198: Introducing Historical Thinking Through Nat Turner’s Rebelion





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Historical Background:
  • Aug 1831, Nat Turner led a brutal slave rebellion against his owner and other slave owners in Southampton, Virginia
  • Largest slave rebellion in US history
  • Nat Turner was inspired by visions from God
  • Eventually defeated, tried, hanged and skilled
  • Made Virginian legislators became more afraid of rebellion and less concerned of humanitarian concerns associated with slavery
Why Nat Turner?
  • Intriguing figure in history
  • Unlike typical victorious narrative in US History textbooks, Turner was defeated
  • Often left out of textbooks
  • Jarring juxtaposition of violence and deep religious faith
  • Can find a lot of primary sources that show intriguing displays of Nat Turner and the rebellion
Math / Science Connection
  • Research and identify a scientist / mathematician (concept) who (that) is little known and / or controversial
  • Select someone that has done work that can be examined to practice critical process skills
  • Collect primary resources related to selected scientist / mathematician / concept
Lesson Plan Goals:
Students will learn:
  • history is a discipline centered around questions
  • history applies information to generate interpretations that can answer questions
  • how to question their sources – identify text, context, and subtext of sources
  • historical interpretations are dynamic and debatable
Math / Science Connections
  • Identify process skills that can be taught by examining work of mathematician / scientist or examining evidence related to a controversial topics / concept.  Some examples include:
    • How to ask generative, testable questions and develop associated hypotheses
    • How to build models that can answer real world questions
    • How to design procedures to gather data that can be analyzed and interpreted to test hypotheses, answer questions with data-backed conclusions
    • How to analyze models – strengths, limitations, connections to real worlds
    • How to differentiate between hypotheses and theories
    • How does mathematics / scientific community assign validity to findings
Implementing the lesson (2 days)
  • Students view a variety of engaging images of Nat Turner and asked to:
    • describe actions described in the image
    • speculate about Turner’s personality and emotional state
    • compare / constrast depictions of Turner – height, skin coloration, facial features, clothing, interactions with other people in image, etc
  • Students realize after several images that images show the same person
    • ask students, why would they get such different impressions of the same person?
    • students might start to naturally ask, who created images and when were they created?
    • ask students, why does origin and intention of artist matter?
  • Driving question: How do we remember the actions of an enslaved man who lead an ultimately unsuccessful rebellion of slaves?
  • Students worked in teams are asked to develop a narrative for a historical marker that could be a part of Turner’s 1831 rebellion. In addition,
    • assess their own thinking
    • describe how sources they presented influenced their interpretations of the past
  • Students working in teams examine other primary sources that share the following characteristics
    • author’s presence is overt
    • as a collection, the relationship with the rebellion of the cited sources evolves
  • Students working in groups in 6 jigsaw read / examine 6 sources.
  • Students converse / share info related to their sources within their teams (each individual in the team read a different source)
  • Students discuss how Nat Turner should be remembered. (2-3 min)
  • Share their findings with the whole class.
  • Interesting observations of students:
    • Since 9/11, the word “terrorist” comes up often to describe Turner
    • Students have trouble separating figurative and literal descriptions of the events
  • Use literal interpretations of historical language as an entry point for teaching students how to interpret, questions and attack historical evidence.  Do this by sharing info about the context and sub-text of each historical source.
    • Present background info on all sources
    • Ask students if their opinions of the info in the sources change as a result of the background info
      • Combats natural habit due to traditional teaching / learning to accept all texts as true without questions
  • Introduce Text, Context and Subtext questions.  See this article for these questions: Making historical thinking a reality
    • Answering these questions and using these responses to reformulate interpretations gets students to realize there is “no one right answer”
    • Student reactions:
      • some struggle to reconcile conflicting viewpoints for different sources
      • struggle to face problems that arise from acknowledge context and subtext of sources
      • some are unsure how to handle questions raised by context and subtext information – can lead to bland, fact-laden responses = textbook responses
      • some interpret Turner as a religious figure
      • some try to tease out all the bias in the sources because they have come to think of history as a subject without bias
      • some formulated a conclusion by finding commonality in interpretations of the different sources -> Turner as brave freedom fighter
      • all these student reactions are first steps in developing historical thinking because students have made first attempts to
        • question sources
        • consider implications of context and subtext of sources
        • work to solve conflicting viewpoints from sources
        • start to use context and subtext to analyze comparative validity of sources
  • Respond to students’ first attempts at historical thinking with praise and reminders that this work is difficult and sometimes uncomfortable
Math / Science Connections:
  • Use Frontloading with Images strategy to launch a project
    • Select images that are different but describe the same concept and / or person (could be visuals, charts, graphs)
      • Examples:  different images that were used to prove or disprove evolution, different images that explain different understandings of gravity forces
  • When students start to connect images, ask students:
    • How are the images connected?
    • Why do the images vary?
  • Introduce driving question.  Could have the form:
    • How might this ___insert person or concept___ be taught or applied or celebrated or remembered?
  • Introduce deliverable. Could be
    • An artifact that represents the person / concept and written commentary that explain how the artifact answers the driving question
  • Group students and assign them different sources (jigsaw style)
  • Have students share findings from different sources within their teams and come to team interpretations of sources and artifacts
  • Have students share findings with the whole class (could do this in a discussion or a gallery)
  • Share background information related to the sources and ask if it changes their interpretation of the sources
  • Let students re-examine sources using Content, Content, and Sub-Context questions.  See this article for these questions: Making historical thinking a reality
  • Let students reformulate their interpretations and then work on their deliverables.
  • Ask students what processes they used i this project and what these processes taught them about science / math.
Questions Raised by this Lesson Format:
  • How to cover all material on standardized tests?
  • Are student-centered approaches to necessary to teach effectively?
  • How to balance historical process and historical content?
Related Math / Science Questions:
  • All of the above and:
  • What math / science processes are critical to scaffold?
  • How to present controversy in subjects that are associated with hard facts?
  • How to scaffold problem solving in ways that mimic real, transferable processes?


Developing a starter lesson to introduce students to critical processes used by historians (scientists, mathematicians, etc) is a first step in guiding students to use content processes effectively to solve problems.  These primer lessons are especially important when the processes introduced are contrary to ways the subject has been primary been represented to students in their prior educational careers.  Lessons that get students to be aware of the strengths and limitations of their sources and to let these considerations influence their interpretations of these sources prepares students to be savvy consumers / interpreters / users of information.


Preparation Steps
  • Research and collect images that can challenge students to question how knowledge is created within a discipline and that relate to the curriculum –
    • examples – images that depict different understandings of electricity or  gravity or evolution
  • Research and collect sources that deal with a concept or event whose interpretations evolved over time
  • Develop a provocative driving questions that relates to curriculum, images, and sources
  • Prepare thinking sheets that have questions that guide students to analyze content, context, and subtext of sources.  See this article for these questions: Making historical thinking a reality
  • Gather background (context and subtext) information for images and sources and combine into a background research presentation
Early Implementation Steps
  • Implement history or science / math sequence described above.
  • Monitor students as they work in order to learn the just-in-time moments to transition students to next step in the lesson sequence
  • Gather evidence of student thinking as they project unfolds
  • Provide formative feedback on student thinking as they work through phases of the lessons – this feedback could be mostly in the form of questions that guide students to develop more layered, deeper understanding of their sources and to question their interpretations
Advanced Implementation Steps
  • Over time, collect images, cartoons, and sources that present core concepts in different ways to be used in design of similar lessons
  • Take students on field trips to get a close look at primary sources – example the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin has first edition copies of Galileo’s Starry Messenger, Newton’s Principe, etc.

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