Lesson 2: Creating Change

Lesson 2: Creating Change

In this lesson, 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 identify 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 select 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, diary entry, recording, or image that expresses their point of view.

Students will...

  • Read and interpret letters written to Ryan White about his struggle with HIV/AIDS
  • Demonstrate understanding of the terms prejudice, discrimination, and bullying by giving examples from Ryan’s life
  • Use a variety of sources to learn about what was known about HIV/AIDS and compare to information that is available now
  • Use a primary and a secondary source to learn how Ryan and his family responded to prejudice and discrimination
  • Explain how Ryan and his family made a positive difference in the fight against HIV/AIDS
  • Give examples of situations in the present that are of interest or concern and investigate the topic
  • Identify effective ways that they can respond to this situation and develop an action plan
  • Express their point of view on the topic by creating a document, such as a letter, diary entry, audio or video recording, or artwork, using the medium of their choice


  • bullying
  • discrimination
  • hemophilia
  • HIV/AIDSAcquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) is a chronic, potentially life-threatening condition caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). By damaging your immune system, HIV interferes with your body's ability to fight the organisms that cause disease.
  • media
  • prejudice

You Will Need

  • Time
  • Experiences 1 – one to two class periods
  • Experience 2 – two class periods


Focus Questions
  • What did scientists and people in general know about HIV/AIDS during Ryan White’s time? What do we know now?
  • How can we find sources of information about health and health-related problems?
  • How can we tell if an information source is reliable?
  • What kinds of prejudice and discrimination did Ryan and his family experience?
  • What is bullying? Why do you think some people behave this way?
  • What are some effective ways to stand up against bullying? Why do you think some people bullied Ryan?
  • How did Ryan respond to the prejudice he encountered? How did his family and friends support him?
  • How did Ryan’s actions, attitudes, and talents make a positive difference?
  • Are there situations involving prejudice and discrimination today? Which of these situations is most important to you? Why?
  • How can you use your own talents to make a difference?
  • What would be the most effective way to respond? Would it be important for people in the future to learn about your point of view on this problem? Why or why not?
  • How could the documents you create be preserved and become part of history?
  • Will the use of electronic media change the ways we learn about the past? How?

Experience 1 – Fearing the Unknown

Students examine letters written to Ryan to gain insight about how the writers and others at that time felt about HIV/AIDS. They use their skills as history detectives to search primary documents and learn what people knew and what they feared about the disease. They also learn how Ryan and others began to speak up and communicate with the public to make a positive difference.

Academic Standards:

English Language Arts
Reading Non Fiction: 3.RN.2.1, 3.RN.2.2, 3.RN.2.3; 4.RN.2.1, 4.RN.2.2, 4. RN.2.3; 5.RN.2.1, 5.RN.2.2, 5.RN.2.3; 6.RN.2.1; 7.RN.2.1; 8.RN.2.1
Media Literacy: 3.ML.2.1; 4.ML.2.1; 5.ML.2.2; 6.ML.2.1, 6.ML.2.2; 7.ML.2.1, 7.ML.2.2; 8.ML.2.1, 8.ML.2.2; 9-10.ML.2.1, 9-10.ML.2.2; 11-12.ML.2.1. 11-12.ML.2.2


  • Use the student database and select one or more of the letters that relate to Ryan’s struggle with HIV/AIDS or with the public perceptions about HIV/AIDS at the time.
  • After reading the letters, ask students why they think the authors of the letters felt it was important to write to Ryan. Ask students to cite specific references in the text of the letters that provide clues.
  • Help students understand that in the 1980s not a great deal was known about HIV/AIDS and many people had fears about the disease. Ask students: Where do you think people got their information? Why do you think they were fearful?
  • Students will probably suggest that people saw reports on television. They may also understand that people read articles about the disease in newspapers and magazines.
  • They may not realize that, while people were beginning to use computers at this time, the Internet was not yet a widely used source of information.
  • Ask students if they can get an idea about what ordinary people at the time knew about HIV/AIDS from the letters they have read? Are there any clues? How could they find out more about what people knew or believed?

Teacher Tip
HIV/AIDS education is part of the health curriculum in most schools. Discussion of the topic should follow school guidelines for content that is appropriate at each grade level. Help students understand that HIV/AIDS was and is a dangerous disease but is not spread by casual contact. Today there are reliable tests for HIV. Blood products are carefully screened so there is little risk of infection from blood transfusions. Now there are also medications that help to manage the disease and extend the lives of AIDs patients and there are more educational programs that help people understand the disease and take steps to stay healthy.

Grades 3-5

  • Have students work in pairs to examine another primary source, the transcript of Ryan White’s testimony before The President’s Commission on AIDS in 1988.
  • Guide students in reading selected parts of the document closely, using the chart, to find references to what, according to Ryan, medical experts knew versus what ordinary people may have believed or feared.
  • After students complete their charts, discuss the results. According to Ryan’s testimony, what did doctors and other experts know about HIV/AIDS? What did some people fear?
  • Point out to students that medical experts, reporters, and others knew some important facts about HIV/AIDS even in the 1980s. Ask why they think some people continued to have mistaken ideas about the disease.
  • Ask: What are some ways that we get information about health and other topics today?
  • Discuss the various types of media that are used to inform people about health topics, such as public service announcements, commercials, and programs on television. Ask: Who is the intended audience for these messages? How can we tell if information is reliable?
  • Remind students that we should always consider the source of the information. For example, health information from a doctor would be more reliable than from an advertisement on T.V. It’s also best to consider more than one source, if possible.
  • Return to Ryan’s testimony and ask students to think about how remarkable it was that a young person like Ryan testified before a commission appointed by the President of the United States.
  • Explain that Ryan had decided to fight AIDS by speaking up. By taking positive steps to communicate with the public and policy makers, Ryan and other young people helped to change people’s minds about the disease.

Grades 6-12

  • Place students in teams of 2 or 3. Ask them to use their skills as history detectives to conduct a search and see if they can locate information about HIV/AIDS from sources that date to the 1980s.
  • Ask teams to find two or three primary sources that provide clues about what people knew or feared about HIV/AIDS. Sources might include photos, articles from newspapers or magazines, scientific reports, audio and video recordings, interviews, posters, or artworks.
  • Encourage teams to communicate with each other about their sources and try to find a wide variety. Remind students that a primary source is not necessarily accurate. Even newspaper and magazine articles can only report the information that was available at the time.
  • Have teams use the chart on the worksheet to identify each source, its title, author or creator, date and the information it provides, and the insights it gives about what people might have known and what they might have feared. After teams complete their charts, discuss their findings. Ask students: From your sources, does it seem that scientific information about HIV/AIDS was available? Does it appear that the news media was reporting this information to the public?
  • Examination of sources may indicate that, although HIV/AIDS was relatively new, by the 1980s medical experts had learned a number of things about the disease, including that it was not spread by casual contact.
  • Ask students why they think some people responded fearfully. Ask: Do you think people who were fearful got information from reliable sources? Discuss reasons why people might have continued to hold on to mistaken ideas even if the medical community and the news media provided better information.
  • Ask students to return to Ryan’s testimony and identify the ways he and others began to inform people about HIV/AIDS and make a positive difference in the way people regard the disease and the people who suffered from it.

Experience 2 – Standing Up for Others

In this Experience, students use examples from the letters to Ryan, Ryan’s testimony, and media sources to identify ways that Ryan and others resisted prejudice, discrimination, and bullying. They identify ways that Ryan helped to change public attitudes and policies. Students in grades 3-5 create their own “Stand Up With Ryan” posters, letters, ads, or other media for communicating their message. Middle and high school students use contemporary media sources to identify current examples of discrimination and consider the most positive and effective ways to respond. They identify the audience they wish to reach and the medium they would use as they create a document that expresses their point of view.

Academic Standards
English Language Arts
Reading Non Fiction: 3.RN.2.1, 3.RN.2.2, 3.RN.2.3; 4.RN.2.1, 4.RN.2.2, 4. RN.2.3; 5.RN.2.1, 5.RN.2.2, 5.RN.2.3; 6.RN.2.1; 7.RN.2.1; 8.RN.2.1
Media Literacy: 3.ML.2.1; 4.ML.2.1; 5.ML.2.2; 6.ML.2.1, 6.ML.2.2; 7.ML.2.1, 7.ML.2.2; 8.ML.2.1, 8.ML.2.2; 9-10.ML.2.1, 9-10.ML.2.2; 11-12.ML.2.1. 11-12.ML.2.2


  • Based on the letters to Ryan and other primary sources students have studied, ask if they believe Ryan experienced prejudice and discrimination.
  • Explain that prejudice means literally to “pre-judge” someone or something, perhaps with little or no experience or information.
  • Discuss example of prejudice ranging from fairly harmless, such as thinking you might not like a certain food you’ve never tried before, to serious, such as judging other people by the way they look.
  • Explain that when people act on their prejudices and treat other people unfairly, the result is discrimination. In addition to discrimination, Ryan also was a target for bullying.
  • Discuss the nature of bullying and point out that it is more than just treating a person differently. Bullying consists of intentional, hurtful acts. It can include both physical abuse and the use of words to hurt and intimidate others.
  • Ask students to give examples mentioned in the letters or from Ryan’s testimony or other sources that indicate he experienced discrimination and other situations when he was bullied.
  • Make sure that students understand that many people, including people in his home town, also stood up for Ryan. Some were famous celebrities or members of the news media at the time. Others were ordinary people, including students Ryan’s age and younger.
  • Access the unit of study, Ryan White: Facing Discrimination, Finding Determination and show images of documents and artifacts such as posters, and public service announcements created to support Ryan and educate people about HIV/AIDS.

Grades 3 – 5

Ryan White – Spokesperson

Ryan always said that he did not write well and at first he was very shy about speaking in public. He discovered little by little that he had a talent for speaking as the news media requested interviews. He developed poise and skills in communicating with his audiences. Although at first he was hesitant, he became a spokesperson for people with HIV/AIDS. He came to realize that the most effective way to fight the disease and the prejudices around was to stand up and speak up, so that other people would not suffer from the same discrimination.

Ryan White and mother
  • Ask students to imagine they lived in Ryan’s time and to consider how they could become “spokespersons” for people with HIV/AIDS or other diseases.
  • Have students work individually or in teams to identify the ideas they want to communicate, who their audience will be, and the medium they want to use.
  • Provide student teams with materials and time to create a poster, an image, a letter, a public service announcement, or other print or electronic communication.
  • After teams complete their projects, provide time for them to present and discuss their work with the class.
  • After the presentations, debrief the class by asking how they think their audience would react to their message. Do they think their purpose and message were clear? Is there anything they could do to communicate their message more effectively?

Grades 6-12

  • Have students use contemporary media sources to identify what they believe are situations involving prejudice and discrimination. Ask: How do these situations compare to what Ryan experienced?
  • Ask students how they would like to help make a positive change in the situation. Students may identify large social problems that are resistant to change.
  • Encourage students to think of ways that they as individuals might address smaller aspects of the problem in ways that are manageable and constructive. Ask students how they could become effective spokespersons and influence others.
  • Place students in teams and help them consider a positive message they would like to convey to the public.
  • Ask students to consider the audience they want to target. Do they want to communicate with people their own age or people who are older? What is their purpose? What outcomes do they want to see? What medium would be most effective in accomplishing their goals?
  • Provide teams with the time, materials, and resources they need to create their messages using print or electronic media.
  • After teams present their projects, debrief the class about what they have learned.
  • Do they think their message was clear and effective? Do they think that it might help to bring about change?

  • Remind students that Ryan saw some changes in the way people with HIV/AIDS were perceived and treated in his brief lifetime, but it has taken many years and advances in medicine for people to better understand the disease.