Unit Title: Interpreting the Past – The Case of the “Bloody Massacre” Designed by: Fran O’Malley Director, Delaware Social Studies Education Project

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Delaware Recommended Curriculum

This unit has been created as an exemplary model for teachers in (re)design of course curricula. An exemplary model unit has undergone a rigorous peer review and jurying process to ensure alignment to selected Delaware Content Standards.

Unit Title: Interpreting the Past – The Case of the “Bloody Massacre”

Designed by: Fran O’Malley
Director, Delaware Social Studies Education Project

Adapted by: Bob Lingenfelter, Skyline Middle School
Tom Slavens, Delmar Middle School
Susan Krikelis, Concord High School

Content Area: Social Studies
Grade Level: 8

Summary of Unit

This unit uses the “Boston Massacre” as a case study to uncover reasons for different interpretations of the same event. Students will analyze primary source materials to construct their own interpretations of what happened on March 5, 1770, and then critique interpretations advanced by others.

Preview: the activities in this unit include but are not limited to:

  1. Concept Formation ("Massacre") – teacher fleshes out understandings and misconceptions relating to the concept of “massacre.”

  2. Description of the Case – students read about what happened in the days and hours leading up to the "massacre."

  3. Thinking Chronologically – students put events of March 5, 1770, in chronological order to infer causes and trends.

  4. Mapping the Scene – students map where Captain Preston, soldiers, and crowd may have been standing at the moment the first shot was fired. Students compare different conclusions and note the interpretive nature of history.

  5. Fishbowl Role-Play – students assume roles to debate the question—should John Adams serve as attorney for the British soldiers?

  6. Mock Trial – students work with competing eyewitness depositions to simulate the trial of Captain Preston. The proceedings highlight the importance of questions and ways in which sources can be used differently.

  7. Application of Concept of Massacre – students revisit the concept of massacre developed in Activity 1. Students apply their definitions to the events of March 5, 1770. Was it really a "massacre”?

  8. Engraving Analysis – students interrogate the Pelham-Revere engraving of the "Bloody Massacre” and consider its use as a propaganda tool.

  9. Venn Diagram – students complete a Venn diagram to compare and contrast the “Boston Massacre” and Kent State tragedy. Did history repeat itself?

  10. Photograph Analysis – students analyze "Pieta" photo from Kent State and consider how it might be used.

Background Information (from the Clarifications Document)

In the 6–8 cluster, History Standard 3 introduces students to the concept that historical accounts of the same event may differ because historians have asked different questions of the same sources or because they have used the sources differently. Historical records just lie there. The factual information in them does not jump out without questions being asked. The questions help to determine the answers and, therefore, the conclusions. At this time, historians are not likely to discover a trunk full of new documents explaining the origins of the slave trade. But, two different historians can phrase their questions differently while investigating the early slave trade. The first may ask, “Why did Europeans begin enslaving Africans”? Seems like a straightforward question. The second may ask, “Why were Africans unable to prevent the slave trade”? This also seems like a straightforward question. Upon closer scrutiny neither one is.

The first rests upon the assumption that Europeans alone began the slave trade. Historical research does not support that. Africans sold Africans to the Europeans, who could not go far into the African interior because of their vulnerability to diseases. The second phrasing shifts the responsibility, although it is not clear how much, for the slave trade to Africans themselves rather than to Europeans. It also seems to suggest that the slave trade could have been prevented, if only Africans had wanted to prevent it. Each of these questions as guides to research will certainly lead to two very different books on the origins of the slave trade. Now comes the hard part for the student. Which sheds the most light on the subject, given the limited documents available? The well-armed student is aware that the phrasing of the questions underlying a research design influences the conclusions. After a few pages of a historical narrative, it is obvious usually where that historian’s methods and original questions will lead. Now the student can assess how persuasive the argument is while realizing it is that historian’s argument and not the last word on the topic.

Stage 1 – Desired Results

What students will know, do, and understand

Delaware Content Standards

History Standard Three 6-8a: Students will compare different historians’ descriptions of the same societies in order to examine how the choice of questions and use of sources may affect their conclusions.


Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources.


Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of the source distinct from prior knowledge or opinions.


Identify aspects of a text that reveal an author's point of view or purpose (e.g., loaded language, inclusion or avoidance of particular facts).


Distinguish among fact, opinion, and reasoned judgment in a text.

Big Ideas

  • Investigation

  • Interpretation

Unit Enduring Understandings from Clarification Document

  • What is written by a historian depends upon that historian’s personal background and methods, the questions asked about the sources, and the sources used to find the answers to those questions.

  • Historians select important events from the past they consider worthy of being taught to the next generation. That selection process, deciding what to emphasize, and the questions that historians ask of the documents and other evidence, contributes significantly to the conclusions drawn.

  • History is what the historian says it is. Historians may collect, use, and emphasize sources in ways that result in differing interpretations as they describe, compare, and interpret historical phenomena. Disagreement between historians about the causes and effects of historical events may result from these differences.

Unit Essential Questions

  • Why might historians disagree about the same historical event?

  • To what extent does history change?

Knowledge and Skills

Students will know…

  • Content vocabulary

  • Conclusion

  • Massacre

  • Historical interpretation

  • Sources

  • Reasons why conflicting descriptions of historical events exist

  • How the sources one relies on influence the interpretations one arrives at

  • How the questions one asks can influence the interpretations one arrives at

Students will be able to…

  • Use social studies materials and knowledge as evidence to solve problems and to make and support reasoned decisions, explanations, conclusions, or predictions.

  • Use content-appropriate vocabulary in order to communicate understanding of key content and concepts.

  • Analyze, access, manage, integrate, evaluate, and create information in a variety of forms and media.

  • Develop, implement, and communicate new ideas to others.

  • Work productively with others.

Stage 2 – Assessment Evidence

Evidence that will be collected to determine whether or not Desired Results are achieved

Transfer Tasks

This summative assessment is a “near” transfer task that requires students to use knowledge and understandings to perform a task in a new setting or context.

The assessment and scoring guide should be reviewed with students prior to any instruction. Students should do the assessment at the conclusion of the unit.

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