WTE: Boston Massacre

posted Aug 27, 2014, 3:07 PM by Kevin Roughton
It is wonderful when a lesson you spent a long time designing actually works without much adjustment. It is rare - but it is wonderful. Today I finally got to use my Weigh the Evidence: Boston Massacre lab with my 8th graders. I built it over the summer and it felt strong but you just never know until you actually put it in front of the kids. 

If you haven't used any of the WTE labs from the site I can't recommend them enough (you can find them in the Common Core section). They are a series of exhibits offering conflicting information on a historical question. Students rate each piece of evidence with a numerical score ranging from -2 (strongly against the question) to +2 (strongly for). At the end they total up their score and write an ARE statement supporting that position. The discussions that accompany each exhibit are fantastic. Students constantly note things that I had never considered. They learn very quickly that my answer may not be the be all, end all in every case. These labs have the beloved "snowball" effect where I have to pick volunteers for the first couple exhibits and then have to turn them away by the last. 

But why?

Well, for one, the numbers provide students with a built in safety net I think. I mean, they really can't be that wrong with a 5 point scale - especially when they've written a justification for their score. It really should be obvious but when we give kids time to write it greatly enhances any following discussion. 

Second, the exhibits are fun. For the Robin Hood mystery I use a clip from Robin Hood: Men in Tights. For this one I used a clip from the video game Assassin's Creed 3. When you show kids that pop culture has a place in historical analysis right alongside writings and art it really draws them in. Most of them quickly toss aside these exhibits (shown by giving them a zero) as frivolous but they still see the connections.

Third, making judgments is fun. That's why we do it all the time. Our brains like to make sense of things. In this case my students were deciding if the British soldiers were guilty of murder for their actions at the Massacre. They looked at testimony from their own lawyer (John Adams), the famous engraving by Paul Revere, commentary by Samuel Adams, the AC3 clip, another later engraving and testimony from the British captain involved. By the end we had a fairly even split on guilty or not.

But then came the real kicker. 

I asked how many of them ended up with a different conclusion than they had started with (my bellwork question today was "Who was responsible for the events of the Massacre?"). Normally with 8th graders they simply will not change their position. Wherever they begin is where they end up. If new evidence comes along they either bend it to their position or ignore it. Ok, apologies to 8th graders - basically everyone in our modern world does that! Not with this though since the numbers force them into a position.

Nearly half of the students ended up with a different conclusion by the end of the period. Even if it was forced they got to see that when evidence is truly weighed sometimes we have to change our views.

They got it, they were engaged, they cited evidence, they evaluated sources - it's like the Common Core just exploded all over the classroom today. Now to start making the next one!

Just an FYI, I got this idea originally from DocsTeach. They have some pre-made versions using digital documents. I haven't used any of their specific ones since I wasn't teaching US history until 3 weeks ago and because my kids don't have computer access but it seems like a great place to start.