Using the play Silent Sky as a model for teaching overlooked historical figures.

History is complicated. No one group is responsible for the discoveries or progress of humanity. The world we live in was shaped by diverse people, not shaped by a single gender, race or culture. However, the historical figures included in typical curriculum often overlook the contributions of non-dominant cultures, races and genders. Historical thinking requires examination of multiple perspectives to better understand the past. Researching overlooked historical figures cultivates this skill and enriches overall history education for students.

However, there is an inherent challenge in researching overlooked historical figures. In many instances, the historical record is missing critical pieces of information. In being "overlooked," individuals' papers and diaries may not have been preserved; or a person's perspective may have not been recorded. In these instances, historical narratives, historical fiction and historical dramas informed by research can be powerful tools to draw attention to an overlooked perspective. These creative methods help tell the stories of overlooked figures, so that they might become recognized. Drama asks us to imagine the perspectives of historical figures in detail that often is missing from primary resources - we must read between the lines.

In this lesson, students will develop research skills and learn how to be "responsible history detectives," as they research existing informational resources for an overlooked historical figure.

Common Core Standards

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.1
Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.2
Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of how key events or ideas develop over the course of the text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.8.4
Present claims and findings, emphasizing salient points in a focused, coherent manner with relevant evidence, sound valid reasoning and well-chosen details; use appropriate eye contact, adequate volume and clear pronunciation.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.4
Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization and style are appropriate to task, purpose and audience.

LEARNING OBJECTIVES

Students will understand:

  • History is complicated. No one culture, race or gender solely contributed to the progress and society we live in today.
  • It's important to research, find and share the stories of overlooked historical figures, and often that work isn't easy. Knowing of their contributions enhances our understanding of the past, shapes choices in the present and informs our choices for the future.

Students will:

  • Analyze informational texts for essential information and understandings.
  • Use the historical thinking skill of considering multiple perspectives from a historical era.
  • Use information and understanding to speak in the voice of their historical figure during a three- to five-minute interview with the class and teacher.
GUIDING QUESTIONS
  • Why is it important to learn about historical figures who have been overlooked?
  • Whose voices and stories are missing from the history we learn in school?
  • What overlooked historical figure do I want people to know about?
Prepared By Grade Length
  • Cynthia Gertsen, Ford’s Theatre Society Associate Director of Arts Education
Grades 8-12 1 to 2 Class Periods 

Lesson Activity One

Henrietta Swan Leavitt—first look at an overlooked historical figure
  • Begin the lesson briefly sharing about Henrietta Swan Leavitt. A decade before women gained the right to vote, Henrietta Leavitt and her fellow women “computers” transformed the science of astronomy. Working in the Harvard Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Leavitt found 2,400 new variable stars and made important discoveries about their fluctuating brightness, enabling fellow scientists to map the Milky Way and beyond. Leavitt is an example of an overlooked historical figure. Leavitt was one of several female “computers” at the Harvard College Observatory in the early 1900s. Since she was a woman, she was not allowed to touch the high-powered telescopes and was, instead, tasked with analyzing the glass photographs of the stars that were taken by the male astronomers who had access to the telescopes.
  • As a class, discuss the first two guiding questions: Whose voices and stories are missing from the history we learn in school? What might we gain from learning about historical figures who have been overlooked?
  • Individually, students will read a brief informational text about Henrietta Swan Leavitt. Ask students to mark up the text or make note of any factual details they think is important to share about Leavitt.
  • In small groups, students will read selected scenes from a play about Leavitt and compare that to an informational text about her. Students will discuss in their group what impact the scenes have on their understanding vs. the impact of the informational text. Groups will share out with the whole class what they discussed.

Lesson Activity Two

Multiple perspectives and history—exploring untold stories
  • Students will review a selection of overlooked historical figures and select one to research for the remaining class time, at home, or for the first part of the next class meeting. Students can also suggest an overlooked historical figure they would like to research if that person is not on the list.
  • Give students the Historical Thinking Interview Questions. This should be their guide when determining what to research and what to prepare to share about their figure.
  • Explain that the next time the class meets, students will be “interviewed” by the class. Students should prepare to speak in the voice of historical figure during their interview. The interviews can be between three and five minutes, depending on the number of students in the class and length of the class period. Tell students to expect some, but not all, of the interview questions to be asked. Questions will vary for interviewees, but they should be ready to answer all of them. They will all be asked why their figure is important and should be taught in schools today.
  • Advise students that they don’t need to dress up as their historical figure and should not take on an accent, but that they should know biographical information and clearly understand why the person is significant to history. Tell students that they will turn in their Historical Thinking Interview Questions notes/responses after they have given their interview.

Lesson Activity Three

Sharing a story about an unsung hero
  • Individually, students are “interviewed” by their teacher and classmates about their figure. Interviews should last three to five minutes, depending on the number of students in the class and length of the class period. Use equitable calling strategies for students to ask questions of the “interviewee.” Remind students that the goal is to learn as much about each overlooked historical figure as possible within the time allowed, and that the most important information to learn is why this person is significant. As the teacher, you reserve the right to ask any questions you feel should be asked of each interviewee that are not asked. Collect the Historical Thinking Interview Questions notes/responses after each student has given their “interview.”

Reflection:

As a closing discussion, circle back to the initial conversation about overlooked historical figures. How did preparing to be interviewed help students understand their figure better? What are other ways to share the stories of overlooked figures? What new understandings about what we are taught in schools about our history do the students now have?

Assessment:

Students will be interviewed by the teacher and class. Students will turn in their completed Historical Thinking Interview Questions worksheet. You should develop a rubric for assessing student learning depending upon which elements of this project are most important to you.

Extension idea:

Students create an original creative work about their selected overlooked historical figure using textual evidence from primary and secondary sources. Creative work genres could include: a scene or a short play, a narrative letter, a short story, a poem or a song.