you would work for, how Eleanor Roosevelt approached that cause, and the leadership qualities she displayed that you admire.

  1. Writing Prompt: Write a paragraph of eight to ten sentences where you incorporate at least three well-explained reasons for your response to the prompt below. Use information learned from the lectures and the primary and secondary source documents provided to you in our study of Eleanor Roosevelt.

Prompt: "If I lived during the mid-1900s Eleanor Roosevelt would surely have inspired me because . . ."

  1. Write an Editorial or Op-Ed: Write an opinion piece of at least 350 words to support the point of view that Eleanor Roosevelt was truly the "First Lady for Social Justice." Using the Common Core Writing Standards for Grades 11–12, make sure students:
  • Clearly introduce their claim using precise knowledge and establishing the significance of their claim about Roosevelt’s importance as a first lady working for social justice.
  • Develop this claim thoroughly by supplying at least five pieces of relevant evidence gathered from the primary and secondary source documents that are part of our study of Eleanor Roosevelt.
  • Use specific rhetorical devices to support these claims (e.g., appeal to logic through reasoning; appeal to emotion or ethical belief; relate a personal anecdote or analogy).
  • Use words, phrases, and clauses to link the major sections of the text to create cohesion.
  • Provide a concluding statement that follows from and supports the arguments presented.