Lesson Plans

1950 to Present

The 1950s Teenager: Conformist or Rebel?
Author: Andrew White
School: Paint Branch High
Grade Level: 9th
Time Estimated: 4 Days

Enduring Understanding

The 1950s saw the combination of several elements, which came together to shape the common culture of the average American. Consumerism, a desire for an end to the massive changes of the Depression and WWII, and Cold War hysteria united together to shape beliefs in the post war era. As a result, a suburban culture of conformity developed. The image of cookie-cutter houses in Levittown populated by "perfect families" who looked just like the ones on television predominate when looking at the 1950s. These views crept into magazines, movies, television, and even films shown to children in 1950s classrooms.

The fifties are more complicated than this simple view, however. These families were dealing with an era of massive change, especially from the eyes of the 1950s teenager. The Civil Rights movement was rapidly working to integrate public schools. Teenagers were gobbling up Rock and Roll as "rebellious" music and musicians sang about taboo topics and the problems facing teenagers. Poets and artists demonstrated open conflict against the status quo through abstract art and beat poetry.

The only way to determine how much impact both of these conflicting viewpoints had on the youth of the 1950s is to listen to the stories of the people who lived through this era.


Students will determine whether or not the 1950s were truly an era of conformity. They will script a dialogue between a parent and a teenager in the 1950s, which incorporates the events and views of the era.


Unit 9.6: "The Struggle for Power in Postwar America"
Lesson 1.3: "Popular Culture"


Online Primary sources:

Sources related to conformity:

Sources related to non-conformity:

Interviews with people who were teenagers in the 1950s:


Day One: Postwar boom (setting the tone for 1950s society)

1. Warmup:
Ask the class, "What hardships did people at home have to deal with during WWII? Which of these were economic hardships?" Students may discuss rationing, limited goods, long working hours, missing spouse, etc.
2. Class Discussion & Graphic organizer:
Have students fill in the Graphic Organizer. Describe how each of these might help the economy of the 1950s grow: consumerism, end of rationing, GI Bill, new technologies, highway act, home ownership, and baby boom.
3. Reflection:
Visual analysis: match the primary sources with the aspect of the economic boom they most reflect. Show images of 1950s life (Levittown, families, cars, highways, TV, etc) and see if they can be matched with the terms in the graphic organizer. Or, ask the class to answer the question: "Of the different causes of the 50s economic boom, which one do you think had the greatest impact on the boom itself? Why?"
4. Homework:
Read American Dream in 1950s section in book (Americans, Chapter 19, Section 2). Quiz on Day 2

Day Two: The 1950s Suburbs

1. Quiz on book section Americans Chapter 19, Section 2
2. Visual analysis: "This is the way you live at LEVITTOWN"
  • Show students the visual, ask them to explain what they think is being advertised.
    • Who is the audience?
    • Who would be pleased with this view of the 50s?
    • How did the GI Bill help Levittown?
3. Comparison of visuals: Levittown ad vs. actual images of Levittown:
Actual Levittown aerial view
Actual Levittown street view
Compare the ad to actual images from Levittown in the 50s and ask students to note differences.
4. Class discussion of Levittown pros & cons.
Have the students design a T-chart based on the Levittown visuals. Teacher should introduce the term "conformity" and use Levittown as an example of conformity actualized.
Time permitting: Include visuals of 1950s family in ads and real family of the 50s in comparison. (Commercials on http://www.archive.org/details/Televisi1960 work well for this. The sixth commercial about Lustre-cream shows mom and daughter. The fourth commercial about children's programming works well; seventh commercial for tires shows sexism of the era.)
5. Reflection:
Design your own advertisement for Levittown. Students should use either visuals and words or do a "radio" spot convincing people why they should move to Levittown.
6. Homework: Complete Popular culture work sheet if not finished during class.

Day Three: Popular Culture of the 1950s

1. Analysis of "The Emergence of the Teenager" section in textbook (contains images of 50s teens, (Americans, Chapter 19 – pages 658-659)
  • Students should use section to make a comparison between teenagers today and the teens of the 1950s. Find three differences and three similarities.
  • Students should share their results with someone sitting next to them.
2. Video analysis: Leave it to Beaver excerpt and Coronet video "Are you popular?"
  • Source analysis: Where would people see these? Who is their audience? What message is being put across?
  • Class Discussion of the "reality" of it. Is this how teenagers act now? Are teenagers then different from now? Why might this be unrealistic? Do we have similar programs today?
  • Discussion: Is the popular culture the same as reality? Provide examples from today's society.
  • Time permitting: In small groups, have students write a short script or synopsis of a 50s TV show.
3. Introduction of teenager/parent dialogue project. Homework: look over project and come up with ideas.

Day Four: The Counterculture

1. Warmup: Make a list of three movies, TV shows, or songs that accurately reflect life today. Class Discussion: Why did you choose these? Are movies, TV and music always good historical sources?
2. Music comparison: Doo wop vs. Rock & roll.
  • Students should listen to samples of the two styles of music and note how they are different/ similar. Music samples found at http://dapatchy.com/oldies/ and http://dapatchy.com/doowop/
    Good examples of doo-wop: "To Know him is to love him" by the Teddy Bears, "Tears on my Pillow" by The Imperials, "Earth Angel" by the Penguins.
    Good examples of 50s rock: "Roll Over Beethoven" by Chuck Berry, "Jailhouse Rock" by Elvis Presley, "Rock around the Clock" by Bill Haley & the Comets)
  • Class discussion: Ask the class: "Why is Doo Wop "conformist?" How is rock & roll not?"
3. Non-conformist culture: The beats & the delinquents:
Painting by Jackson Pollack
"Rebel Without a Cause" movie poster
  • Source analysis: Beat artists and abstract art: Using the Jackson Pollack painting ask kids whether or not he was a conformist. Why or why not. Samples of Jack Kerouac's writing may also be used.
  • Source analysis: James Dean poster ask the students: "How is this view of teenagers different from views we've seen in class before?" Discussion of source – Are movies always reliable sources? Why or why not? How could we find out if this is a reliable source?
  • 4. Reflection: If you were a teen in the 1950s, do you think you would be more conformist or non-conformist? Why?
    5. Homework: Work on Teenager Dialogue Project.


  • Reading quiz
  • Textbook handout
  • Teenager Dialogue project


ESOL: focus more on visual analysis rather than text analysis. Provide lyrics to songs. Have students use spoken interviews on dialogues project.

Gifted: Incorporate magazine ads more readily. Address issue of cold war into conformity concept.


Students will be assessed via the quiz, handout, student notes, and dialogue project.

References: Web

"The Good Wife's Guide" from Good Housekeeping Monthly, May 13, 1955
Commercials from the 1950s and early 1960s
1950s films from the Coronet learning corporation: "Are you popular?"
"Leave it to Beaver" excerpts
Ads from magazines from the 1950s
Images and memories of living in Levittown
50s doo wop music

Sources related to non-conformity:

The History of banned music
Rebel painters and poets of the 1950s
Fifties Delinquent movie: "Gang Boy"
50s rock music

Interviews with people who were teenagers in the 1950s:

Mike Wallace interviews a 12 year old game show winner
Other interviews of famous characters in history found at this site
Interview with Elizabeth Eckford
Interview with Melba Beals