Authentic Lessons for 21st Century Learning

What Was the Progressive Era?

Key Periods in U.S. History

Susan McHale, Brandon Voss | Published: May 31st, 2022 by K20 Center

  • Grade Level Grade Level 11th
  • Subject Subject Social Studies
  • Course Course U.S. History
  • Time Frame Time Frame 3-4 class period(s)
  • Duration More 200 minutes


In this lesson, students explore the historical period of the Progressive Era through analyzing photos and gain a deeper knowledge of this era by reading primary source documents. They learn about several social reform movements and create speeches and posters in order to rally their peers to support various causes.

Essential Question(s)

How does social reform impact a nation?



Students participate in an I Think/We Think activity to determine what the word "progressive" means.


Students examine and discuss Progressive Era photos to gain a deeper understanding of what the Progressive Era was all about.


Students read and analyze primary source documents from the Progressive Era using the CUS and Discuss strategy, and then choose a reform that they believe was most important to the progress of the nation.


Student groups are randomly assigned a social reform scenario, and each group creates a platform speech and a protest sign for their cause. Oral presentations give each group an opportunity to rally the audience to their cause.


The I Think/We Think activity about the Progressive Era, the document analysis, and the oral presentations can all be used as assessments for this lesson. A rubric for student products is available.


  • Lesson Slides (attached)

  • Choose Your Reform Posters (attached, one set)

  • I Think/We Think handouts (attached, one per student)

  • Platform scenarios for student groups (attached)

  • Social Reform Presentation Rubric (attached, one per group of four students)

  • Student devices with Internet access

  • Chart paper

  • Notebook paper

  • Pens/pencils


Begin the lesson by introducing students to the essential question and learning objectives on slides 3 and 4.

Display slide 5 and introduce the I Think/We Think strategy. Ask students to get out a sheet of paper and fold it in half lengthwise. Have students label the left column "I Think" and the right column "We Think."

Ask students to write down an idea or a definition of what the word "progressive" might mean in the "I Think" column. Then, have them turn to a partner to discuss what they think the word "progressive" means. Partners should decide on their best definition for the word "progressive" and write that in the "We Think" column.

Ask for partners to volunteer and share their definitions aloud. As students share, write some of the phrases heard in these definitions on the board.


Display slide 6 and ask students to look silently at a set of photos. These are photos of events that happened during the Progressive Era. Proceed to show students the photos on slides 7-16. Ask students to evaluate each photograph and take notes about what each one depicts. Students should continue to use the I Think/We Think strategy to take notes about the Progressive Era in the "I Think" column of their notes.

Display slide 17 and have pairs meet again to discuss the following question: "What was this time period called the Progressive Era about?"

Ask pairs to join with another pair and share their ideas about the Progressive Era. Groups of four should discuss and determine what the Progressive Era was all about. Have them add these ideas to the "We Think" column on their papers.

Ask a representative from each group to write their idea of what the Progressive Era was about on the chart paper. Have another group member read aloud and explain what was posted.


For the Explain activity, you can allow the groups formed in the Explore activity to continue working together or organize students into new groups of four.

Display slide 18, and direct students to read in groups all of the attached primary source documents. The primary source documents include:

  • On Women's Right To Vote (a suffragist speech by Susan B. Anthony)

  • Temperance Movement Pledges

  • Establishment of Yellowstone National Park (legislation establishing Yellowstone National Park)

  • Keating-Owen Child Labor Act

  • Crusade for Justice Excerpt (an excerpt from the autobiography of African-American journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett)

Groups should use the CUS and Discuss strategy to read and analyze the documents. As they read, they should:

  • Circle new words

  • Underline details to support main ideas

  • Star main ideas

Once everyone has finished reviewing all of the documents, assign each group to present and discuss one document apiece with the class.

Once each group has delivered a presentation to the class regarding one of the documents, ask students to consider which social reform has helped the United States to make the most progress in becoming a more civilized society. After they have individually chosen what they believe to be the most effective reform, point out the Choose Your Reform Posters hanging around the room.

Ask students to move to the poster for their chosen reform. Once groups have formed at the various posters, have students discuss their reasoning and appoint a spokesperson to explain why this was an important social reform for the time.

After the Choose Your Reform activity, ask student groups to return to the definitions of the Progressive Era on the chart paper. Ask students how they would expand or revise some of the definitions that were first presented.


Display slide 19. Again, you can choose to allow student groups to continue to work together for the Extend activity or form new groups. Pass out copies of the attached Social Reform Presentation Rubric to each group and discuss the expectations for the next activity. Tell students that they should step into the role of backers of a social reform movement during the Progressive Era. Each group should create a platform speech and a protest poster for their cause.

Number the groups 1 through 5. (Some groups might have the same number.) Pass out the Progressive Era Platform Scenarios Handout to each group. The "movement" that each group represents correlates with the number they received. Students can use their textbooks or the Internet to gather information about their particular social reform. Remind students that these presentations will be oral, so they need to rally the audience to their cause.


This lesson provides several opportunities for evaluation, both formative and summative.

Evaluations include:

  • The I Think/We Think activity (this may also be a participation grade)

  • The CUS and Discuss analysis of the Progressive Era readings

  • The oral presentation of the social reform scenarios (rubric provided)