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        Evaluating Political Arguments with Community-Based Evidence

        Using clips from The Overnighters, students will evaluate whether private charity can replace government welfare programs and would, ultimately, do a better job accomplishing the policy goal of alleviating poverty and suffering.

        Lesson Summary

        Providing students with the skills to evaluate and analyze political speech is a natural way to merge the goals of civics education with CCSS ELA and NCSS C3 standards. This lesson does just that by providing students with an opportunity to conduct an in-depth examination of a political position and then evaluate it using real-life circumstances on the ground. Using clips from The Overnighters, students will evaluate whether private charity can replace government welfare programs and would, ultimately, do a better job accomplishing the policy goal of alleviating poverty and suffering. To focus the exercise on analysis rather than partisanship, students will be required to research and craft both pro and con arguments. POV offers a lending library of DVDs that you can borrow anytime during the school year—FOR FREE! Get started by joining our Community Network.

        Time Allotment

        60 minutes divided over two class periods, with homework assigned in between.

        Learning Objectives

        By the end of this lesson, students will:

        • Analyze the logic of the political proposal that government welfare programs should be replaced by private charity.
        • Evaluate evidence supporting and undermining the proposal, including evidence from a real-life situation involving people in need.
        • Evaluate a counterargument.
        • Write well-documented pro and con statements about the proposal.
        • Develop a basic understanding of the social problems that arise from the economic boom times that fracking has brought to North Dakota's Bakken shale region.


        • Computers with Internet access
        • Film clips from The Overnighters and equipment on which to show them

        Introductory Activity

        Ask students to identify Paul Ryan. If they don't know who he is, have them practice online search skills to find out. They should be able to ascertain that he is a Congressional Representative from Wisconsin, that in 2012 he ran for vice president on the Republican ticket and that the Ryan budget plan has been a centerpiece of the conservative Republican Party platform for the last several years. He has been a major voice in his political party.

        Tell students that they are going to examine one facet of the Ryan budgetary approach: the position that the nation can cut funds currently supporting many welfare programs, because aid can and should be provided by private charity. If time allows, you can have students fully research Ryan's position, or you can have them read his comments

        One of the comments included on that page summarizes the essence of Ryan's argument. In a 2012 speech at Georgetown University:

        Ryan argued that government welfare "dissolves the common good of society, and it dishonors the dignity of the human person." He would restore human dignity by removing anti-poverty programs. The moderator asked the chairman about "the moral dimension" of a budget that gives tax cuts to the wealthy and cuts spending for the poor...Spending on programs such as food stamps and college Pell Grants is "unsustainable," he said. If government does too much for the poor, "you make it harder" for churches and charities to do that work.

        - As reported by Dana Milbank of The Washington Post in "Paul Ryan's Faith-Based Lesson" on April 27, 2012.

        Alternatively, if time allows, you may want to have students watch the Ryan speech in its entirety and listen specifically for his comments about welfare policy:

        For this first round of analysis, students' focus should be on comprehension and logic: Do they understand what Ryan is saying and does it make sense? A short class discussion about reactions to his position should reveal whether students have accomplished these goals.

        Learning Activities

        As homework, or in class if time allows, assign students to read this counterargument by former journalist and current religion professor Daniel Silliman:

        This reading should be done individually with a focus on comprehending the counterargument and checking Silliman's sources. As a check-in, have each student write a brief summary about whether they think Silliman's sources are used fairly and whether or not they adequately back up his position.

        Segue into the film clips by inviting a few students to share reactions to the reading assignment. Then note that sometimes public policy proposals sound good in theory, but things change when you start to apply them to real situations. Tell the students that they are going to watch clips from a documentary called The Overnighters, which examines challenges faced by one boom town in North Dakota's Bakken shale region, a place that has been a magnet for workers and job seekers drawn by the thriving oil fracking industry. Explain that the focus of the film is on a church, as a private charity, trying to cope with the needs of those who can't afford or can't find housing.

        Show all four clips. Students should take notes about how the content they see relates to Ryan's proposal that private charity replace welfare.

        After showing the clips, let students know that the town eventually shut down the overnighters program, citing building code violations (e.g., no sprinkler system, no showers--the church wasn't built to be a dorm) and also zoning problems (the church is in an otherwise quiet neighborhood of single-family homes).

        Culminating Activity

        As an assessment, assign students to write summaries of both the pro and con positions on the proposal to replace government welfare with private charity. The summaries must provide supporting evidence, properly cited, including evidence from the video clips.

        To provide a guide for this assignment, you may want to have students look at one of the issue pages on and use that website's format as a guide.

        (Optional) Create a class wiki where students can post their pro and con arguments and defend the sides they choose. Let the online discussion continue for several days, so students have time to research their responses to one another's arguments and engage in serious dialogue.


        1. As a follow-up to reading John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, watch the entire film and compare the experiences of the pastor and the overnighters with the experiences of the main characters in Steinbeck's novel. 
        2. Use the town's and/or church's conflicts to have students practice mediation skills. Use your school's conflict resolution program as a guide. Invite a counselor or the staff member in charge of peer mediation to coach and/or evaluate student performance.
        3. Compare the shifts that are happening today in small towns across North Dakota with previous U.S. migrations driven by the search for work (e.g., silver mining boom towns in Colorado, the mass migration of blacks from the South to urban centers in the North, the Gold Rush, Irish immigrants fleeing the Irish Potato Famine).


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