Nine actors stand on a raised platform in a line. Six of them are dressed in ostentatious 18th-century clothing and wigs made of paper. The other three wear more casual clothing inspired by the 18th-century. Behind them are white arched frames, representing mansion windows and doors.
The company of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Jefferson’s Garden, directed by Nataki Garrett. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

How Perspective Shapes Understanding of History

In this multi-lesson unit, students explore perspective and its role in their understanding of history. Students also develop and demonstrate narrative writing skills.

“You can’t get a straightforward history of America…because everyone has their own version of every character and event. There’s no consensus.” – Timberlake Wertenbaker, author of Jefferson’s Garden

The learning activities are sequential; however, educators can stop at any point that best fits time available. The unit begins with an exploration of primary sources that provide a British and an American perspective on the Boston Massacre. The Boston Massacre is the exemplar event here, but the learning activities could be used with a variety of historic events in a curriculum. To develop narrative writing skills and to demonstrate understanding, students create an original piece of writing from a distinct point of view. To culminate the unit, students discuss how employing multiple perspectives shapes our understanding of history.

Common Core Literacy Standards:

Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.
Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.
Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, attending to such features as the date and origin of the information.
Compare the point of view of two or more authors for how they treat the same or similar topics, including which details they include and emphasize in their respective accounts.

Learning Objectives:Students will be able to analyze primary sources to determine the artifact’s subject, purpose, tone, audience, and author.
Students will be able to analyze differing perspectives of a single event to come to a fuller understanding.
Guiding Questions:How does learning history through multiple perspectives shape what we understand about the past?
Prepared ByGradeLength
Jim Rossi, 8 Grade Social Studies Teacher
Jennie Eng, Ford’s Theatre Society Arts Education Coordinator
Cynthia Gertsen, Ford’s Theatre Society Associate Director of Arts Education
SecondaryThree Class Periods 

Classroom Activities

  • Lesson One
    Introduce students to the the Incident on King Street (AKA the Boston Massacre).
  • Lesson Two: Continuing Exploration of Perspective
    Students revisit their drawings from Lesson One.
  • Lesson Three: Practicing Perspective with Narrative Writing
    Using the Creating a Character and The Object Exercise materials, students will create a character and write from that character’s viewpoint.
  • Lesson Four: Performance & Feedback
    Students will read aloud of perform their narratives for the class.

Lesson Activity One

Introduce the Incident on King Street (AKA the Boston Massacre)

  • The goal of today’s lesson is to introduce the Boston Massacre without giving away all of the details.
    • Share this description aloud to the students: A group of people are angered by how the government is treating them. On this particular occasion, they form an angry crowd that takes to the streets. They harass, taunt and call names to soldiers guarding a warehouse; a soldier is hit by a snowball thrown by someone in the mob. The soldier’s weapon discharges into the crowd. This causes confusion, and heightens the anger of the mob.  Chaos ensues. More soldiers become involved, and someone shouts “fire.” The soldiers follow this order, and fire into the crowd, killing five civilians.
  • Introduce the two newspaper articles to the class. “Our goal today is to use these primary sources to figure out exactly what happened on March 5, 1770.”
  • On one side of the room, post the “London Chronicle” article. On the other, post the article from the “Boston Gazette”
  • Students analyze both articles. A great protocol to use is the SOAPSTone tool for analyzing primary sources.
  • While analyzing the document, students should search for the essential details.
  • Once they’ve established the details, students should begin drawing their interpretation of the event. They should use the evidence they’ve gathered from the newspaper articles to support their drawing.
  • As an Exit Ticket, students write about what they learned about the Boston Massacre during this lesson that was surprising or different from what they had previously understood about it. If nothing surprised them, they write about what more they’d like to know or learn about it. What was missing from the lesson that would give them a better understanding of this event?

Lesson Activity Two

Continuing Exploration of Perspective

  • Students revisit their drawings from Lesson One.
  • In small groups (4 to 6 student), students select one of their drawings to create a tableau vivant. When creating their tableaus, the students consider the characters, the setting and tone of this event: it takes place outside in winter weather, the scene is chaotic, emotions are heightened (anger, fear, confusion, etc.).
  • The class should discuss how drawing the event and then using their bodies to create an image of the event helped or did not help them to understand it better.
    • Prompt the students to talk about the idea of empathy—did they have to empathize with their character in the tableau to portray him?
    • Prompt the students to think about any elements they chose to include or not include in either their drawing or the tableau.
    • Students will write a short response paper to the prompt “Who’s perspective is missing from this historical account of the Boston Massacre?” and why they think this perspective is important to understanding this event.
  • As a class, share and discuss responses. 

If time permits, consider including Extension Activity Option Three before or after moving on to Lesson Activity Three.

Lesson Activity Three

Practicing Perspective with Narrative Writing

  • The majority of class time should be devoted to narrative writing.
  • Using the Creating a Character and The Object Exercise materials, students will create a character and write from that character’s viewpoint.
  • Once students have finished their letter, they rehearse reading or performing their letter aloud. Students will read aloud their letters for Lesson Activity Four.

Lesson Activity Four

Performance & Feedback

  • Students will read aloud of perform their narratives for the class.
  • Students will offer each other warm/cool feedback on their narratives.
  • To culminate this unit, the class will discuss how taking on another perspective and performing it has or has not deepened their understanding of this historic event.

Extension Activity Option 1

Current Event Perspective

  • Students identify an issue they strongly believe in.
  • Each student researches their chosen issue in the form of a question, e.g. “Should college be free?”  to gather multiple perspectives around the issue (supporting, opposing, neutral).
  • Once sufficient research has been gathered, each student forms a thesis statement for an argumentative essay.
  • Students write argumentative essays with the intention of persuasion. The essays should include acknowledgement of multiple perspectives in making an argument for one perspective in particular.

Extension Activity Option 2

See the Ford’s Theatre production of Jefferson’s Garden by Timberlake Wertenbaker (playing winter 2018) or read the script

  • Students see the play or read the script.
  • After the play students reflect on the multiple perspectives presented by the characters in the play on the American Revolution and the founding fathers’ ideals of liberty and freedom. They share their reflections via class discussion, small group work or individual writing responses.

Extension Activity Option 3

Research Missing Perspectives

  • As an extension of the class discussion on the missing perspectives of the Boston Massacre, students should research to find primary sources that offer a missing perspective, e.g. African American (free or enslaved) men or women, Western-European descended women, Loyalists, Quakers or American Indians.