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  • Subject: U.S. History
  • |
  • Grade(s): 6-8
  • |
  • Duration: Three class periods

Lesson Plan Sections


Students will understand the following:
1. Alaska has presented both benefits for and challenges to the United States.
2. Americans were not of one mind on the purchase of Alaska.


For this lesson, you will need:
Documents, books, articles, and editorials concerning the plan by the United States to purchase Alaska from the Russians
Index cards for note taking


1. Explain to students that they will debate the issue of purchasing Alaska from Russia in the 19th century. Even though the purchase was consummated more than a hundred years ago, the process of debating will give students a sense of what the government and the people of the United States considered at the time of the decision.
2. Students' first job will be to gather and arrange arguments in support of and against the purchase. You will then assign students to sides for the debate.
3. Be sure that students understand the following points regarding the nature of a debate:
  • Debaters on each side will alternate presenting arguments to support their case. After each presentation, members of the other side may offer arguments in rebuttal —that is, in opposition. In order to present convincing rebuttals, debaters should know as much about the arguments for their opponents' case as for their own.
  • At the end of the debate, one person from each side will present a summary of that side's argument.
  • After the summaries, each member of the audience will vote for the side he or she thinks has presented the most convincing argument.
4. Discuss with students the kinds of sources—especially, primary sources—that will help them understand the movements for and against expansionism in the United States from about 1840 to about 1870: contemporary newspaper and magazine articles and editorials; contemporary congressional records, including speeches by representatives and senators; contemporary surveys or other reports about the geography and geology of Alaska.
5. Instruct students to use index cards to take notes about reasons for purchasing Alaska and reasons for not purchasing it. They should keep index cards in support of the purchase in one pile and cards in opposition to the purchase in another pile. Remind students to note on each index card the source of the information on the card.
6. After students have completed their research, divide them into small groups of an equal number; assign half of the groups to argue in favor of the purchase and half to argue against it. Consider having students take on the role of actual public figures from the period, including the following:
  • Secretary of State William Marcy (an expansionist who preceded Seward)
  • Senator William M. Gwin and other expansionists in the House of Representatives and the Senate
  • Secretary of State William H. Seward, who was responsible for the purchase
  • Specific senators or representatives who argued against expansion by the United States
  • American newspaper columnists and editorial writers on each side
  • Russian diplomats on both the "sell" and "don't sell" sides
  • American geologists
7. Within each group, ask students to organize themselves so that each member will present one important argument, backed up by facts and expert opinions. Each group should also review information students found that supports the opposing side; in doing so, the students will be prepared to rebut their opponents' arguments.
8. Pair each "for purchase" group with an "against purchase" group. Allow time for each pair of groups to debate each other. Then have the class vote on which group in each pair presented the stronger argument.

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Adaptations for Older Students:
Instead of assigning roles of the real-life players to students (see Procedures), encourage them, based on their research, to decide whom to play during the debate.

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Discussion Questions

1. Why was the impact of air power at the beginning of World War II so surprising to most Americans? Why had Americans felt little fear of foreign military threats prior to this? What do you think is the American perspective on air power today?
2. Looking at Alaska from a Japanese viewpoint, why did the Japanese say before the war that building a highway to Alaska would be considered an aggressive military act? If you had been the U.S. president, how would you have responded to this assertion?
3. Why did Canadians object to the way the United States went about building the Alaska highway? Considering that it was wartime, were the Canadian objections valid? Considering the relative size and power of the United States and Canada, what options did the Canadians have? How might the United States and Canada proceed differently today? What is your opinion about the actions taken by the United States in the construction of the Alaska highway?
4. When the highway was finished, an official opening ceremony was held even though it was extremely cold. Why is it that even under inhospitable conditions, people feel the need for ceremonies to mark events like the opening of a highway? What is the value of ceremony and ritual to people? What does it do for us? What ceremonies or rituals are meaningful to you? Why?

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You can evaluate your students on their group's arguments using the following three-point rubric:
Three points: complete facts; well-organized presentation; logical, persuasive arguments
Two points: more research needed; well-organized presentation; clear arguments
One point: few facts; disorganized presentation; weak arguments
You can ask your students to contribute to the assessment rubric by determining how many facts should be required and what constitutes a well-organized presentation.

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Alaska's Air Power
Use appropriate maps and globes to have students explain the importance of Alaska for air travel. Students should be able to demonstrate why the polar route remains advantageous. Ask them to identify other parts of the world that share this strategic advantage.

Army Corps of Engineers
Have students look into and report on other projects—past or present—by the Army Corps of Engineers, the task force that built the Alaska Highway. In parts of the country where the corps is active, you may be able to have students invite a speaker to address them and to answer questions.

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Suggested Readings

"The Builders: Marvels of Engineering"
Elizabeth L. Newhouse, editor, National Geographic Society, 1992

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A Brief History of Alaska Statehood (1867-1959)
Although focusing primarily on Alaskan statehood, this site offers information and photographs of the building of the Alaska Highway.

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Click on any of the vocabulary words below to hear them pronounced and used in a sentence.

speaker    craggy
Definition: Full of steep, rugged slopes.
Context: The highway is famous for spectacular mountain ranges, but it's not all craggy peaks and virgin forests.

speaker    indigenous
Definition: Native to an area, not introduced.
Context: The army could not have managed without first nations people...and other indigenous people of the north country.

speaker    ominous
Definition: Foreshadowing evil; foreboding and threatening.
Context: At first it was odd and ominous speeches interrupting Fibber Magee and Molly, and Tommy Dorsey or Jack Benny.

speaker    prospectors
Definition: Those people who explore or search for mineral and ore deposits in an area.
Context: The 40,000 prospectors who went north didn't have a land route across Canada.

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This lesson plan may be used to address the academic standards listed below. These standards are drawn from Content Knowledge: A Compendium of Standards and Benchmarks for K-12 Education: 2nd Edition and have been provided courtesy of theMid-continent Research for Education and Learningin Aurora, Colorado.
Grade level: 6-8
Subject area: geography
Understands how physical systems affect human systems.
Knows how the physical environment affects life in different regions.

Grade level: 6-8
Subject area: civics
Understands ideas about civic life, politics, and government.
Understands major ideas about why government is necessary.

Grade level: 9-12
Subject area: geography
Understands the nature, distribution and migration of human populations on Earth's surface.
Knows how human mobility and city/region interdependence can be increased and regional integration can be facilitated by improved transportation systems.

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Summer Productions, Inc.

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