Authentic Lessons for 21st Century Learning

Show Me Your Credentials: Voting in America

Post-Reconstruction America

Chelsee Wilson, Kevin Burlison | Published: July 12th, 2022 by K20 Center


This lesson explores the use of literacy tests during elections following Reconstruction. Students must understand the First, Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments prior to this activity. This lesson will allow students to investigate the purpose of literacy tests while also allowing students to discuss the disenfranchisement of large groups of people as a result of literacy tests. This lesson would work well once a classroom community has been established and the teacher has developed a rapport with the students.

Essential Question(s)

What is power? What forms does it take?



Upon entering the classroom, students will be given a ballot to vote on classroom issues.


Students will receive copies of the 1965 Alabama Literacy Test and will attempt to answer a portion of the questions.


In small groups, students will discuss the purpose of the test, why it was developed, and how it relates to amendments.


Working on their own, students will research current voting registration laws and their relationship to voting rights guaranteed under the amendments.


Students will write a brief Exit Ticket connecting the literacy tests to current voting issues.


  • Classroom ballots

  • Copies of the 1965 Alabama Literacy Test (available for download using the link below)

  • Access to technology and Internet

  • Copies of the Amendments Handout

  • New York Times article "A Dream Undone" (linked below)

  • Pencil/pen and paper


Upon entering the classroom, hand each student a ballot (like the one attached) with new proposals for classroom rules.

Once students have finished voting, tally up the votes and show the new classroom rules.

First, ask students how they feel about the new rules and their ability to have a say in the voting process. Were they happy to be able to influence the rules of the classroom?

Then, ask the students how they would feel about the new rules and their ability to have a say in the voting process if you had denied some of them the right to cast their vote. Would they feel excluded? Would they be upset if the rules directly affected them yet their voice was not heard?

To follow-up the activity, ask students: "Did you know that many African Americans were denied the right to vote? Some were denied the right due to grandfather clauses or poll taxes, but others were denied the right because they couldn't pass an exam. Even though the Fifteenth Amendment guaranteed all men the right to vote, many local and state governments found ways to prevent voting by many minority groups."


Gather students into small groups, and hand them copies of the 1965 Alabama Literacy Test. As a group, students should attempt to answer the questions without using any resources, such as textbooks or cell phones. While they are taking the exam, ask students . . .

  • How much of this information do you know?

  • What would you have to do in order to know everything on the exam?

  • What are the consequences of not passing this exam?

  • What change(s) to this exam would you recommend?

Ask groups to share their thoughts with the test with the class.


After groups have explored the literacy test, pass out copies of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments (attached or versions with additional information can be found at the links provided) and a copy of the New York Times article, "A Dream Undone" (linked here or URL in the Resources section), to each group and allow them time to read through both.

While reading, groups will be using a CUS and Discuss instructional strategy to help them identify key pieces of information. Students will first circle new words in the text, then underline details/evidence, and finally place a star next to the text's main ideas. This should allow students the time to deconstruct the text and determine the key rights provided in each amendment.

After groups are finished, have a class discussion over what they have read so far in class. Some questions could include . . .

  • What rights appear to be guaranteed under the Fourteenth Amendment?

  • What rights appear to be guaranteed under the Fifteenth Amendment?

  • How does the literacy test you took correspond to both amendments?

  • Do you think the literacy test was designed to circumvent the amendments? Justify your response.

  • How did the literacy test affect minority citizens?


As an extension of the lesson, students will research how some states continue to limit voting rights via laws that are currently being reviewed by the Supreme Court. Students will need access to technology in order to conduct the research.

Using the U.S. Vote Foundation's website, students will look up their state's voting requirements and compare them to the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. While researching, students will write down brief notes over their findings.

After students have completed their research, have a brief class discussion.

  • How do our state voting requirements relate to the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments?

  • Did anything strike you as a difficult burden to acquire voter registration?

  • What documentation is required to become a registered voter in our state?


As a brief evaluation of the lesson, students will complete an Exit Ticket over the lesson. Students will summarize and analyze what was learned and apply what was this to current events.

Possible exit tickets include . . .

  • What do the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments guarantee?

  • How did literacy tests operate within the bounds of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments?

  • Literacy tests are no longer used to prevent voting. In what other ways are voters denied that right today?