Letters are primary sources, accounts of events and situations in the past, written by the people who experienced these circumstances. Letters provide insight into the diverse perspectives and personal feelings of people living at a certain period in history. The letters written to Ryan White enable students to experience recent history through the words of people who were near their own age at the time. In this unit of study students take on the role of historians as they use letters and other documents to find clues about life in the 1980s and 90s, before electronic media became the most widely used form of communication. In the process, they discover that Ryan’s story is connected to current issues and to their own lives.

Overview – What’s Ahead?

Lesson 1 – Primarily Yours

Lesson 1 introduces students to Ryan White’s story, helps them examine how we know what we know about Ryan, and consider why he is remembered today. They read first-person letters written to Ryan by young people his age and begin to make the distinction between primary and secondary sources. They play a game to compare different types of primary and secondary source materials about Ryan’s life, including photos, newspaper and magazine articles, and TV or audio accounts.

Lesson 2 – Creating Change

In Lesson 2, students use selected letters to find clues about how people felt about HIV/AIDS in the past and how perspectives on the disease have changed. They identified ways that Ryan was bullied and discriminated against because he had a disease people didn’t understand. They consider how the way Ryan responded and how he helped to bring about significant changes in the way people perceived the disease and the people who suffered from it. Using contemporary media sources, they examine current examples of discrimination and compare them to the situations Ryan experienced. They identify a situation they would like to change and consider the most effective way to respond. They identify the audience and medium they would use and create a “document” in the form of a letter, recording, or image that expresses their point of view.

Lesson 3 – Making History

Students use what they have learned to examine a question regarding public health issues in their own community or in the state or nation currently or in the past. Students learn how to frame a research question, access primary sources of various types, organize information, and share the outcomes of their research.

What will students learn and be able to do?

Experiences in this unit of study enable students to apply reading, writing, chronological thinking, and media literacy skills, as well as the ability to think critically, as they use primary and secondary sources to find and apply evidence about people and events of the past and present.

Unit Goals
Students will:
  • Read letters written to Ryan White and discover how they differ from other sources of information written about Ryan
  • Compare different types of source materials about Ryan’s life and distinguish between primary and secondary sources
  • Explain why letters are important as primary sources and develop strategies for evaluating both primary and secondary sources
  • Examine both primary and secondary sources to gain understanding of what people knew and how they felt about HIV/AIDs in the 1980s
  • Use examples from letters and media sources to identify ways that Ryan stood up against bullying and discrimination
  • Identify situations in the present that they would like to change and discuss the most effective ways to communicate their messages
  • Explore their own roles in making history and consider how electronic media may change the way we find and use historical evidence
  • Create digital primary sources in the form of letters, journal entries or audio/video recordings about events in the present
  • Consider how electronic primary sources might be preserved and become part of the future historical record
  • Examine the ways primary sources can be used to explore both present-day and historical issues and events

Getting Started

Collect primary sources about Ryan White, including photographs and other documents. Link to The Children’s Museum’s unit of study entitled, Ryan White: Facing Discrimination, Finding Determination to find useful images and references.

There were many media accounts of Ryan’s life, written or recorded at the time. These may be considered primary sources if the person who created the document is reporting first-hand or includes speeches, statements, reports, or interviews from people who experienced the events being described. Help students keep in mind that historical evidence is strongest when it comes from a variety of sources. Also help students understand that objects, such as a poster or an AIDS quilt, are considered primary sources and can provide important clues about events and peoples’ beliefs and attitudes. Secondary sources, such as biographies, are also useful and may also contain primary source material. See the Resources section of this unit for additional information.

Museum Links

Visit the museum’s website for information about The Power of Children exhibit, featuring three children who made a positive difference in the world, Anne Frank, Ruby Bridges, and Ryan White. For additional information related to Ryan White’s story, including primary sources, such as photographs, images of posters, and a transcript of Ryan’s testimony before Congress, follow this link to the museum’s unit of study for grades 6-8, entitled Ryan White, Facing Discrimination, Finding Determination.