Pearl Harbor: A Defining Moment in U.S. History

Guiding Question:

What makes Pearl Harbor a defining moment in American history?


Using a history lab format, students will analyze primary and secondary sources to help them answer the guiding question. Students will be broken into groups and each group given a different document to explore. Groups will analyze the effect of the attack on Pearl Harbor and then produce an original political cartoon to illustrate their answer to the guiding question.


Historical Context

Pearl Harbor woke the United States out of its slumber of neutrality. The attack on American soil jarred the collective psyche and forever changed the way the nation approached international affairs and perceived enemies. The results of the attack were felt immediately with the declaration of war, but also crept into the American homefront and beyond. By investigating the impact of Pearl Harbor on the American identity, students can better understand the United States’ role on the world stage in the post-World War II era.


At the conclusion of this lesson, students will be able to

  • Evaluate the importance of Pearl Harbor on America’s entry into World War II; and
  • Analyze the impact of the attack on the American identity and the American role in the world.

Standards Connections

Connections to Common Core
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.2 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.7 Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.9 Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources.

Connections to C3 Framework
D2.His.9.9-12. Analyze the relationship between historical sources and the secondary interpretations made from them.
D2.His.14.9-12. Analyze multiple and complex causes and effects of events in the past.
D2.His.16.9-12. Integrate evidence from multiple relevant historical sources and interpretations into a reasoned argument about the past.


Lesson Preparation


Activity One: Background Knowledge (10 minutes)

  • Ask students what they know about 9/11. Share out with whole class.
  • Ask students what they know about Pearl Harbor. Share out with whole class.
  • Ask students why they think 9/11 is such an important event in history, then discuss why Pearl Harbor is as important. Students will likely know more about the immediate effects of 9/11, so this discussion can guide them to realizing they need more data to understand the true importance of Pearl Harbor.

Activity Two: Pearl Harbor Source Analysis (30 minutes)

  • Divide students into teams of three to four students each.
  • Distribute one Pearl Harbor Source Packet and six copies of the Document Analysis Worksheet to each group.
  • Ask the student groups to divide the documents, review, and analyze each document together. Ask students to complete a Document Analysis Worksheet for each group of sources.
    • Monitor students to keep them on track and answer questions as needed.
    • Direct students to discuss their answers to the guiding question as it pertains to each of the six source groups.
  • Share out student responses to the the guiding question and list the answers on the board.
  • Ask student groups, Which reason do you feel is the most significant? Why?

Activity Three: Discussion (15 minutes)

  • Divide the class based on the different reasons presented and have students with the same reason move and sit together.
  • Conduct an open discussion where students discuss and defend their answer to the guiding question utilizing the documents to support their argument.
  • Show video clip How Pearl Harbor and 9/11 Changed the United States Forever.
  • Ask students to react to the video clip.

Assessment Materials

Creating Political Cartoons (30 minutes)

  • Direct students to create a political cartoon answering the guiding question, “What makes Pearl Harbor a defining moment in American history?”
  • Use the Pearl Harbor Political Cartoon Rubric to assess the assignment.

Methods for Extension


  • Teachers can adapt this lesson for various levels by engaging in read-aloud methods in groups, editing the longer documents to utilize smaller chunks of information, or analyze the documents together as a class.
  • Teachers can choose to use fewer documents to focus the discussion and narrow the topic.
  • Teachers can vary the makeup of grouping to maximize instructional time by utilizing larger groups if planning to use less documents or smaller groups if using all documents. When selecting groups, varying ability levels can help stimulate active discussion so that students with multiple levels can collaborate.
  • If working with younger students, visual documents such as photos or posters and shorter written documents may offer the opportunity for increased understanding and accessibility.


Return to Activity

Primary Sources

Other Sources