Authentic Lessons for 21st Century Learning

Connecting Social Issues and Human Health Inequities, Lesson 5

Environmental Racism in America

Alonna Smith, Lindsey Link | Published: July 18th, 2022 by K20 Center


During this fifth and final lesson in the Connecting Social Issues and Health Inequalities unit, students will analyze Marvin Gaye's song, "Mercy, Mercy Me," discuss the history of environmental racism in America, and complete and present their project proposals.

Essential Question(s)

How do inequitable environmental factors affect human health?



Students listen to Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology)” and discuss what was happening historically during this time period. 


Students read an article and discuss what they read. 


Students debrief an article in a whole group discussion. 


Students listen to an NPR story about a metal shredding company in Chicago.  


Students complete and present their proposals.


  • Lesson Slides (attached)

  • “Mercy, Mercy Me” Song Lyrics (attached; one per student)

  • Trump’s EPA Concludes Environmental Racism is Real” (article linked; one per student)

  • Proposal Rubric- Environmental Racism in America (attached; one per student)

  • Computer or individual devices

  • Access to internet or Wi-Fi


Begin the lesson by projecting the unit’s essential question on slide 3 of the attached Lesson Slides.

Display slide 4. Share the lesson’s learning objectives.

Display slide 5. Pass out the attached “Mercy, Mercy Me” Song Lyrics handout and play Marvin Gaye’s song “Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology).” Instruct students to take note of any connections they see to the unit theme as they listen to the song.

Tell students that the Marvin Gaye album came out in 1971. Ask them to think back to their history class and identify what was going on during this time. Show slides 6–7, which provide some photos of the historical period to help students contextualize the song.


Display slide 8. Pass out a copy of the article titled “Trump’s EPA Concludes Environmental Racism is Real” to each student. Introduce the strategy CUS and Discuss. Have students read the article and annotate as described below:

  • C - Circle any words that they don’t know.

  • U - Underline any information that helps them better understand environmental racism.

  • S - Star any information that is significant to them.


After students have finished reading, facilitate a discussion of the information that they underlined and starred. Ask students to share the connections that they are making as they progress through the article. Invite them to share the things that they underlined and starred while also explaining their reasoning for annotating.


Display slide 9. Share the handout of the NPR story with students: Metal Shredding Company Move Sparks Protests. You may also have students listen to the audio recording of the story directly on NPR’s website.

After reading and listening to the story, have the class debrief by addressing the prompts displayed on slide 10:

  • How is this story similar or different to the stories that we have been reading?

  • What information is provided in this story that would support our overall message in our proposals? 

Since this is the final activity before students finish their proposals, ideally, all questions that were on the cumulative Driving Question Board should have been addressed. If there are questions that haven’t been addressed, display slide 11. Use this time to discuss them. Ensure that all students are confident that they have the information that they need to complete a successful proposal.

It is not necessary to formatively assess students at this point since they are close to the end of the lesson series. However, if students are struggling to make connections or cannot think of ideas for their proposals, work one-on-one with the group to help them.


Display slide 12. Remind students that their proposals should address community-level changes that will improve air quality and raise awareness of environmental racism. Ask students to reflect on what they have learned over the previous lessons and begin by addressing the problem, providing evidence for what they are claiming, and providing a possible solution.

Instruct students to finish their proposals and prepare to present them to community members, city council members, family, and peers. Encourage them to use the attached Proposal Rubric to self-evaluate as they are preparing their proposals.

Once students have completed their proposals, display slide 13 and share the instructional strategy Two Stars and a Wish as a means to provide feedback to one another as they are presenting. Have each group present their proposal to the class. While their classmates are presenting, ask students to write down two things that the presenters do well and one thing that they can work on improving. Ask students to share their feedback anonymously to allow each group to make adjustments to their presentations. 

Use the Proposal Rubric as the summative evaluation tool for the cumulative project.