Lesson 2: The TVA: A Constructive Controversy

The controversy surrounding the Tennessee Valley Authority was profound and complicated. It raised constitutional, economic, social, philosophical and ethical issues. Once students become familiar with the facts and the issues by reading and studying the material in the collection and other material you provide, they will be in an excellent position to debate these issues.

Many teachers have found that the process of preparing for a debate is the most constructive part of the debate process. The anticipation of competition in the classroom, an experience wherein there is a high degree of student participation, encourages students to master material, to study it harder than they would without this culminating activity as a goal. Indeed, it would be a reasonable motivational strategy to suggest to students that the reason they are learning this material is because at the end of the unit there will be a class debate on it.

The format for the debate might be more or less traditional: Rounds wherein each side argues its position, then rebuts the other sides, then rejoins. Teams are scored for the number of valid arguments they make, for their use of evidence, and so on.

But we are living in a time when students who will be adults in the 21st century will have to learn, in addition to how to be good losers and winners, the skills of empathy and compromise, of crafting solutions that are most reasonable and that incorporate the best thinking of the people on all sides of an issue. Therefore, in place of debate format, we suggest the following one, called a constructive controversy.

The goals of this lesson are to:

  • Acquire information about the TVA
  • Understand that, depending on a person's situation (social, educational, economic), he or she would have a different opinion about the TVA
  • Develop understanding and empathy for all the points of view about the TVA
  • Learn to make compromises to resolve disputes

Classroom Procedures:

  1. Label each of seven lined chart papers with the following names. Post the descriptions on a separate chart that everyone can see, or reproduce them and pass them out.

    Franklin Delano Roosevelt
    President of the United States and advocate of the Tennessee Valley Authority project

    Shield D. Profits
    Head of a privately owned utility company

    Downen Out
    A poor white tenant farmer living in the Tennessee Valley who will have to move because of dam construction. He may or may not find a new home; Mr. Out may or may not get a job with the TVA . He will, however, receive "relief," welfare, if he can't make it on his own.

    Frank Lee Dist
    A poor black farmer living in the Tennessee Valley who will have to move because of dam construction. He is compensated for his land, but he will not be chosen to participate in any of the model farms programs because of his race. He will receive "relief," welfare, if he can't make it on his own.

    Rep. Lester "Les" A. Faire
    A Congressional representative who believes that government ought to stay out of people's lives, whether they are rich or poor

    Furnish D. Juice
    The owner of a company that manufactures electrical appliances

    Ofrey and Wattary Leaf
    Ofrey is a previously out-of-work man who has been hired to work on the construction of the Norris Dam. The Leafs now have electricity and Wattary (Mrs. Leaf), has now been able to afford to buy several electrical appliances, including a stove, a refrigerator, a vacuum cleaner, several light fixtures, and a radio.

  2. Divide the class into seven groups and choose a recorder for each. Give one chart to each group.

  3. Using the resources available in the TVA collection, direct students to find information that reinforces the point of view of the person they were assigned. Students should be made aware that they are looking for facts, including testimony (oral history), reasons, and explanations.

    Note: All the points of view are represented except that of African-Americans, although we are told that black residents of the valley were summarily excluded from the opportunities provided by the TVA despite the fact that many poor white and black Americans had been working side by side for generations. The group that is assigned this point of view will have to make statements that would be plausible for African-Americans to have made. The evidence will consist principally of reasons and explanations, since so few facts are documented. They may use information that talks to other points of view as evidence for themselves--for example, "Despite the fact that the soil is poor, we have made our living on it for generations. We don't want a government handout, but we would like to buy new land and participate in the demonstration farm program."

  4. Decide how and when the research should be conducted and how much time your class will need. Provide class time for group members to record their findings on the group chart.

  5. In the first session of the constructive controversy, each group chooses a reader who will read the evidence they have compiled to the rest of the class. Each should have a concluding statement that expresses support for the TVA, or opposition to it, or a combination of support and opposition. Others in the class listen and then ask questions.

  6. In the second session, the charts are rotated among the groups--so, for example, a group that had Roosevelt yesterday might have Faire today. Each group now takes the position of the person whose chart they are now holding. They add to the evidence the other group has compiled. At the end of an appropriate amount of time, the charts get rotated again. The process continues until all the groups have seen and have had the opportunity to amend all the charts. You might notice that as the process goes on, groups have less and less to add and you can allot less and less time before switching. Alternatively, all the charts might be posted and you might allow time for any student to come up and add evidence to any chart.

  7. Once all the charts are complete, display them and allow time for the class to look at all of them together. Then ask and allow for discussion of some or all of these questions. Alternatively, some of these might be questions asked in a follow-up essay about the TVA. In that case, it would be helpful for each student to have access to the material on all the charts and to the material in the TVA section of the New Deal Network.
    • Was the TVA a good idea for America? Which groups of people benefited? Which groups suffered? Did more people benefit or suffer?
    • If a program is proposed by government today that would be bad for a few thousand Americans but good for millions, would you support it? Why or why not?
    • If the TVA were proposed today, how could the plan be modified so that the number of people who would suffer would be minimized and the number of people who benefited would be maximized?
    • Should the government be responsible for providing services to Americans, like affordable electricity or health care, or should government stay out of people's lives? If you don't think the answer is either one or the other, what things do you think the government should provide? Not provide?

A Note About Assessment