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Utah Agriculture in the Classroom

Agricultural Literacy Curriculum Matrix

Lesson Plan

Growing a Nation Era 1: Seeds of Change

Grade Levels
9 - 12

Students will engage with the Growing a Nation timeline to explore the significant historical and agricultural events and inventions from American history during the years 1600-1929. Students will recognize the importance of labor in agriculture, discover how the implementation of technology increased agricultural production, and explore the role that cotton and wool played during this era. Grades 9-12

Estimated Time
2 hours
Materials Needed

Activity 1: Event Exploration:

Activity 2: In the Good Old Days

Activity 3: Significant Agricultural Events and Impacts: 1600-1929 Chronology Cards

Activity 4: Cotton

*If you do not have local access to a cotton farm to obtain cotton bolls, the Cotton Boll Kit is available for purchase from

Activity 5: Spinning Wool

  • Carded wool,* 1/4" wide and 14" long piece per student
  • Spinning hooks,* 1 per student
  • Wool Spinning Tutorial

*These items are included in the Wool Spinning Kit, which is available for purchase from A Wool Refill Kit is also available.

Vocabulary Words

boll: the part of a cotton plant that contains the seeds; the pod or capsule of some plants, such as cotton and flax

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

Did You Know? (Ag Facts)
  • Texas produces more cotton than any other state. (Visit the cotton map to see if your state grows cotton.)2
  • Cotton is a unique crop that produces food, fiber, and feed. Cottonseed is a supplement for cattle feed, can be processed into oil, or be used to make fabric.2
  • When cotton is processed, it is placed in a bale which weighs about 480 pounds and is about the size of a refrigerator.
  • One bale of cotton can make:
    • 215 pairs of jeans
    • 409 men's sport shirts
    • 690 terry bath towels
    • 765 men's dress shirts
    • 1,217 men's T-shirts
    • 3,085 diapers
    • 4,321 mid-calf socks
    • 313,600 $100 bills
Background Agricultural Connections

Seeds of Change (1600-1929) is the first story event in the Growing a Nation online interactive timeline. The timeline provides a chronological presentation of significant historical events focusing on the important role agriculture has played in America's development. Growing a Nation uses a graphic organizer (timeline) and online multimedia resources to bring depth and meaning to historical events. The interactive timeline and lesson plans merge seamlessly with existing American history textbooks and high school history curricula.

Our country has witnessed sweeping changes—from the untamed wild times of Buffalo Bill to the technological era of Bill Gates and Elon Musk—but food has never lost its central role in our lives. Food not only sustains life but also enriches us in many ways. It warms us on cold, dreary days, entices us with its many aromas, and provides endless variety to the everyday world.

Food is also woven into the fabric of our Nation, our culture, our institutions, and our families. Food is on the scene when we celebrate and when we mourn. We use it for camaraderie, as a gift, and as a reward. We are all aware of how food has changed. What Americans often forget, however, is the remarkable system that delivers to us the most abundant, reasonably priced, and safest food in the world. The American food system—from the farmer to the consumer—is a series of interconnected parts. The farmer produces the food, the processors work their magic, and the wholesalers and retailers deliver the products to consumers, whose choices send market signals back through the system.

In the Good Old Days

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!”


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 ranks third in the world for cotton production.1 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 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.

Sheep and Wool 

Wool played an important role in colonial America. Before the Revolutionary War, most of the finest textiles and fashionable styles were imported from Great Britain. Many colonists wanted to produce their own clothing and textile goods. Wool and linen were the most common materials used. Homespun clothes, clothes that were produced by the colonists, reduced the amount of clothing that had to be bought from England.

Wool cloth is woven from yarn that is spun from the fibers grown as the thick fleece of sheep. Once a year, sheep have their fleeces cut off, or sheared. In colonial times, the sheep were sheared in early spring using hand clippers. The wool was cleaned through a process called scouring in which the wool underwent a series of baths before it was laid out to dry. Wool grease is produced as part of the wool's growth and helps protect the sheep's wool and skin from the environment. Scouring removes this grease from the wool.

In preparation for spinning, wool must be carded. The colonists used hand carders to comb the wool, remove debris, and untangle the fibers, aligning them parallel with each other. Colonists used dye formulas that included insects, roots, flowers, nuts, seeds, tree bark, leaves, or berries. Because of the toxic chemistry, many of these colonial dyes have been deemed unsafe in our era. The dyeing process involved soaking wool in kettles of dye over fires for several hours.

Wool was spun into thread or yarn by tightly twisting the fibers using a spinning wheel. Weavers turned the wool thread into cloth using looms. Wool was also felted, a process of matting fibers together, to make products such as hats and slippers.

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. Ask students what kind of fabric the majority of their clothes are made of. (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: Event Exploration

  1. Using a projector, mobile devices, or computer lab, review the Growing a Nation: Seeds of Change section of the multimedia timeline. The Growing a Nation events and sub-events are designed to be adaptable to a variety of teaching strategies. Each Main Event contains Sub-events that explore American history for a greater understanding of the time period or historical cause and effect relationships. The sub-event tiles ask higher order questions to not only expand student knowledge, but also to increase their comprehension to the level of application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.
  2. After students view selected events and sub-events, assign or allow students (or student pairs) to choose a sub-event tile. Students can work off of a computer or mobile device or take a screenshot of the selected sub-event and print.
  3. Ask the students to be prepared to answer the questions on their tile by either using the Think, Pair, Share strategy or by using one of the attached Demonstration of Learning Strategies. 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. Keep in mind that some Demonstration of Learning Strategies will be a better fit for some of the event topics than others and that some take more time than others. Some strategies may need to be grouped depending on the available time.

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 or guardians were children. Ask your students if they can share their parents’/guardians' 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 the students to complete the activity sheet by putting a check in the box if they have done the activity.
  5. 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/guardians 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/guardians 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 3: 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 colored paper for easy sorting between groups. 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. Ask the groups of students to place the events, to the best of their knowledge, 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 the 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 4: Cotton

Teacher Preparation: Find a local source for cotton bolls or order the Cotton Boll Kit from Note that the cotton in this kit has a longer fiber than the cotton harvested in the 1800s. Each cotton boll contains 4-5 sections of fiber. When hand ginning cotton, each student can remove the seeds from an entire cotton boll or one section.

Teacher Note

The purpose of this activity is to investigate cotton, the process of hand ginning cotton, and the impacts of the cotton gin. Adjusting this investigation into a role-play or simulation of a slave activity is absolutely discouraged. In addition, no student should be required to participate in hand ginning cotton. We recommend consulting your administrator and/or communicating with parents prior to presenting this lesson. You may want to consider hand ginning cotton as a teacher demonstration if you anticipate tension or uncomfortable feelings from your students. For more information concerning teaching about the history of African Enslavement, refer to research conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center Teaching Hard History: American Slavery.

  1. Provide each student with a copy of the Paul Smith, Ex-Slave Federal Writer's Project excerpt.
  2. Explain to the students that Paul Smith had been a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia when he was a child. When he was 74 years old, Mr. Smith was interviewed about his experiences as a slave.
  3. Read the excerpt to the class: 

    Us chillun sho did lak to see 'em run dat old gin, 'cause 'fore dey ever had a gin Marster used to make us pick a shoe-full of cotton seeds out evvy night 'fore us went to bed. Now dat don't sound so bad, Missy, but did you ever try to pick any seeds out of cotton?
  4. Ask the students if they have ever picked seeds out of cotton. Clarify that cotton, a common fabric for our clothing, comes from a plant. When the cotton is harvested, the cotton seeds have to be separated from the cotton fiber through a process called ginning. Let the students know that they will have the opportunity, if they would like, to experience first-hand the task of hand ginning cotton.
  5. Ask the students, "Why did plantation owners in the South want slaves?" After listening to the student ideas, use the following points to discuss how cotton was grown and harvested in the 1800s:
    • The cotton plant grows in climates with long, hot, dry summers.
      • Note: As the lesson progresses, students should recognize that cotton was only grown in the South. Northern climates are not suitable for cotton farming.
    • Cottonseed is typically planted in April when the soil is warm enough for the seeds to germinate.
    • Cotton fields need to be kept free from weeds, insects, and disease.
    • A healthy plant will flower, turning yellow-white and then red. When the flower dies, it leaves a boll which bursts open exposing the cotton to dry in the sun.
    • Cotton is fully mature and ready for harvesting approximately 160 days after it is planted.
    • After being picked, cotton bolls need to be ginned to remove the seeds from the cotton fibers.
  6. Project the Cotton Field Image onto a large screen. Give each student or group of students a cotton boll. Have the students examine the dry, woody stem of the cotton boll. Explain to the students that the sharp plant material makes it painful to pick cotton bolls by hand.
  7. Go through the Mapping History Module The Spread of Cotton and of Slavery 1790-1860. Point out that as more cotton was planted, more labor was needed to grow and harvest the cotton.
  8. Revisit the question, "Why did plantation owners in the South want slaves?" (Producing cotton required a lot of labor. Southern plantation owners believed that the path to wealth and opportunity was owning land and having slaves to work the land.)
  9. Discuss the following points about cotton and slavery:
    • After hand picking cotton in the fields all day, slaves would join the elderly, infirm, and children to gin the cotton by hand.
    • Slaves were required to remove as much lint as possible from each seed. The more fiber removed from the seeds, the more profit could be made from each boll.
    • A slave would typically hand gin about one pound of cotton (about 120 cotton bolls) a day.
  10. Using the cotton bolls from the previous activity, ask the students to predict how many seeds are in each boll. After recording their predictions, allow time for any students who would like to hand gin the cotton.
  11. After ginning, have the students compare their prediction to the actual number of seeds from their cotton boll. Refer back to the excerpt of the Paul Smith interview (from step 1 of this activity). Ask the students to consider the work involved in filling a shoe with ginned cotton seeds.
  12. Have the students weigh the fibers from one boll and compare it to a pair of jeans. A pair of jeans is almost one hundred percent cotton (minus the zipper and buttons).
  13. Ask the students to guess how many cotton bolls are needed to produce a pair of jeans. (approximately 360 bolls)
  14. Read the book Eli Whitney's Cotton Gin by Jessica Gunderson.
  15. While discussing how Eli Whitney's cotton gin worked, show the Animation of Eli Whitney's Cotton Gin. Use the Linking History and Technology handout to provide additional information.
  16. Give each student a copy of the Cotton Gin Diagram. Instruct them to write a description of how Eli Whitney's cotton gin worked on the back of the diagram. Using the cotton and seeds the students ginned, glue the fiber and seeds to the appropriate spots on the diagram.
  17. Ask the students, "How do you think the invention of the cotton gin affected slavery?" After listening to the student ideas, watch the video How Inventions Change History (for better and for worse).
  18. Give each student or small group of students a copy of the Cotton Gin Before and After graphic organizer and cards. Instruct the students to cut out the cards and then decide if each statement is descriptive of the time before the invention of the cotton gin or after. Have the students place the cards in the appropriate section of the graphic organizer and check their work.
  19. Revisit the question, "How did the invention of the cotton gin affect slavery?" (The cotton gin made cotton more profitable and farmers in the South began to grow more cotton. Growing more cotton meant an increased demand for slaves.)

Activity 5: Spinning Wool

  1. Share with the students the "Sheep and Wool" section of the Background Agricultural Connections.
  2. Give each student a piece of wool approximately 1/4" wide and 14" long and a spinning hook. Explain to the students that they will be hand spinning the wool.
  3. Fold about 1/2" of wool over the end of the spinning hook and begin spinning.
  4. Back your non-spinning hand out as the wool is spun; this is called drafting.
  5. Draft out the wool so that the spun wool is taut, but not "bumpy." If you get twisted bumps in your spun yarn, draft (or let out) more unspun wool. When you have twisted the entire length of the wool, don't let go—it will unspin. You are now ready to ply your yarn.
  6. Plying the yarn will keep it from unspinning and make it stronger. Plying is the twisting together of two single strands of spun wool. Have someone hold the center of the twisted wool while you hold the ends.
  7. Bring the ends of the wool together in one hand so that there are two strands side-by-side. Have your helper let go, and let the wool twist together. It should spring into a twisted strand. The double strand is now called plyed yarn.
  8. You can view a Wool Spinning Tutorial.

Concept Elaboration and Evaluation

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

  • Agriculture provides our food, fiber, and fuel. Some events in American history were impacted and shaped by agriculture.
  • Many aspects of agriculture require a great deal of labor.
  • Labor requirements in agriculture vary depending on the technology that is available to perform the work. The cotton gin is a good example of a technological invention that dramatically decreased the need for labor to process cotton. However, growing cotton still required a significant amount of manual labor.
Enriching Activities
  • Ask the students to consider how many cotton bolls are needed to produce a pair of jeans. Want to find out? Borrow a scale from the science teacher and weigh a pair of jeans and one ginned cotton boll. Do the math; you’ll need to gin about 360 bolls (for jeans that weigh 3 pounds).

  • Have your students examine the fiber under a hand lens or simple magnification lens. They will notice that these short fibers have an almost silky appearance.

  • For a historical perspective of cotton, download the PDF or order the video, Cotton: the Perennial Patriot.

  • For a discussion on modern cotton farming, share with the class an excellent online slide show: “Cotton: From Field to Fabric in Forty Frames.” This presentation describes the major steps involved in producing and processing cotton. It has great pictures and easy-to-read captions. As the teacher, you have control over the speed of the presentation which allows as much time as needed for commentary or questions. Download this free from the National Cotton Council.

  • To enhance Activity 2: In the Good Old Days, try doing some of the activities from the In the Good Old Days Inventory activity sheet such as natural dyeing or making jam or butter. Instructions for dyeing wool can be found in the Hands-on With Wool activity, and instructions for making butter can be found in the Better Butter activity. Make up inventory activity sheets for other subjects or topic areas. It is a good way to assess how much your students know about a particular subject before starting a unit.

  • For more classroom activities about cotton, see Supporting Questions 3 and 4 in the lesson, Cotton's American Journey.


Activity 2: In the Good Old Days, Adapted from Project Seasons, Shelburne Farms, Shelburne, Vermont

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.

Debra Spielmaker
Organization Affiliation
National Center for Agricultural Literacy
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