Pirate Unit: Day 1

posted May 14, 2015, 2:59 PM by Kevin Roughton
I end my year with a unit on pirates. To me it is the perfect bridge between 7th grade world history and the coming 8th grade U.S. history for my kids. Also, pirates are naturally engaging to kids which is very helpful as the year winds down! We started today and I was very quickly reminded why I love it so much. Even if this were the only activity you did I'd say it is well worth it.

Today we used inference to determine the history of a mysteriously discovered skeleton. I have not at any point yet told my students that this unit is about pirates. All the know is that it is about the beginnings of the United States.  I introduce this particular activity as the culmination of all they have learned this year. They will have to use both the skills they've picked up and the content they've learned in order to figure it out correctly. So, here it is in all of it's Common Core ready glory!

I read through the set up with them and then set them to work. With my on-level kids we did the first question together. I wanted them to see how deeply we could answer the question based on the information given. They noted quickly that he was likely from Italy since he had a coin with Latin writing. One girl said he was likely from Spain because she imagined the painting of the girl in the red dress as something a Spanish princess would wear. I asked what language he wrote in and they quickly noted English leading more than one to note he was likely European and probably from England. I then asked (you know, just to mess with them a little...) "could he be from China?" One girl emphatically yelled "NO!" while a bunch said yes. I explained that he could be a Chinese sailor from an English ship or perhaps he had just stolen the two English documents. I wanted to make the point that our inferences aren't perfect. I wanted to encourage them to make a guess even if they weren't sure.

With my honors kids I just let them go nuts. They tend to find those little clues on their own and this time was no different.

I walked around as they worked on the rest and I kept mentioning to individual students little bits they may have missed. Their questions showed me they were really interested in getting this right. I had questions like "what other things were found there?" "What religion do people follow in Canada?" "It was Rome that first spoke Latin, right?" "Columbus was the one who crashed his ship right? But wait, he lived didn't he?" These are connections from literally months ago that these kids were putting together. It was awesome.

I had one student speak to me after class asking if his history was correct. I told him that his conclusions certainly followed from the evidence but that I wouldn't reveal if it was right or wrong until tomorrow. He literally pumped his fist and loudly exclaimed "yes!" with great pride.

What I love about this activity is that it really shows what my kids have learned over the year. After doing it today I'm seriously considering trying to make a similar activity for every unit of the year. I'm not sure what they would look like but I can't think of a better assessment of their learning than giving them a bunch of artifacts and asking them to complete the story based on what they've learned. It is a mixture of skills and content that nothing (not even the buzzwordy DBQs!) can match.

I can't wait to blow them away tomorrow. Too bad we have shortened periods!

On an aside, when I first built this unit 5 years ago I was told by many teachers that I was a terrible person for doing so. I was told that by even talking about pirates I was glorifying violence and terrorism. I was seriously taken aback. It was not at all the response I expected. It was, of course, an unfair characterization of what I teach but it still caused me to reflect. Should I ignore what I think is an important (and very interesting) historical topic because of its subject matter?  Obviously, I chose not to but it is something to be sensitive about depending on your community. I would note that if one teaches the pirate era as history and not as cartoon it becomes obvious that this was not a life to emulate or glorify. I don't feel that my unit does.

But dang it, I'm sorry, pirates are still cool.