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        Hooligan Sparrow | Lesson Plan: Dissent and Freedom of Speech: Using Biography to Compare China and the United States

        Students will view parts of Hooligan Sparrow, a documentary about Chinese activists Hooligan Sparrow and Wang Yu. They’ll compare their experiences to the experiences of activists in the United States by researching and writing biographical essays on American activists.

        Lesson Summary

        Students will view parts of Hooligan Sparrow, a documentary about Chinese activists Hooligan Sparrow and Wang Yu. They’ll compare their experiences to the experiences of activists in the United States by researching and writing biographical essays on American activists.

        Time Allotment

        Two class periods with homework in between.

        Learning Objectives

        • Establish what the U.S. Constitution and Chinese constitutions say about freedom of speech and assembly
        • Research and write biographies of American activists that compare U.S. government treatment of those activists with treatment activists in China


        • Film clips from Hooligan Sparrow and equipment on which to show them
        • Library and/or Internet access to conduct research

        Introductory Activity


        The clips in this lesson plan contain content about sexual abuse and may trigger emotional reactions, especially in those who have experienced sexual abuse or assault. Before beginning the lesson, please consider whether or not your school policy requires parental notification and/or opt out alternatives. Be prepared to refer students who are upset to professionals who can help them work through their issues in healthy ways.

        Step 1: Freedom of Speech and Assembly

        Show students Article 35 from China’s Constitution: Article 35. Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration.

        Invite reaction. Given what they know about China’s government, are they surprised that these rights are officially granted?

        Then show the text of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: Amendment I: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

        Put the two excerpts side by side and invite students to compare them briefly. If needed, prompt them to notice that the U.S. Constitution talks about the federal government (“Congress shall make no law”) while the Chinese constitution talks about citizens. Invite students to speculate about why the distinction might be important and let them know they are going to investigate what each of these constitutional guarantees looks like in practice.

        Learning Activities

        Step 2: “Meeting” Hooligan Sparrow

        Tell students that for an example from China, they are going to see clips from a film about a renowned Chinese activist nicknamed “Hooligan Sparrow.” To provide students with enough background information to follow the action in the clips, inform them that Sparrow (given name: Ye Haiyan) is known for using nudity as political provocation and also for her advocacy work on behalf of sex workers. Nanfu Wang, who was born in China but has also lived in the United States, is the filmmaker who made the documentary about her. Also featured in the film is Wang Yu, a human rights lawyer in China who is known for defending activists. The first film clip features protests involving a case in which six young schoolgirls were sexually abused by their school’s principal. A

        s prompts for viewing ask students:

        • What do you notice about the risks involved in being an activist?
        • What do you notice about responses to the activists?

        Show Clip 1. Invite students to share their reactions to the clip, including their responses to the viewing prompts. Ask them to identify ways in which government acted to protect or deny speech or assembly. You might also let students know that later in the film the mysterious man who took the pamphlet turns out to be the father of one of the rape victims.

        Tell students that Sparrow continues her activism and eventually is arrested. As the second clip starts, Sparrow is being held in detention.

        Show Clip 2, repeating the prompt and discussion process that you used for the first clip. As a segue to their homework, encourage students to think about how this scene from China compares to what they know about protests in the United States.

        Step 3: Biographies

        Tell students they are going to compare Sparrow’s experiences in China with the experiences of “radical” activists in the United States. Each will be writing a biography of a person whose ideas and/or actions were especially provocative.

        You can assign biographies to focus on a specific time period or issue that connects with your core curriculum (e.g., suffragists, Progressive Era muckrakers or contemporary environmentalists), or let students choose from this diverse list:

        • Daniel Ellsberg
        • Shulamith Firestone
        • Dave Foreman
        • Barbara Gittings
        • Emma Goldman
        • Gordon Hirabayashi
        • Dolores Huerta
        • Mary Harris “Mother” Jones
        • Larry Kramer
        • Bill McKibben
        • Carrie Nation
        • Huey P. Newton
        • Alice Paul
        • Leonard Peltier
        • Bayard Rustin
        • Pete Seeger
        • Elizabeth Cady Stanton
        • Lincoln Steffens
        • Ida Tarbell
        • Kwame Ture
        • Ida B. Wells
        • Mary Wollstonecraft
        • Helen Zia

        For their assigned person, each student will write a two-part biography/essay:

        Section 1: Who was/is this person? In what time period did/does this person live? What job did/do they hold? What issues did/do they address? What sorts of actions did/do they take? What significant things have they said (or written)? How did the government respond to this person’s activism? How did that response compare to the Chinese government’s response to Sparrow?

        Section 2: What did you learn about the First Amendment, including the right to free speech and assembly, from learning about this person?

        Culminating Activity

        Step 4: A Free Speech Salon

        The day the biographies are due, divide students into small groups so they can share their work, salon-style (i.e., following the intellectual practices of literary salons and their tradition of rich conversations). You might even provide tea! As students learn about the various activists, invite them to identify any patterns they notice and share what they learned about free speech.


        Explore the work of organizations dedicated to protecting free speech (e.g., the American Civil Liberties Union). Discuss the limits of free speech and where students think the line should be drawn/when governments should intervene.

        Compare China’s constitution with the U.S. Constitution to find out how each provides citizens with the ability to protect their rights from government abuse.

        As part of a unit of study on modern China, research the actions of other Chinese dissidents.

        Study the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and hold a debate about whether money equals speech.


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