At a Glance

The Iran-Contra Affair
Focus on historical thinking, Further resources for teaching this content, Multiple Sources, Scaffolding of close analysis of text, Useful for differentiating instruction
90-minute period or more depending on how much experience the students have had before this lesson
9, 10, 11, 12

Lesson Format


Decoding U.S. Foreign Policy: The Iran-Contra Affair

This lesson challenges students to read internal official documents and personal accounts about the Iran-Contra Affair to learn more about it and U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War.


This lesson, part of the HERB collection at the American Social History Project, allows students to examine a series of primary source documents related to the Iran-Contra Affair and discuss the central issues surrounding these events. In addition to great background information for the teacher, there is a useful timeline and graphic organizer that help students access the content.

One of the strongest components of this lesson is the unique documents it uses. In addition to a document entitled “The C.I.A. Advises Nicaraguans How to Sabotage the Sandinista Government,” there are handwritten diary entries by Secretary of Defense Casper Weinburger and internal communications within the CIA . With the aid of the document analysis form, students discover the differences between internal official documents and personal accounts thus allowing them to see how audience and purpose affect a document’s contents. This document analysis form also asks students to consider what each document reveals about the unfolding of the Iran-Contra Affair and U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War. Given that the creators have identified the approximate reading difficulty of each document, teachers can use this information to purposefully group students.

This is already a flexible lesson and we suggest teachers consider adding a summative assessment task that requires student writing. As is, the lesson includes a final discussion and guiding questions but no student product requiring that individual students show their understanding. This lesson could also serve as a great scaffold for a document-based essay on motivating factors in U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War.

Notes Lesson Plan Rubric
Field Criteria Comments
Historical Content Is historically accurate?


Includes historical background?


Requires students to read and write?


Students read the documents and complete a document analysis form. They don’t have a final written product for this lesson but one could easily be created.

Analytic Thinking Requires students to analyze or construct interpretations using evidence?

Students examine a series of primary sources written during the time of the affair. Some of the documents are journal entries and others are internal memos. Each reveals another important piece about how much each party within the government knew about the events.

Requires close reading and attention to source information?

Document analysis form asks students to do this.

Scaffolding Is appropriate for stated audience?

Approximate reading levels for documents are included to help teachers differentiate instruction.
Repeated use of a graphic organizer for all documents so students use the same process for each new document.
Lessons detail how to model skills such as a “read aloud” and “decoding the text.”

Includes materials and strategies for scaffolding and supporting student thinking?

Graphic organizer and modeling help students learn.

Lesson Structure Includes assessment criteria and strategies that focus on historical understanding?

Students discuss the essential questions of the lesson. However, creating a written assessment that would assess students more on an individual basis would be relatively easy.

Defines clear learning goals and progresses logically?


Includes clear directions and is realistic in normal classroom settings?

A challenging lesson, you may need to tailor it for your students.