History with 5th graders

A lot of teachers have been sick this week. Which has meant work for me šŸ˜‰

I’ve subbed a lot of classes during the week, even two classes at the same time. And that almost never works well. I mean, running between two classrooms results just mindless text book activities for both classes and neither gets to do something interesting. But unfortunately that’s how it is sometimes. You have to be flexible.

To compensate a text-book – filled physics class, I wanted to introduce something more interesting to my 5th graders when I finally could focus just on them and not run around between classrooms.

I had actually never done this before with students but had participated in the assignment in my own history class in the university. It’s about a real murder that took place in 1839 in a Finnish town. Unfortunately the assignment cannot be translated literally, but here’s the link to the Finnish file.

The crime was a murder, a real one that is, and students were immediately interested. They were asked to figure out what happened through the information that has survived to date. During the process they have to judge the value of each source and make their presumptions of the events that took place. And hopefully at the same time understand that what we read in history books are just the views of the historians and writers that judged the evidence presented to them.

The sources are:

– the memoirs of a local woman, whose father worked for the accused man and who also was born some 5 years after the murder took place but had heard stories of it during her childhood.

– a poem written by a man who lived in the town when the murder happened, but was not an eye witness. However the poem was recorded 10 years after the crime.

– the transcripts from the trial. It appears that some of the people involved in the trial might have been bribed.

I must say that I was thrilled how well the class responded to this lesson. I even heard the students debating over the events and the reliability of the sources during their lunch break!

Many interesting points were made during the lessons (it took me two 45-minute lessons) and the source material I handed out to them was full of notes and scribbling (“Lydia is such an idiot” “This is not trustworthy”).

Although I couldn’t help but to wonder that if their regular teacher would quiz them on their final exam about historical sources and their reliability, would the students be able to form their answers based on this lesson? It seems that they are so used to reading the text books and making notes and then memorizing them for the exam that this kind of exercise might be hard for them to fully understand (in terms of historical source material).

All in all, it seemed that the students really dived into the assignment and made very smart judgement calls regarding the events that are described in a very different manner in each source. They were like the CSI detectives on TV, collecting the evidence and figuring out what really happened.

People lie, the evidence doesn’t lie.

Gil Grissom, CSI

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