National Agricultural Literacy Curriculum Matrix
King Cotton (Grades 3-5)
3 - 5
Students will learn about the production and processing of cotton and discuss the impact it has had on the history and culture of the United States.
- Cotton bolls*
- Hand lenses*
- Linking History and Technology handout
- Cotton Clothes & Combos activity sheet
Essential Files (maps, charts, pictures, or documents)
boll: the part of a cotton plant that contains the seeds; the pod or capsule of a plant
gin: to separate cotton fiber from seeds and waste material
Did you know? (Ag Facts)
- Cotton has been cultivated and used to make fabrics for at least 7,000 years.1
- Today, US cotton is entirely machine harvested.1
- Some of today's high-capacity gins can turn out as much as 30,000 pounds of clean, cotton fiber in one hour.1
Background Agricultural Connections
Interest Approach – Engagement
- Help your students begin to recall their prior knowledge. Ask them to think about the Civil War. Help them identify or recall that slavery was a big part of the war. Ask them, "Why did the South want or need slaves more than the North?"
- Allow students to offer their ideas. Use guided questions to lead them to recognize that cotton was large industry in the South. At this time, cotton was very labor intensive to grow, harvest, and process.
- Inform students that they will be learning how cotton impacted events in American history.
- Find a local source for cotton bolls or order the Cotton Boll Kit. Note that the cotton in these kits has a longer fiber than the cotton harvested in the 1800s.
- Share the background information about cotton and slavery.
- Give each student or group of students one cotton boll.
- Have your students examine the woody stem of the cotton boll. Ask students if they can understand why it was so painful to pick this plant by hand. Would gloves have been available?
- Share the background information about slaves and the process of ginning cotton. Have your students predict how many seeds are in each boll, and then ask them to compare it to the actual number of seeds after ginning.
- Have students listen to songs that were sung by slaves while they performed the tedious work of ginning cotton. Many spirituals are available from negrospirituals.com. 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?
- Have your students weigh their fibers from one boll, and then compare it to the weight of a pair of jeans. A pair of jeans would be almost one hundred percent cotton (minus a zipper and a button).
- Ask students to consider how many cotton bolls are needed to produce a pair of jeans. Share the information from the Linking History and Technology handout.
- Have students examine the fiber under a hand lens or simple magnification lens. They will notice that these short fibers have almost a silky appearance.
- Discuss the invention of the cotton gin. Ask your students how many years passed between invention of the cotton gin and the beginning of the Civil War. Did the tension between the North and the South escalate after this important invention?
- Have your students complete the Cotton Clothes & Combos activity sheet to integrate math concepts with this lesson.
Concept Elaboration and Evaluation
After conducting the following activities, review and summarize the following key concepts:
- Cotton is a very widely used fabric produced by cotton plants. After harvesting the cotton it is made into fabric.
- The invention of the cotton gin significantly reduced the need for laborers in producing and processing cotton.
- Ethics are important to consider in the production of farm products such as cotton.
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!
Ask your students to listen to or read some of the arguments for ending slavery. Can they also identify why abolishing slavery would have been seen as a problem for those farmers who were trying to grow crops? What would have to be done differently without the use of slaves on a cotton farm? What did a general farm laborer earn in the 1800s?
Read Working Cotton by Sherley Anne Williams. The African American dialect used in the book can provide language arts integration by stimulating discussion of regional dialects and cultural differences. Other resources to share may include the book Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor or the video Cotton, the Perennial Patriot.
Visit the Interactive Map Project website and view the map representing Cotton Production in the United States. Identify the state that produces the most cotton, then find where your state ranks for cotton production. Many states do not produce cotton. Based upon the map, what climate does cotton grow best in?
Share the slide show Cotton: From Field to Fabric in Forty Frames, which describes the major steps of modern cotton production and processing.
Suggested Companion Resources
- Cotton Now & Then: Fabric-Making from Boll to Bolt (Book)
- Eli Whitney and the Cotton Gin (Book)
- Farmer George Plants a Nation (Book)
- If You Lived At the Time of the Civil War (Book)
- Immigration, Migration, and the Industrial Revolution (Book)
- Levi Strauss and Blue Jeans (Book)
- Mr. Blue Jeans (Book)
- Right Here on this Spot (Book)
- Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (Book)
- Where Did My Clothes Come From? (Book)
- Working Cotton (Book)
- Cotton Boll Kit (Kit)
- Cotton Education Kit (Kit)
- Cotton's Journey - A Field Trip in a Box (Kit)
- America's Heartland: Cotton Episodes (Multimedia)
- Cotton...The Perennial Patriot (Multimedia)
- How It's Made: Cotton Yarn (Multimedia)
- Cotton Reader (Booklets & Readers)
- A World of Cotton (Website)
- Cotton Campus (Website)
- Cotton Counts Educational Resources (Website)
- Cotton Gin Animation (Website)
Agricultural Literacy Outcomes
Culture, Society, Economy & Geography
- Explain how agricultural events and inventions affect how Americans live today (e.g., Eli Whitney - cotton gin; Cyrus McCormick - reaper; Virtanen - silo; Pasteur - pasteurization; John Deere - moldboard plow) (T5.3-5.c)
Science, Technology, Engineering & Math
- Compare simple tools to complex modern machines used in agricultural systems to improve efficiency and reduce labor (T4.3-5.a)
Education Content Standards
5-12 History Era 4 Standard 2A: The factory system and the transportation and market revolutions shaped regional patterns of economic development.
Objective 4Compare how patterns of economic growth and recession affected territorial expansion and community life in the North, South, and West.
5-12 History Era 4 Standard 2D: The rapid growth of 'the peculiar institution' after 1800 and the varied experiences of African Americans under slavery.
Objective 2Explain how the cotton gin and the opening of new lands in the South and West led to the increased demand for slaves.
Objective 4Describe the plantation system and the roles of their owners, their families, hired white workers, and enslaved African Americans.
K-4 History Standard 8A:The development of technological innovations, the major scientists and inventors associated with them and their social and economic effects.
Objective 5Identify and describe technological inventions and developments that evolved during the 19th century and the influence of these changes on the lives of workers.
NCSS 8: Science, Technology, and Society
Objective 4The ways in which scientific findings and various forms of technology influence our daily lives.
3-5-ETS1: Engineering Design
3-5-ETS1-1Define a simple design problem reflecting a need or a want that includes specified criteria for success and constraints on materials, time, or cost.
Common Core Connections
Speaking and Listening: Anchor Standards
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.2Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.
Language: Anchor Standards
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.L.3Apply knowledge of language to understand how language functions in different contexts, to make effective choices for meaning or style, and to comprehend more fully when reading or listening.
Mathematics: Practice Standards
CCSS.MATH.PRACTICE.MP4Model with mathematics. Students can apply the mathematics they know to solve problems arising in everyday life, society, and the workplace. Students who can apply what they know are comfortable making assumptions and approximations to simplify a complicated situation, realizing that these may need revision later. They are able to identify important quantities in a practical situation and map their relationships using such tools as diagrams, two-way tables, graphs, flowcharts and formulas. They can analyze those relationships mathematically to draw conclusions.