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1948 - Berlin Airlift

Lesson Author
Required Time Frame
One 45-55 minute class period (may be expanded as needed)
Grade Level(s)
Lesson Abstract
Students will analyze primary sources, participate in class discussion, and complete an individual writing assignment to understand the human impact of the Berlin Airlift.

Students will analyze primary sources, participate in class discussion, and complete an individual writing assignment to understand the human impact of the Berlin Airlift.

Rationale (why are you doing this?)

I want students to understand the importance of the Berlin Airlift on a human level:  why it mattered so much to the American pilots delivering supplies and the Berliners receiving supplies.  This lesson should be used as a follow-up to an overview or introductory lesson on the Berlin Airlift.  Prior to this lesson, students should understand at least the following issues:  why the Airlift was necessary, the Soviet role in causing the Airlift, how the Airlift worked (a basic or more detailed understanding of logistics), and the outcome and effects of the Airlift.

Lesson Objectives - the student will
  • Analyze and evaluate primary documents relating to the 1948-1949 Berlin Airlift
  • Participate in class-wide discussion analyzing the purpose, success of and effects of the Berlin Airlift
  • Illustrate understanding of the Berlin Airlift’s human impact by writing an account from the point of view of an American pilot or Berliner
District, state, or national performance and knowledge standards/goals/skills met
  • Culture:  Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of culture and cultural diversity.
  • Individuals, Groups, and Institutions:  Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of interactions among individuals, groups, and institutions.
  • Production, Distribution, and Consumption:  Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of how people organize for the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services.
  • Global Connections:  Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of global connections and interdependence.
  • Civic Ideals and Practices:  Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of the ideals, principles, and practices of citizenship in a democratic republic.

Missouri Standards


2. Continuity and change in the history of Missouri, the United States and the world

6. Relationships of the individual and groups to institutions and cultural traditions

7. The use of tools of social science inquiry (such as surveys, statistics, maps, documents)

Kansas Standards

Benchmark 3: The student uses a working knowledge and understanding of individuals, groups, ideas, developments, and turning points in the era of the Cold War (1945-1990).

2.(A) analyzes the origins of the Cold War (e.g., establishment of the Soviet Bloc, Mao’s victory in China, Marshall Plan, Berlin Blockade, Iron Curtain).

Benchmark 5: The student engages in historical thinking skills.

1. (A) analyzes a theme in United States history to explain patterns of continuity and change over time.

2. (A) develops historical questions on a specific topic in United States history and analyzes the evidence in primary source documents to speculate on the answers.

3. (A) uses primary and secondary sources about an event in U.S. history to develop a credible interpretation of the event, evaluating on its meaning (e.g., uses provided primary and secondary sources to interpret a historical-based conclusion).

Secondary materials (book, article, video documentary, etc.) needed
  • Margot Theis Raven, Mercedes and the Chocolate Pilot, Sleeping Bear Press, 2002
  • Gail Halvorsen, The Berlin Candy Bomber, Horizon Publishers, 1997
  • Roger Miller, To Save a City: the Berlin Airlift, 1948-1949, Texas A&M University Press, 2000
Primary sources needed (document, photograph, artifact, diary or letter, audio or visual recording, etc.) needed
  • Gail Halvorsen, “Impressions of a Berlin Airlift Pilot” (November 1997)
  • Gail Halvorsen, home videos of the Berlin Airlift (available online from the Truman Presidential Library and Museum
  • Various photos of the Berlin Airlift (see Halvorsen’s and Miller’s books and online sources)
Technology Required

Computer & projector (for Halvorsen video); overhead projector & photo transparencies of Berlin Airlift photos 

Fully describe the activity or assignment in detail. What will both the teacher and the students do?
  1. Students should have a general understanding of the Berlin Airlift prior to this lesson (see above).
  2. Begin the lesson by explaining the objective:  to understand the human impact of the Airlift (now that students understand the politics and purpose of the Airlift).  Real people participated in and benefitted from the Airlift, and the Airlift changed many lives.
  3. In your best storytelling voice, read Mercedes and the Chocolate Pilot to the class.  Hold a short class discussion on the book.
  4. Hand out copies of Gail Halvorsen’s “Impressions of a Berlin Airlift Pilot” for students to read (this may also have been assigned as homework for the previous evening).  I also hand out highlighters and encourage students to highlight main points, parts that particularly affect them, etc.  Allow approx. 10 minutes for students to read and digest Halvorsen’s account.  I will also require students to briefly respond to Halvorsen’s work (3-5 sentences on what they see as the most important points, what most affected them, etc.).
  5. Hold a class discussion on Halvorsen’s account, allowing the discussion to be as student-directed as possible, but asking questions to keep the discussion going.  What struck them about Halvorsen’s account?  How did they feel during and after reading it?  How did Halvorsen’s feelings about the Airlift change?  Why did Halvorsen begin dropping candy to the Berlin children?  What are some specific reactions to his actions Halvorsen witnessed, either immediately or years later?  What do students see as the overarching themes of Halvorsen’s account?  Also question students on a more personal level:  How would students have felt were they pilots during the Airlift?  Would students have done the same thing Halvorsen did, even in the face of court martial? etc.
  6. At an opportune time during the discussion, project the photo of Gail Halvorsen preparing wee parachutes (available in the primary sources provided by the Truman Library and on page 106 of Miller’s book).  I will also show the photo of Halvorsen and myself (July 2008) and explain his current travels and speaking engagements (this likely toward the end of the discussion).  Throughout the discussion, as appropriate, project various photographs of the Berlin Airlift:  Halvorsen and other pilots, loading and unloading the planes, children looking up at planes, the faces of Berliners, the destruction of Berlin, etc.

Also choose when you would like to show Halvorsen’s home videos of the Airlift; in the middle of the discussion is probably a good time (the video will likely spark more discussion).

  1. Drive home the points about how the Berlin Airlift impacted everyday Berliners and the American pilots who flew the missions:  the Airlift changed lives!  I will also stress Halvorsen’s points on sacrifice before self, gratitude, hope, and the power of one.  Students should then complete the assessment.
Assessment: fully explain the assessment method in detail or create and attach a scoring guide

Participation points may be given for participating in class discussion on the Berlin Airlift (my students can currently earn up to ten participation points per class period).  The formal assessment will consist of a student-produced account of the Berlin Airlift, either from the perspective of an American pilot participating in the Airlift or a Berliner who benefits from the supplies delivered in the Airlift.  Students may choose either perspective, and should be encouraged to consider different personalities and viewpoints (e.g., an American pilot who is conflicted about helping a former enemy, a child in Berlin excited about receiving candy, a Berliner who assists with unloading planes or repairing runways, etc.).

After completing other lesson activities, direct students to choose a person for whom they wish to create a journal entry or letter.  Depending on the grade level and student ability, length of the written account may very; for my at-risk high school students, I will require a minimum of two five-six sentence paragraphs.  Students should create names for the personality they choose and should date the journal entry or letter.  In the written account, they should describe in detail their person’s feelings on the Airlift, why the person feels this way, how/why the person has benefitted from the Airlift,  how/why the person’s feelings about the Airlift have changed, etc.

Berlin Airlift Assessment Scoring Guide

5 = excellent; 4 = good; 3 = satisfactory; 2 = needs work; 1 = marginal/ineffective; 0 = does not meet guidelines

1.  Written account clearly illustrates student understanding of        5          4          3          2          1          0

            Berlin Airlift’s human importance/impact

2.  Written account is convincing and effective at portraying            5          4          3          2          1          0

            character’s emotions

3.  Written account clearly describes character’s feelings on             5          4          3          2          1          0

            Berlin Airlift and explains reasoning for these feelings

4.  Written account shows creativity/student actively places             5          4          3          2          1          0

himself or herself in character’s shoes

5.  Written account meets basic writing guidelines (length,               5          4          3          2          1          0

            dated, etc.)

6.  Written account is well-written, legible & free of major               5          4          3          2          1          0

            grammatical errors

7.  Teacher comments

8.  TOTAL POINTS EARNED:            /30            Percent & Letter Grade: