Cascading Lives

Digital Toolkit

The Cascading Lives Digital Toolkit is a package of teaching materials about economic inequality and mobility in the U.S. Created with input from educators, these materials are designed as flexible learning units that assist English and Social Science high school teachers to bring these topics to their students in effective and imaginative ways.

The curriculum package draws on data gathered in 2020-2021 as part of the “Cascading Lives: Stories of Loss, Resistance, and Resilience” research project, a social scientific investigation into how individuals employed in the hospitality industry experience and survive times of crisis and loss. We use the term “cascading” to refer to the spiraling nature of life crises, or how one time of loss or catastrophic event can trigger others, leading to downward economic mobility for those who do not have the resources to withstand these shocks. In this project, we conducted life history interviews with more than thirty individuals based in Georgia and Massachusetts. The Cascading Lives Digital Toolkit lessons and learning activities draw on short biographical stories that we have written based on these life history interviews. As listed below, the curriculum supports student exploration of concepts related to that of “cascading,” such as socioeconomic mobility, structural inequality, and others.


The Cascading Lives Curriculum unit is divided into five lessons:

  • Lesson 1 - Mobility: This lesson is the first in a series that examines mobility and cascading. Students explore the concepts of mobility and cascading in the context of true biographical stories that involve significant ups and downs in economic status, social position and health. Then, using an interactive infographic that shows income mobility, students consider unequal patterns in mobility. The lesson aims to show students that social position is not just a snapshot in time. Instead, we can think about strings of events and how policies can play a role in the ups and downs of a life.
  • Lesson 2 - Turning Points: We all live through events that change the course of our lives. In this section, students read two biographical stories about turning points. They learn that turning points turning points are neither always random, nor always within our control”. They also consider how turning points can seem very personal even if they are part of a much bigger shared issue.
  • Lesson 3 - Structures of Inequality: The place you grow up matters for the opportunities available to you. In this section, students will read two biographical stories and investigate what happens when education is unequal. This section introduces students to the ideas of structural inequalities and intergenerational mobility and encourages them to see how blocked chances and additional burdens build up through the course of a life and over generations.
  • Lesson 4 - Resources and Networks: This section introduces students to the array of resources that people use to avoid cascading and downward economic mobility and asks students to consider the different resources available to people. Students read biographical stories that highlight different types of resources – such as money, time, people, emotional support, childcare and unconditional love. With this lesson, they analyze how everyone does not have the same social and economic resources and how collective resources can fill gaps when individual ones cannot.
  • Lesson 5 - Life History Interviewing: This section describes life history interviews as a methodology: a way of collecting data about the world. Students read life history questions, compare and contrast the answers and begin to foster the ability to ask in-depth and empathetic questions of each other and those in their community. They learn to see those around them as having rich and interesting lives, full of lessons and resources.

While the curriculum is designed to be used in sequence and in its entirety, teachers are invited to use as many of the lesson plans and resources as fit their needs. Each lesson is designed around the use of two suggested life stories, although teachers may also choose to substitute or supplement these stories with one of the many other stories available in the Life History Stories section of the website.

Each lesson plan includes learning objectives, essential questions, concept definitions, two life stories, several learning activities, and suggested supplemental resources and anchor texts. Some lessons also include worksheets related to the learning activities. All of the materials for each lesson are available on this website and also as accessible PDFs to download.