AIDS Crisis & Government Role Part I


AIDS Crisis & Government Role (Part I)

An Apathetic Government

Author(s): Carly Solberg, Lillian Guo


Subject: History


Topic:  Integrated; US Domestic Policy and Social Problems/Policies, Government Response to Social Changes


Grade Levels: High School; 11th


This lesson plan seeks to examine the ways in which the United States government ignored a disease that took thousands of American lives. It will debunk fallacies about HIV/AIDS and use the history of AIDS in the US to analyze how powerful activism can be.


Time: 50 Minutes


Lesson Objectives:

Students will:

  • Analyze the ways that our government has a history of ignoring people on the margins of society, including gay people and people of color who were disproportionately  affected by HIV/AIDS.
  • Learn how ACT UP/NY borrowed activism tactics from movements of people of color by way of sit-ins, peaceful protests and violent protests.
  • Examine sensationalism and how U.S. media uses this as a distraction from actual lives lost.


Essential Questions:

Who is the US government supposed to serve and protect? Who does the US government actually serve and protect?

How do the opinions of AIDS differ from gay people and their allies, and straight people?

How does the lack of government response leave people of color out of the conversation?



11.11 HSS Students analyze the major social problems and domestic policy issues in contemporary American society.


11.11.7  HSS:   Explain how the federal, state, and local governments have responded to demographic and social changes such as population shifts to the suburbs, racial concentrations in the cities, Frostbelt-to-Sunbelt migration, international migration, decline of family farms, increases in out-of-wedlock births, and drug abuse.



Apathy: Lack of interest, enthusiasm or concern


Activism: The action of using vigorous campaigning to bring about political or social change


Marginalize: To treat a person, group of people or concept as insignificant


Sensationalism: The use of exciting or shocking stories or language at the expense of

accuracy, in order to provoke public interest or excitement


Teacher Background: The teacher is encouraged to watch AIDS crisis documentaries such as United in Anger: The History of ACT UP in order to fully understand the intensity of the topic. The teacher should have experience with facilitating a Socratic Seminar and their class should be given experience with the method before this lesson plan.




Recommended Pre-learning Extension:

  • Video Scavenger Hunt: This homework assignment can be given to students to help them gain background knowledge on what HIV/AIDS is before beginning this lesson. Students will need a copy of the video scavenger hunt worksheet (see Materials), and will need to watch the video, “How a Sick Chimp Led to a Global Pandemic: The Rise of HIV” on YouTube. Students will fill out the questions on the worksheet while they watch.


  • “Why We Fight” by Vito Russo: Additionally, the teacher might consider assigning Russo’s speech as homework. Ask students to read and annotate the speech before class, and to come prepared to discuss.



  1. Introduction (15 minutes)
    1. If the teacher chose to assign the optional video scavenger hunt homework assignment, spend about five minutes discussing the questions from the worksheet. Ask student volunteers to read their answers out loud to each question on the worksheet.
    2. Watch “Reagan Administration’s Chilling Response to the AIDS Crisis” on YouTube by Vanity Fair Magazine (7:49).
    3. Have students discuss in pairs or as a class questions about the video:
      1. Why did the Reagan Administration appear so apathetic about the AIDS crisis? If the federal government had responded differently, how might that have changed the outcome of the AIDS crisis?
      2. What kinds of stories/language did the media use as an opportunity to sensationalize the AIDS crisis? What impact did sensationalism have on the crisis?
      3. When are other times in history that we have seen the federal government actively harm and contribute to the further marginalization of vulnerable communities and people?
  2. Socratic Seminar (25 minutes)
    1. If the Russo speech was not assigned as a homework assignment to complete before class, pass out copies of Vito Russo’s “Why We Fight” speech for each student. Give them 10 minutes to read, annotate and prepare ideas about the article to share with the socratic seminar.
    2. Split the class up into small groups of no more than seven students each, so that every student has a chance to speak and discuss their ideas. Before beginning, remind students of the importance of practicing active listening during a socratic seminar, and to create space for new ideas to be shared in respectful ways.
    3. Encourage students to take the lead on the discussions themselves by discussing any questions that arose while they read or any connections or observations they made.
  3. Conclusion (10 minutes)
    1. Each group will pick two representatives to tell the rest of the class what their group discussed. The other groups can ask questions or add on to what the representatives say.


Relevant Resources:

Russo, Vito. “Why We Fight.” 9 May 1988, Albany. http://www.actupny.org/documents/whfight.html


SciShow. How a Sick Chimp Led to a Global Pandemic: The Rise of HIV. YouTube, 29 Nov. 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=izwomieBwG0.


“Socratic Seminar.” Facing History and Ourselves, www.facinghistory.org/resource-library/teaching-strategies/socratic-seminar.


“The Memorial.” National AIDS Memorial Grove in San Francisco RSS, www.aidsmemorial.org/about/


“President Reagan Delivers First Major Speech on AIDS Epidemic in 1987.” ABC News, ABC News Network, abcnews.go.com/Health/video/president-reagan-delivers-major-speech-aids-epidemic-1987-46492956.


VanityFairMagazine. Reagan Administration’s Chilling Response to the AIDS Crisis. YouTube, YouTube, 1 Dec. 2015, www.youtube.com/watch?v=yAzDn7tE1lU.

Additional Resources: 

Lesson Plan PDF

Worksheet PDF

Author(s) Information: Carly Solberg is a Summer 2018 Education Curriculum Intern at Our Family Coalition in San Francisco, CA, and a Women’s, Gender and Queer Studies student at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, CA.


Lillian Guo is an undergrad student studying Learning Sciences at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL, and is a Summer 2018 Education intern at Our Family Coalition in San Francisco, CA.

  1. Anonymous Reply

    I think it is wise to consider how lessons are presented to students.
    Descriptors such as “apathetic,” should be considered strongly in the development of curriculum.

    Just my two bits

  2. Anonymous Reply

    This lesson can be valuable if taught in the right way to our students.
    I think it raises some valid points about the reaction of the government to the AIDS crisis and ultimately the reaction people had.

    I think it raises some “ethical Judgement” issues when there is language in the lesson plans used such as “apathetic government,” or in another example of how the “government actively harms” its marginalized citizens.

    Using this type of language is setting this type of tone is not appropriate.
    Just curious, how many credentialed teachers reviewed this curriculum prior to publication?

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