California Agriculture in the Classroom

Growing a Nation: Seeds of Change

Grade Level(s)

9 - 12

Estimated Time

2 hours


Students will understand the significant historical and agricultural events and inventions from American history during the years of 1600-1929 and recognize how they impacted American families and communities, science and technology, education, economy, business, trade, labor, and legislation.


Essential Files (maps, charts, pictures, or documents)

Essential Links


cotton gin: a machine that separates the seeds, seed hulls, and other small objects from the fibers of cotton

boll: the part of the cotton plant that contains the seeds

Did you know? (Ag Facts)

Background - Agricultural Connections

Seeds of Change is the first lesson in the Growing a Nation instructional unit covering the time period of 1600-1929 in American History. Growing a Nation provides a chronological presentation of significant historical events focusing on the important role agriculture has played in America's development. See Welcome to Growing a Nation for more background on the unit.

In the Good Old Days:

This lesson plan can be used as an overview to U.S. history or as a review for corresponding National Standards Eras along with the Growing a Nation CD. In the “good old days” a country kid would help milk the cows, collect fresh eggs, feed the pigs and pick some berries for breakfast. Today with less than 2% of the population in the United States involved in agriculture, most of your students get milk from cartons, strawberries from a box in the freezer, and their morning routine involves nothing more than choosing their favorite box of cereal from the cupboard. Their connection to their food has been reduced to a visit to the grocery store. But things may be changing. Farmers’ markets are springing up everywhere, bringing fresh produce, meat, dairy products and baked goods even to city dwellers. Community supported agriculture programs involve people in growing and harvesting their own food. Everywhere plots of land are being set aside for community gardens with local libraries checking out tools along with books to get people started growing some of their own food. Many schools are developing innovative educational programs centered on school gardens. And throughout the country, farm “bed and breakfasts” have become popular. Some even offer family vacations where you can become “Old MacDonald” for a week. So even if you don’t live in the country, take the opportunity to become part of agriculture today, and enjoy “the good new days!”

King Cotton:

If you ask someone “What was the cause of the Civil War?” chances are they will answer “slavery.” True, but why did the South want or need slaves? Cotton. By examining this important crop, your students will grasp and be able to relate how cotton influenced the slave trade, slave culture, economic policies, the Civil War, and the industrial revolution. Cotton picking was a job for healthy adult slaves. Generally, these slaves would hand pick cotton in the fields all day, and then by candlelight they would join the elderly, infirm, or children to gin the cotton by hand.

Ginning cotton means to remove the lint or fiber from the seed. It is important to remember that the more lint one removed from the seed, the more profit from each boll. It would have been important for slaves to remove as much lint as possible from each seed. Your students may have anywhere from 12-42 plus seeds per boll, as did the slaves. A slave could gin one pound of cotton a day. After completing the following classroom activity, your students will be able to determine how many bolls of cotton they would need to make one pair of jeans. In fact, about 120 ginned cotton bolls weigh only one pound. Eli Whitney is generally credited with the invention of the cotton gin (1793). His idea for this machine came while he was watching a cat trying to catch a chicken in the barnyard. The cat’s unsuccessful attempt left him with a claw-full of feathers and no chicken. Whitney decided to try a similar approach with cotton. He basically wanted to “rake” the fiber from the seeds. His machine, operated by a hand-crank, revolutionized the production of cotton.

With the invention of the cotton gin, one slave could gin 50 pounds of cotton a day. Did this mean plantation owners needed fewer slaves? No, this machine meant cotton was a more profitable crop. Now plantation owners needed more slaves to produce more cotton. This was important to Southerners because their “production only” economy was in a slump. They had virtually no manufacturing. Factories for making fabric (textiles) were primarily in the North and in England. Unlike wool, which has a very long and scale-like fiber, cotton is a short and smooth fiber. These physical differences make wool easier to spin into thread than cotton, either by hand or machine. Spinning cotton by hand is time-consuming and difficult. Wool, and to some extent linen, was the fabric of choice until machine technology made cotton thread production viable. Cotton production in the South was only economical as long as they could sell it to textile manufacturers in the North.

Today, the United States produces 43 million tons of cotton annually. The largest cotton producing states are Texas, Mississippi, and Georgia. Cotton is even an important crop in the West. Arizona and California are well-known for their Pima cotton, which is a finer, more expensive cotton fiber. Cotton gins are now very large machines that do the work much faster than when it was done using Eli Whitney’s simple machine. And what do we do with the literally mountains of cottonseed after it is ginned? Most of those fuzzy seeds are fed to dairy cattle or processed into cottonseed oil, which can be found in nearly every kind of snack food including chocolate candy bars.

Interest Approach – Engagement

  1. Discuss with your students the possible answers to the question, "What are the major events or inventions that changed American families and communities, science, and technology, education, economy, business, trade, labor, and legislation from 1780-1929?"
  2. Next, ask students what kind of fabric the majority of their clothes are made of. (The answer is cotton.)
  3. Refer back to the question in step 1 and ask your students, "Could cotton impact families, communities, science, technology, education, economy, business, trade, labor, and legislation?" In this lesson students will learn how cotton impacted history.


Activity 1: Embedded Resource

  1. View the "Seeds of Change" portion of the Growing a Nation Multimedia Program. You may view all slides or just a portion.
  2. After students view selected slides, assign each student or group of students an Embedded Resource Card and ask them to be prepared to answer the questions on their card either by direct response or by using one of the attached Teaching and Learning Strategies. Note the following:
    • You may want to choose a particular strategy to use with the entire class or cut the strategies into strips and ask each student to pick one or two. If the student or group of students is allowed to pick two, ask them to choose the learning strategy they prefer and put the other one back.
    • As you progress through the multimedia slides, five or six embedded resources will pop up on each Growing a Nation screen with the icons designated in the Welcome to Growing a Nation document. These embedded resources match the attached Embedded Resource Cards distributed in step two. They are designed to be adaptable to a variety of teaching strategies and flexible for diverse learning styles. They detail events in American history and allow students to gain a greater understanding of the time period and historical cause and effect relationships. Each embedded resource asks higher order questions to not only increase student knowledge, but to increase their comprehension to the level of application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation (Bloom’s Taxonomy of educational objectives).
    • The Teaching and Learning Strategies are designed to allow teachers to adapt and implement the multimedia program and embedded resources used in this activity. One or more chosen strategies can be applied to best suite your students and classroom.

Activity 2: In the Good Old Days

  1. Read the "In the Good Old Days" section of the Background Agricultural Connections portion of this lesson.
  2. Ask the students if daily life chores have changed since their parents were children. Ask your students if they can share their parents’ or grandparents’ childhood stories about things they did around the house that are no longer done today. Are there activities that the students do today that might someday seem dated to their children or grandchildren?
  3. Explain to the students that you have prepared an inventory activity sheet to determine the types of agricultural and everyday activities they have done. Tell the students that some of the activities on the list may seem like novelties, but they may have been a way of life for their parents or grandparents. Pass out the In the Good Old Days Inventory Activity Sheet, and give them time to read it over. Give students the option of adding a few items to the list.
  4. Ask students to complete the activity sheet by putting a check in the box if they have done the activity.
  5. Next, ask them to find someone in the class that has done the activity, and then write his or her name in the space. Have all the items been done by the students in class?
  6. Tell the students that they will now get a chance to survey their parents and their grandparents. Assign students to complete the activity sheet at home by filling in the names of their parent or guardian and, if necessary, a grandparent or neighbor over 65 to fully complete the activity sheet.
  7. When the homework is returned, graph the differences between the generations. As a class, count the number of activities the students did compared to those their parents and grandparents did. What kind of differences do the students notice? How many students have grown their own food? How many have made their own clothes? Where do these necessities come from today?
  8. Explain to the students that these differences indicate the changes that have taken place over time regarding our relationship to agriculture and our connection to food and fiber production.

Activity 2: Significant Agricultural Events and Impacts: 1600-1929 Chronology Cards

  1. Copy for each group or pair of students a set of the Chronological Event Strips for 1600-1929 preferably on color paper for easy sorting between groups, and then cut the events apart into strips. Notice that the strips are separated by eras so that you can select or group the events you would like to use for the activity.
    • Tip: If you’d like the strips to be reused, laminate the Chronological Event Strips pages before you cut them apart.
  2. Provide each group with selected event strips for the time periods you are discussing. To the best of their knowledge, ask the groups of students to place the events in chronological order on their desk. Ask them how confident they are about the order.
  3. Provide each group of students with a Significant Agricultural Events Activity Sheet. Ask them to reorganize their chronology strips into the correct order based on the data sheet. Together the groups should consider the significance of each event and how it has affected and impacted the cultural/societal categories on the activity sheet.
  4. Instruct each group to place a check mark on the activity sheet, in the appropriate space, if the event had an effect on the cultural/societal category and impacted or changed how we live in the United States today. The activity sheets should be kept for future reference and completed throughout the course. As you review each era and progress through the course, students will be able to see the impact agriculture has made on the growth of the nation and how developments in agriculture have changed their lives. Ask students to rank the events periodically or when they complete the course. Which events or event do they think had the most impact? Why?
    • As an optional activity, ask students to prepare an individual or group project on the event they feel had the most impact.

Activity 3: King Cotton

  1. Share with the students the "King Cotton" section of the Background Agricultural Connections.
  2. Give each student or group of students one cotton boll for ginning.
  3. Have your students examine the woody stem and the boll holding the cotton fibers. Tell students that there are seeds inside their boll. Ask them to predict how many seeds they think are in their boll.
  4. As students examine the boll, ask them if they can understand why it was so painful to pick this plant by hand. Would gloves have been available? Would it have been possible to gin cotton (separate fibers from the plant) by hand while wearing gloves? What may slaves have used to protect their hands from getting cut?
  5. Instruct students to gin the cotton by removing the seeds from the fibers. To enhance the experience, listen to Negro spirituals while your students are working. Inform them that slaves sang to pass time while they worked. Many Negro spirituals can be downloaded from the website, Negro Spirituals.
  6. Ask students the following questions:
    • What cultural differences may be expressed by this music?
    • Do we still use music to pass the time while we work?
    • What does the kind of music we listen to say about our cultural heritage?
  7. Once ginning is complete, have students compare their prediction (Step 3) with the actual number of seeds and lead a class discussion.
    • Were there more or less seeds than they thought?
    • How did they like the work?
    • Why would people have had so few changes of clothes during this period?
  8. Discuss the invention of the cotton gin. Ask your students how many years passed after the invention of the cotton gin until the beginning of the Civil War. Did the tension between the Northern and Southern states escalate after this important invention?

Concept Elaboration and Evaluation

After conducting these activities, review and summarize the following key concepts:

We welcome your feedback! Please take a minute to tell us how to make this lesson better or to give us a few gold stars!


Enriching Activities

Suggested Companion Resources


Growing a Nation was funded by USDA CSREES cooperative agreement #2004-38840-01819 and developed cooperatively by: USDA, Utah State University Extension, and LetterPress Software, Inc.

Special Thanks to:


  1. Activity 1, In the Good Old Days, Adapted from Project Seasons, Shelburne Farms, Shelburne, Vermont


Debra Spielmaker

Organization Affiliation

National Agriculture in the Classroom