Hooligan Sparrow

PBS Premiere: Oct. 17, 2016Check the broadcast schedule »

Lesson Plan: Dissent and Freedom of Speech: Using Biography to Compare China and the United States

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A 2014 Knight Foundation study found that about one quarter of high school students surveyed felt that the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees.. To help students understand what the First Amendment actually says and why the rights that it guarantees are important, this lesson introduces students to activists, both in China and in the United States, who have been jailed for their ideas, their protests or for "speaking truth to power."

Students will view parts of Hooligan Sparrow, a documentary about Chinese activists Hooligan Sparrow and Wang Yu. They'll compare their experiences to the experiences of activists in the United States by researching and writing biographical essays on American activists.

Video clips provided with this lesson are from the documentary Hooligan Sparrow.

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In this lesson, students will:

  • Establish what the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and Article 35 of the Chinese Constitution say about freedom of speech and assembly
  • Research and write biographies of American activists that compare U.S. government treatment of those activists with treatment of the Chinese activist known as Hooligan Sparrow by her country's government
  • In an informal but focused conversation, share with classmates what they have learned about their assigned activists and about free speech


English/Language Arts
Research Skills
Global Studies (China)
U.S. History


  • Film clips from Hooligan Sparrow and equipment on which to show them
  • Library and/or Internet access to conduct research

Two class periods with homework in between.

The clips in this lesson plan contain content about sexual abuse and may trigger emotional reactions, especially in those who have experienced sexual abuse or assault. Before beginning the lesson, please consider whether or not your school policy requires parental notification and/or opt out alternatives. Be prepared to refer students who are upset to professionals who can help them work through their issues in healthy ways.


Clip 1: "Protesting Rape" (10:25 min.)
The clip begins at 5:21 with the filmmaker, Nanfu Wang, saying, "It was my first trip back home to China." It ends at 15:46 with Hooligan Sparrow saying, "Otherwise the whole country would have its eyes on the Hainan case."
The clip includes news reports describing a case in which six schoolgirls were sexually abused by their principal, activists planning a protest (including videos testifying to their intent so that the government cannot claim something different), footage of the resulting protest and harassment of the filmmaker (who is filming the protest).

Clip 2: "The Life of an Activist" (9:22 min.)
The clip begins at 35:40. as Nanfu Wang says, "With Sparrow still detained..." It ends at 45:02 with Wang saying, "It was an eviction notice."
The clip shows Sparrow returning home after a brief stint in jail. When she returns, a group of people--presumably hired by the government--create a threatening scene in front of her apartment building.


Step 1: Freedom of Speech and Assembly
Show students Article 35 from China's Constitution:
Article 35. Citizens of the People's Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration.

Invite reaction. Given what they know about China's government, are they surprised that these rights are officially granted?

Then show the text of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution:
Amendment I: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Put the two excerpts side by side and invite students to compare them briefly. If needed, prompt them to notice that the U.S. Constitution talks about the federal government ("Congress shall make no law") while the Chinese constitution talks about citizens. Invite students to speculate about why the distinction might be important and let them know they are going to investigate what each of these constitutional guarantees looks like in practice.

Step 2: "Meeting" Hooligan Sparrow
Tell students that for an example from China, they are going to see clips from a film about a renowned Chinese activist nicknamed "Hooligan Sparrow." To provide students with enough background information to follow the action in the clips, inform them that Sparrow (given name: Ye Haiyan) is known for using nudity as political provocation and also for her advocacy work on behalf of sex workers. Nanfu Wang, who was born in China but has also lived in the United States, is the filmmaker who made the documentary about her. Also featured in the film is Wang Yu, a human rights lawyer in China who is known for defending activists. The first film clip features protests involving a case in which six young schoolgirls were sexually abused by their school's principal.

As prompts for viewing ask students:

  • What do you notice about the risks involved in being an activist?
  • What do you notice about responses to the activists?

Show Clip 1. Invite students to share their reactions to the clip, including their responses to the viewing prompts. Ask them to identify ways in which government acted to protect or deny speech or assembly. You might also let students know that later in the film the mysterious man who took the pamphlet turns out to be the father of one of the rape victims.

Tell students that Sparrow continues her activism and eventually is arrested. As the second clip starts, Sparrow is being held in detention.

Show Clip 2, repeating the prompt and discussion process that you used for the first clip. As a segue to their homework, encourage students to think about how this scene from China compares to what they know about protests in the United States.

Step 3: Biographies
Tell students they are going to compare Sparrow's experiences in China with the experiences of "radical" activists in the United States. Each will be writing a biography of a person whose ideas and/or actions were especially provocative.

You can assign biographies to focus on a specific time period or issue that connects with your core curriculum (e.g., suffragists, Progressive Era muckrakers or contemporary environmentalists), or let students choose from this diverse list:

  • Dennis Banks
  • Daniel Berrigan
  • Helen Caldicott
  • Sal Castro
  • Cesar Chavez
  • Angela Davis
  • Eugene Debs
  • Daniel Ellsberg
  • Shulamith Firestone
  • Dave Foreman
  • Barbara Gittings
  • Emma Goldman
  • Gordon Hirabayashi
  • Dolores Huerta
  • Mary Harris "Mother" Jones
  • Larry Kramer
  • Bill McKibben
  • Carrie Nation
  • Huey P. Newton
  • Alice Paul
  • Leonard Peltier
  • Bayard Rustin
  • Pete Seeger
  • Elizabeth Cady Stanton
  • Lincoln Steffens
  • Ida Tarbell
  • Kwame Ture
  • Ida B. Wells
  • Mary Wollstonecraft
  • Helen Zia

For their assigned person, each student will write a two-part biography/essay:

Section 1:
Who was/is this person?
In what time period did/does this person live?
What job did/do they hold?

What issues did/do they address?
What sorts of actions did/do they take?
What significant things have they said (or written)?

How did the government respond to this person's activism?
How did that response compare to the Chinese government's response to Sparrow?

Section 2:
What did you learn about the First Amendment, including the right to free speech and assembly, from learning about this person?

Step 4: A Free Speech Salon
The day the biographies are due, divide students into small groups so they can share their work, salon-style (i.e., following the intellectual practices of literary salons and their tradition of rich conversations). You might even provide tea! As students learn about the various activists, invite them to identify any patterns they notice and share what they learned about free speech.


Explore the work of organizations dedicated to protecting free speech (e.g., the American Civil Liberties Union). Discuss the limits of free speech and where students think the line should be drawn/when governments should intervene.

Compare China's constitution with the U.S. Constitution to find out how each provides citizens with the ability to protect their rights from government abuse.

As part of a unit of study on modern China, research the actions of other Chinese dissidents.

Study the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in the case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and hold a debate about whether money equals speech.


POV: Hooligan Sparrow
http://www.pbs.org/pov/hooligansparrow/ - The site includes a general discussion guide with additional activity ideas and links to resources related to preserving basic human rights in China.

POV: Media Literacy Questions for Analyzing POV Films
This list of questions provides a useful starting point for leading rich discussions that challenge students to think critically about documentaries.

American Civil Liberties Union
www.aclu.org - This organization defends individuals' rights to free speech, even (or especially) when that speech is offensive or not popular.

Constitution of the People's Republic of China
http://en.people.cn/constitution/constitution.html - This page offers an English version of China's constitution.

U.S. Constitution
http://usconstitution.net/ - This site includes explanations for students at multiple grade levels.


Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects (http://www.corestandards.org/assets/CCSSI_ELA%20Standards.pdf)

SL.9-10.1, 11-12.1 Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade-level topics, texts and issues, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.

SL.9-10.2 Integrate multiple sources of information presented in diverse media or formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively, orally), evaluating the credibility and accuracy of each source and noting any discrepancies among the data.

SL.11-12.2 Integrate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, orally) in order to make informed decisions and solve problems, evaluating the credibility and accuracy of each source and noting any discrepancies among the data.

SL.9-10.4 Present information, findings and supporting evidence clearly, concisely and logically such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, substance and style are appropriate to purpose, audience and task.

SL.11-12.4 Present information, findings and supporting evidence, conveying a clear and distinct perspective, such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning, alternative or opposing perspectives are addressed and the organization, development, substance and style are appropriate to purpose, audience and a range of formal and informal tasks.

SL.9-10.6, 11-12.6 Adapt speech to a variety of contexts and tasks, demonstrating a command of formal English when indicated or appropriate.

W.9-10.1, 11-12.1 Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.

W.9-10.2d Use precise language and domain-specific vocabulary to manage the complexity of the topic

W.11-12.2d Use precise language, domain-specific vocabulary and techniques such as metaphor, simile and analogy to manage the complexity of the topic

W.9-10.4, 11-12.4 Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization and style are appropriate to task, purpose and audience.

W.9-10.9, 11-12.9
Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection and research.

Content Knowledge: (http://www2.mcrel.org/compendium/) a compilation of content standards and benchmarks for K-12 curriculum by McREL (Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning).

Language Arts, Standard 1: Uses the general skills and strategies of the writing process.
Language Arts, Standard 2: Uses the stylistic and rhetorical aspects of writing.
Language Arts, Standard 8: Uses listening and speaking strategies for different purposes.
Language Arts, Standard 9: Uses viewing skills and strategies to understand and interpret visual media.
United States History, Standard 31: Understands economic, social and cultural developments in the contemporary United States.

Faith Rogow, Ph.D., is the co-author of The Teacher's Guide to Media Literacy: Critical Thinking in a Multimedia World (Corwin, 2012) and past president of the National Association for Media Literacy Education. She has written discussion guides and lesson plans for more than 250 independent films.