English Language Arts, Composition and Rhetoric
Material Type:
Lesson Plan
High School
  • Grade 12 ELA
  • Jr.
  • Martin Luther King
  • Persuasion
  • Writing
    Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial

    Civil Disobedience

    Civil Disobedience


    In this lesson, students learn about civil disobedience—about people purposefully disobeying a law that they feel to be unjust. They’ll read from two examples that address the issue: Henry David Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”


    • Read the lesson and student content.
    • Anticipate student difficulties and identify the differentiation options you will choose for working with your students.

    Civil Disobedience

    • Help students define civil disobedience: synonyms range from rebellion, revolution, unrest, and insurrection. The term implies that citizens are purposefully disobeying the laws of the state that they consider unjust.
      • SWD: You might want to have students keep a vocabulary journal with the words and a picture of each word (a photograph with a sentence or a drawn picture) for reference.
      • ELL: Invite students whose first language is a Romance language (Spanish, French, Italian, and so on) to think of how to say those words in that language and possibly share with the class. Because of the Latin roots, the words will be quite similar.


    Talk with a partner about what you know about the term civil disobedience.

    • Where have you heard the term before, and in what context?
    • What does it mean? Work with your partner to come up with a definition.
    • Think of specific examples from American history where otherwise law-abiding citizens chose to oppose a law by disobeying it.

    "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience" Excerpt

    • Provide students with information about Thoreau’s essay “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience.”
      • ✓ In the essay, Thoreau questions why men obey governmental law even when they believe it to be unjust.
      • ✓ Thoreau detested slavery, and because tax revenues contributed to the support of it, he refused to pay his taxes.
      • ✓ He was arrested and imprisoned until some friends in his community bailed him out.
      • ✓ His essay is a response to his experiences.

    Work Time

    Antigone is an early historical example of a situation where a person chose purposefully to disobey a law of the state because she believed it to be unjust and morally wrong.

    Two well-known examples of writing from American history that address the issue of unjust laws include:

    • Henry David Thoreau’s seminal essay “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience”
    • Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

    In this lesson, you will begin reading Dr. King’s “Letter.”

    • But first, with a partner, read and annotate a brief excerpt from Thoreau’s essay “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience” for unknown words and places of confusion.

    About "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience"

    • Allow students about 3 minutes time to look over their notes as partners.
    • Facilitate a Whole Group Share about the excerpt from Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience.”
    • After their initial sharing, probe students with the following questions:
      • ✓ What are Thoreau’s beliefs about government in this short passage?
      • ✓ What does he believe a government should do when a minority protests an unjust law?
    • Note that the complete essay, “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience,” can be found in the More to Explore library.

    Work Time

    Reread the excerpt of “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience” sentence by sentence.

    • In your own words, state Thoreau’s argument in this paragraph.
    • Note the number of questions Thoreau poses. Make a list of each question and paraphrase it.
    • Note that Thoreau uses the pronoun it to refer to the government and personifies government. In the excerpt, highlight the wordit if Thoreau is referring to the government.

    Share your completed annotations of the paragraph from “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience” with a partner, and decide together what you would like to share with the whole class.

    Then discuss your notes from reading the Thoreau excerpt with your classmates.

    "Letter from a Birmingham Jail"

    • Introduce the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
    • Supply context for the letter:
      • ✓ In 1963, Dr. King had been invited to Birmingham by the Birmingham branch of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to assist in working to repeal unjust “Jim Crow” practices, which were no longer legal—such things as whites-only lunch counters in department stores, separate drinking fountains and restrooms, and so on.
      • ✓ Dr. King helped organize and participate in a peaceful march of protest to city hall.
      • ✓ He and others were arrested for parading without a license.
        • ELL: Be aware that students who have recently arrived in the country may not know about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Be sure to explain who he was, what the civil rights movement was, and how important it is in the context of American history. Allow them to ask questions, and be as explicit as you can. Allow other students to contribute with what they know as well.
    • Read the first paragraph aloud, sharing annotations and explanations as you read. See “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” Think Aloud.
    • When you have finished reading the first paragraph, ask students to reread the paragraph and answer the questions about audience and purpose.
    • Tell students to read to the end of paragraph 4 and annotate for words they don’t know and places where they are confused.
    • Ask them also to look for what Dr. King says about the charges made against him by the ministers and his answers to their criticisms.
      • SWD: Monitor the ability of students to annotate throughout this unit to note progression. If they struggle with annotating, consider giving them additional questions to promote deep and meaningful thinking.

    Work Time

    Turn now to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

    After learning about the context of the letter, listen as your teacher reads the first paragraph aloud. Review the paragraph to look for answers to the following questions.

    • Who is Dr. King writing to?
    • What reason does Dr. King give for writing such a long letter?

    If you have clarity about the audience and the purpose of the letter, continue reading on your own to the end of paragraph 4, listing the charges made against Dr. King by the clergymen and Dr. King’s defense of his actions. Share your notes.

    The Charges Against Dr. King

    • Give students 3–5 minutes to do this work.
      • SWD: Consider giving students a conferencing checklist that focuses on organization and development so they have concrete points to discuss with their partner. This suggestion could apply to all students.
      • ELL: If paired with another student who speaks the same native language, allow students to use that language when working together. If that's not possible, monitor students to ensure that they are able to engage in this activity productively. When ELLs share with the whole class, encourage them as they share in English.

    Work Time

    Work with a partner to prepare for a class discussion about the charges against Dr. King.

    • List the charges made against Dr. King in this first part of the letter.
    • Explain Dr. King’s position about each of these charges.

    Open Notebook

    "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" Discussion

    • Help students to see the pattern Dr. King uses through most of the letter: to cite the criticisms of the clergymen and then to explain his position.


    What were your findings?

    • Share the findings you and your partner have about the content of the first four paragraphs of “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

    Dr. King's Quotation

    • Remind students to continue reading their Independent Reading Group Novel and to turn in journal entries.


    In paragraph 4, Dr. King explains the basis of his working to oppose injustice:

    “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

    • Rewrite the quotation from Dr. King’s letter in your own words.

    Open Notebook

    Continue your ongoing homework assignment:

    • Read your Independent Reading Group Novel.
    • Remember to submit two journal entries a week to your teacher and publish some of your journal entries so others can read your work.