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Lesson Plan: Rewriting History
 

Subjects

Paul Revere embarks on his midnight run
Many believe Paul Revere rode through New England warning everyone about the British Invasion. But did he really do it?

History
--U.S. History
--World History

Language Arts
--Reading for Perspective
--Evaluating Data
--Developing Research Skills

Grade

7-12

Brief Description

Students learn about widely believed inaccuracies within the stories of American historical figures.

Objectives

Students will gain a better understanding of the accomplishments of famous historical figures. They will explore the reasons why some individuals seem relatively forgotten, despite achievements greater than those of their more-famous counterparts.

Keywords

History, Paul Revere, Benjamin Franklin, Charles Lindbergh, Jackie Robinson, Liberty Vallance, legend, truth, historical figures, American, U.S.

Materials Needed

  • Computer(s) with word processing capability and Internet access
  • (If desired) Access to students or school staff for conducting a brief survey
  • The Rewriting History Student Printable
    Teacher Note: Educators should preview the Web links within the printable to assess suitability for different age groups of students. None of the links contain inappropriate material but some do reference popular culture, which could be distracting for younger students.
  • (If desired) Templates to help students plan to write newspaper articles

Lesson Plan

For years, history books have touted the accomplishments of American trailblazers. Names like Lindbergh, Franklin and Revere are etched in the memories of anyone who passed an elementary-level history class. While these historical luminaries are worthy of praise, accounts of their lives are not always historically accurate.

In this lesson, students work individually or in groups over the course of several days to research the true stories behind famous figures, and then write a newspaper article about what they learn.

On Day 1, students begin by using the The Rewriting History Student Printable and/or doing additional Internet research in order to uncover (1) the true circumstances surrounding a particular historical accomplishment, (2) who, if anyone, actually achieved the feat and (3) why the accomplishment has been erroneously reported for many years.

Optional extension: Students can interview or survey older or younger classmates (and/or school staff) in order to assess the extent to which the school community believes the identified historical inaccuracies. In terms of surveys, students can write multiple-choice questions (with choices including the correct answer as well as plausible yet incorrect answers). Alternately, they can ask more challenging fill-in type questions such as: “The first person to successfully fly an airplane across the Atlantic Ocean was _______________ .” Students should select a representative sample of people to survey and tally the results to obtain a percentage who answered correctly vs. incorrectly. Survey participants’ names should be kept confidential.

On Day 2, based on their research (and survey results, if applicable), students outline a news story they will write about their findings. They can use the “evidence” they uncovered, as well as survey data (if collected) to back up their story idea and angle. Students should identify the “5 Ws” (who, what, when, where and why) of news writing that pertain to their particular story. In addition, students should receive brief instruction on how to cite research sources, quote individuals, and put the most important details first in the story (known as the “inverted pyramid” method of writing). Other key terms to cover include headline and lead sentence/paragraph. Resources for student news writing (including printable templates that students can use to plan their stories) include:

Example of the “inverted pyramid” style of writing, with practice template
Lesson on writing a news article
Newspaper story template

On Day 3, students write their news stories, including an accompanying headline.

An optional Day 4 can be spent conducting writers’ conferences, peer review, or self-review (using an appropriate rubric) and then revising stories accordingly.

On the final day, students will present their news stories to the class. If desired, a newspaper clipping generator can be used to put the story in a fun, “faux newspaper” style.

Following are four passages, each containing a little-known truth about an American historical figure. Figures include Charles Lindbergh, Jackie Robinson, Paul Revere and Benjamin Franklin. In each passage, students will see bolded text that specifies the proposed reason for the popularity of misinformation about the individual. Use the student printable (to take advantage of Web links, display on computer rather than printing out) to provide the passages to students.

 

Charles Lindbergh was not the first person to fly across the Atlantic.

Few individual achievements have been as celebrated as Charles Lindbergh's crossing the Atlantic Ocean in 1927. The accomplishment made him an instant celebrity and one of the most well-known people in the world. He was heralded as an American hero and a titan of aviation.

Lindbergh was not the first person to fly across the Atlanic Ocean
These guys are not Charles Lindbergh.

He was so famous that the news of his child’s kidnapping made headlines across the globe. The Lindbergh kidnapping was easily the most-followed story of the 1930s and is still referenced to this day on shows like The Simpsons and Family Guy.

The problem here is that two British pilots had already crossed the Atlantic eight years before Lindbergh.

In 1919, British aviators John Alcock and Arthur Brown departed Newfoundland and 16 hours later, landed safely in Ireland, successfully crossing the Atlantic Ocean. Just like Lindbergh after them, they were treated like celebrities because of their accomplishment. King George V made them Knights of the Realm, and Sir Winston Churchill personally awarded them a sizeable cash prize.

The reason that Alcock and Brown are lost to history is largely because Americans tend not to care about events outside America. Thus, when Lindbergh made his decidedly more impressive—albeit second-place—finish, he was propped up as a hero. In fact, when Lindbergh was awarded the Medal of Honor in the U.S., the inscription read that he “demonstrated that travel across the ocean by aircraft was possible,” completely ignoring the Alcock/Brown flight. Sadly for the British pair, they remain forgotten, even in Europe.

 

Jackie Robinson was not the first African American Major League baseball player.

Jackie Robinson is an American hero and an inspiration for anyone who faces incredible odds. He is so celebrated that his jersey #42 has been retired by Major League Baseball so that no other player can ever wear it. The racism and death threats he endured after Brooklyn Dodger head Branch Rickey signed him would have sent a lesser man back to the Negro Leagues. But Robinson played his way into the Hall of Fame, known as the man who broke baseball’s color barrier.

Jackie Robinson is an American hero
Jackie Robinson is an American hero, but not the first African American man to play Major League Baseball.

Except he wasn’t. Moses Fleetwood Walker was an African-American and played Major League Baseball when Jackie Robinson’s parents were still in diapers. Walker was a catcher for the Toledo Blue Stockings, a Major League team at the time. The time was 1884, over 30 years before Robinson was born. The year Moses broke into the big leagues was less than 20 years after the abolition of slavery.

Walker also had to deal with much of the same racism that made Robinson a hero decades later, including letters threatening to lynch him if he played and opposing players refusing to share the field with him because of his skin color. He also had to endure racial torment from his own team. Tony Mullane, one of the star pitchers of the day, told everyone that Walker was the best catcher he'd ever seen. Yet Mullane would ignore Walker's signals whenever he pitched to him. While certainly not the best way to win a baseball game, the tactic resulted in a lot of balls ending up beyond Walker's reach or smacking into his ribs.

While Walker’s accomplishment rests solidly in the shadow of Robinson, another player may be coming out of even more obscurity to supplant him as the true first African American Major Leaguer. William Edward White, historians claim, was the first to try and make a career of baseball. As a catcher playing at a time when baseball gloves hadn’t been invented, he had to catch a hurling baseball hundreds of times a game with his bare hands.

Sadly, Walker’s and White’s accomplishments, while equal to Robinson’s, have largely been forgotten because the teams for which they played no longer exist. Also, they played so long before Robinson that no one in the stadiums was alive the last time an African American man appeared in a Major League game. It didn’t hurt Robinson that he was playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers rather than the Toledo Blue Stockings.

 

Paul Revere didn’t ride across New England shouting, “The British are coming!”

Paul Revere didn't make a midnight run
Revere rode that night...to the pub, that is.

For generations, children have been taught that the patriot Paul Revere, after seeing the signal from the Old North Church, took to his steed and galloped across New England, shouting his famous catchphrase to alert the locals of the British invasion.

While Revere was actually there, and did eventually get on a horse, this is the extent of the story’s truth. One only has to think about Revere’s purported plan for a few minutes before concluding that it didn’t make much sense. Riding through Boston screaming, “The British are coming” would have been confusing, given that everyone involved was British. Remember that if the Brits had won the war, it wouldn’t have been called the Revolutionary War, but rather the Civil War, since the Brits were fighting against the Brits. Additionally, shouting that particular phrase in a region that was teeming with citizens still loyal to The Crown would have been a great way to get locked up. The truth is that Revere rode quietly, whispering to those he knew supported the revolution.

Next comes the biggest error in the story: Revere didn’t ride alone. To get the drop on the British, revolutionaries needed an estimated 40 people to take part in “Revere's” ride. The only three individuals with verified participation, other than Revere, were William Dawes, Samuel Prescott and Israel Bissle. They also didn’t ride very far. Dawes, Prescott and Revere stopped shortly after starting their ride for a few tankards of ale at a local pub. Unfortunately for them, the pub they chose had a handful of British sentries inside who didn’t take very kindly to revolutionaries. While Dawes and Prescott escaped the pub and the sentries to complete their ride, Revere gave up without a fight. Thus, the man who gets sole credit for the original “Midnight Run” didn’t even complete the ride.

The reason behind Revere’s rise to prominence can be traced to one man: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Longfellow, already a wildly popular author and poet, put pen to paper after gaining inspiration while visiting the Old North Church. Because he knew how to spin a yarn and that people tend to like songs that rhyme, he came up with one of the greatest opening lines of all time:

“Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere.”

Revere’s name rhymes with the word “hear.” That’s it. That’s the only reason Revere gets the credit and an entire town named after him. To be fair, Longfellow was not out to write accurate history; in fact, he got many other facts seriously wrong in his poem. What he wanted was a poem that reminded those who read it of the romantic beginnings of the United States. Couple an immensely popular song with the fact that we only know the names of four men out of 40 who are believed to have taken part in the ride, and you get a legend that lives on to this day.

 

Benjamin Franklin did not conduct the “kite and key” experiment.

Unlike Revere, who was in no other way an important figure, Benjamin Franklin earned a reputation that needs no embellishment. On the short list of his achievements are the invention of bifocals, helping found a country and convincing a royal sovereign to support an army whose goal was to supplant a royal sovereign.

Had he actually done this, Franklin and his friend would have been toast.

Another of Franklin’s reported accomplishments is his famous “kite and key” experiment. The popular story tells of the scientist flying a kite during a thunderstorm. Tied to the end of the kite string was a key. His goal was to get lightning to strike the kite and electrify the key, proving that lightening was, in fact, electricity. Lightning did strike, the key was electrified, and Franklin was again proven a scientific genius.

The problem is that he never actually performed the experiment. It's certainly true that Franklin proposed a kite experiment. Take a minute, though, to think about what would have happened to the person holding the kite string when it was struck by lightning. That person certainly wouldn’t have gone on to grace the hundred-dollar bill.

In reality, Franklin did fly a kite into a cloudy sky to collect ions, proving that the atmosphere contained a charge. Based on this real experiment, scientists later would infer that lightning was electrical.

Some believe that the Franklin myth grew in recent years due to the popularity of the Disney film “Ben and Me.” Disney is famous for taking true stories and tweaking them (look up “Remember the Titans”), so the kite and key experiment’s inclusion in the film is no surprise.

Assessment

As in this sample rubric, student news stories are evaluated in terms of the following:

  • Presence and quality of headline
  • Adherence to “inverted pyramid” style of writing
  • Inclusion of adequate supporting details
  • Overall quality of writing
  • Demonstration of lessons learned about the historical figure

Submitted By

Jason Tomaszewski, EducationWorld Associate Editor

National Standards

History
GRADES 5-12
NSS-WH.5-12.6 Emergence of the First Global Age
NSS-WH.5-12.7 Age of Revolutions
NSS-WH.5-12.8 Half a Cenutry of Crisis and Achievement
GRADES 5-12
NSS-USH.5-12.2 (1585-1763)
NSS-USH.5-12.3 (1754-1820s)
NSS-USH.5-12.4  (1801-1861)
NSS-USH.5-12.5 (1850-1877)
NSS-USH.5-12.6 (1870-1900)
NSS-USH.5-12.7  (1890-1930)

Language Arts
Grades K-12
NL-ENG.K-12.1 Reading for Comprehension
NL-ENG.K-12.7 Evaluating Data
NL-ENG.K-12.8 Developing Research Skills

 

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