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Lesson Plans

AIDS Activism: Then and Now

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Grade level 10–12 | Subject - history and social studies
time needed

two 45-minute class periods


This lesson plan examines activism in America through the lens of the AIDS awareness activities of ACT UP. In Class 1, students examine visual and written exhibition materials from the “Fight Back, Fight AIDS” exhibition section, in order to understand various issues for which AIDS activists fought. Students examine strategies used by ACT UP in several protests and slogans, and discuss why they think these strategies were used. In Class 2, students evaluate the strategies used by online campaign, Greater Than AIDS, paying special attention to the use of technology and social media. Afterwards, students consider the causes that are important to them and work in small groups to create Community Action Proposals for campaigns that would raise awareness of or advocate actions for change for the issue in their community.

  • learning outcomes
    Students will be able to
    • Using images and readings, describe some of the major issues many people with AIDS have faced, including limited access to life saving drugs, the exclusion of women from the definition of AIDS, and lack of basic needs for living, like housing.
    • Identify and evaluate strategies used by ACT UP to draw attention to the AIDS crisis.
    • Identify and evaluate strategies used by contemporary, web-based AIDS activists.
    • Select an issue and develop strategies to raise awareness and make a difference.
  • background information

    This lesson plan uses the text and images from “Fight Back, Fight AIDS”, a section of the online exhibition, Surviving and Thriving: AIDS, Politics, and Culture. Teachers are encouraged to preview that section as well as gather additional background information on the history of HIV and AIDS in the United States from the online exhibition.

  • vocabulary

    The The following terms may be introduced or incorporated during class discussions: ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), HIV (human immunodeficiency syndrome), AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome), CDC (Centers for Disease Control), FDA (Food and Drug Administration), NIH (National Institutes of Health), cervical cancer, pelvic inflammatory disease, advocate, advocacy, civil disobedience, stigma.

  • materials
    Print All Materials
    Other materials and set-ups:
    • A display set-up for class—e.g. interactive whiteboard, computer connected projector, or flip chart/whiteboard
    • Internet access to the following websites or equivalent printed resources:
  • class 1 procedures
    1. Display Silent=Death protest slogan, read aloud the text below the photograph
    2. Give students a couple of minutes to free write what they think the slogan, “SILENCE=DEATH,” may mean based on what is on display and students knowledge about HIV/AIDS protests, if any. Afterwards discuss as a class what students have written while assessing students’ prior knowledge about the early years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the United States.
    3. Read aloud the introduction text on the “Fight Back, Fight AIDS” exhibition section: “By 1987, more than 13,000 Americans had died from AIDS and more than 46,000 Americans were infected with HIV. There was no cure, and there was only one drug available to treat symptoms. The drug was very expensive and it didn’t help everyone. A new activist movement called the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) was formed to protest on behalf of people who had HIV and who were dying from AIDS.”
    4. Ask students whether the information from the exhibition introduction text changes their answers to their original free write response about the meaning of the slogan, “SILENCE=DEATH.” Afterwards, discuss the meaning of the group’s name—“AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP),” and explore why people may have felt that being silent about AIDS would mean that more people would die.
    5. Tell students that they will explore other examples of ACT UP’s work, in identifying the issues and methods that the group used “to protest on behalf of people who had HIV and who were dying from AIDS.”
    6. Put students in groups of four, distribute copies of the ACT UP Examples handout set to each group, and have each group member examine one of the four examples and respond to the following prompts:
      1. When and in what ways did ACT UP advocate for HIV/AIDS issues in your example?
      2. What was the key issue(s) that the ACT UP example addressed? How would the slogan, SILENCE=DEATH, be relevant to the issue?
      3. From the “Background Information Excerpt” reading, what other details did you learn about this issue?
      4. Would you consider the form of activism in your example effective? Why or why not?
    7. Display the four ACT UP examples, and ask students to share their responses and record the major ideas on the board. Review the ACT UP strategies featured in the examples—i.e., protests and use of slogans, and whether students considered them effective or not.
    8. Tell students that people protest to advocate for change and raise awareness. Ask students to name other past and present examples of protests and activism. Record their responses that may include, but are not limited to, Boston Tea Party, Civil Rights protests, Occupy Movement, etc.
    9. Tell students that in the next class they will examine and learn from other activist organizations. Have students fill out an exit card where they answer the following question: List at least two causes that are important to you.
    10. Class 1 Evaluation: Teachers may evaluate student progress through class discussion and informal observations. Teacher may wish to collect written responses to the prompts or have students complete an exit ticket listing two causes/issues that are important to each student.
  • class 2 procedures
    1. Display the “Fight Back, Fight AIDS” section of the Surviving and Thriving online exhibition, and summarize the ACT UP examples that students examined in Class 1.
    2. Tell students that they will learn more about various ways in which people organize and advocate for their causes such as HIV/AIDS. Have students work in pairs and access online, Greater Than AIDS website.
    3. Assign student pairs to explore Greater Than AIDS and answer the following questions:
      1. Does this site seem to be a credible source? What criteria did you use to evaluate the site’s reliability?
      2. What kinds of AIDS-related issues does this campaign address? Are these similar to or different from the issues addressed by ACT UP?
      3. How are strategies to raise awareness and to encourage people to get involved similar or different between ACTUP and Greater Than AIDS? Why do you think?
      4. Which information on Greater Than AIDS do you find most useful and why?
    4. Bring the class together and have student pairs share their findings. Put their responses on the board, and, as a class, review their responses, the various issues students felt were important, and ways in which an organization and individual may advocate for a cause.
    5. Tell students that there are many ways to be involved and advocate for what is important to each of us. Display the “Student Action” web page on the Constitutional Right Foundation website, and review a couple of the examples noted on the page.
    6. Return students’ exit cards where they noted two causes that were important at the end of Class 1. Put students in groups of three to five per group, and have each group brainstorm and choose a topic/issue for creating their own activism/advocacy project.
    7. Once groups have decided on a project or cause, tell students they are going to research the cause and create a proposal to show how people in their community can act on behalf of that cause. Assign each group to answer the following questions that would outline “action” proposal:
      1. What is issue that you have chosen, and for whom and why is it important?
      2. What are some possible solutions for resolving the issue? Are they for short- or long-term?
      3. What kinds of organizations or websites have you found that address your chosen issue? What are similar and different approaches and information do they offer?
      4. Which approaches and solutions from the organizations/websites are practical and effective for the community action proposal?
      5. What is the key message and approach for the issue you are highlighted in the “action” proposal? Who are the target audiences, what is the call-to-action or –information related to your selected issue, and how would you measure the success of the “action”?
    8. Have students work in their groups and assign them to prepare a group presentation—e.g., poster gallery walk, PowerPoint oral presentation, music/poster/drama-based presentation, etc. —in the next class.
    9. Class 2 Evaluation: Teachers may evaluate student progress through class discussion and informal observations, as well as the group presentation in the following class.
  • extensions
    1. Students can visit the AIDSinfo or infoSIDA website, and gather information and create an educational brochure in English or in Spanish on HIV/AIDS prevention for their peers—i.e., teens. They can also focus on medications currently available to treat AIDS, and create a report, an oral presentation, or a poster exhibition about current treatments as well as research into new drugs.
    2. Students can visit the “Related Resources at NLM” page of Surviving and Thriving’s online education section, and select a HIV/AIDS-related research topic or article and summarize what they have learned in writing or in oral presentations.
  • Common Core State Standards
    For Literacy in History/Social Studies
    • Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, attending to such features as the date and origin of the information; and connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.
    • Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of how key events or ideas develop over the course of the text; and provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.
    • Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including vocabulary describing political, social, or economic aspects of history/social science.
    • Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade appropriate topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.