Lesson Plans

Reconstructing History:
The Wright Brothers' First Flight

For Teachers:
Lesson Plan for "Reconstructing History: The Wright Brothers' First Flight"

In this lesson, your students will learn how historians reconstruct historical events. Your students will have an opportunity to examine and interpret primary and secondary source documents about the Wright brothers. Using these documents and working in groups, your students will write a historical narrative. Students will then apply the skills they learned from analyzing primary and secondary source documents to evaluating the reliability of websites.

In this activity your students will:

1. Evaluate Evidence-primary and secondary source documents-used by historians to reconstruct the history of the Wright brothers' historic flight.
2. Be a historian-Students will take the role of historian and use the evidence they've examined to construct a history of the Wright brothers' historic flights.
3. Compare Your Historical Narratives with Others in Your Class. Using the same facts, did your students come up with different narratives?
4. Evaluate Wright Websites for reliability.

Activity Grade Level: 8-12

National Educational Standards Addressed by This Activity
(From: National Center for History in the Schools, National Standards for History, Historical Thinking Standards, grades 5-12)

Historical Comprehension
 • Identify the central question(s) the historical narrative addresses.
 • Consider historical perspectives.
Historical Analysis and Interpretation
 • Identify the author or source of the historical document or narrative.
 • Compare and contrast differing sets of ideas, values, personalities, behaviors, and institutions.
 • Differentiate between historical facts and historical interpretations.
 • Compare competing historical narratives.
 • Hold interpretations of history as tentative.
 • Evaluate major debates among historians.
Historical Research Capabilities
 • Formulate historical questions.
 • Obtain historical data.
 • Identify the gaps in the available records, marshal contextual knowledge and perspectives of the time and place, and construct a sound historical interpretation.

1. Evaluate Evidence-primary and secondary source documents
Students will examine online historical documents(primary and secondary sources). They will evaluate each piece of evidence for content, bias, and reliability. Students will complete an Evidence Evaluation Worksheet (PDF) for each document.

Guiding Your Students
Students will need guidance in distinguishing primary from secondary source material. These are the definitions of primary and secondary sources used by the Smithsonian Archives:

Primary sources are documents or objects created as part of daily life-birth certificates, photographs, diaries, letters, etc.-or reports from people directly involved in the subject.

Secondary sources are documents that interpret, analyze, or synthesize information, usually produced by someone not directly involved in the subject.

In reviewing the nine documents students will
 • Learn that all historical documents reflect the creator or recorder's point of view.
 • Discover that secondary sources-such as a reporter's account or their textbooks-are the author's or editor's interpretation of history.
 • Learn the importance of using multiple sources for research and critically evaluating information.
These rules developed by the Library of Congress provide guidance for evaluating primary and secondary source documents. http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/ndlpedu/

Time and Place Rule
The closer in time and place a source and its creator were to an event in the past, the better the source will be. Based on this rule, better primary sources (starting with the most reliable) might include:
 • Direct traces of the event.
 • Accounts of the event, created after the event occurred, by firsthand observers and participants.
 • Accounts of the event, created after the event occurred, by people who did not participate or witness the event, but who used interviews or evidence from the time of the event.
Bias Rule
Every source is biased in some way. Documents tell us only what the creator of the document thought happened, or perhaps what the creator wants us to think happened. As a result:
 • Every piece of evidence and every source must be read or viewed skeptically and critically.
 • No piece of evidence should be taken at face value. The creator's point of view must be considered.
 • Each piece of evidence and source must be cross-checked and compared with related sources and pieces of evidence.
For additional information on using primary sources in the classroom: National Archives (NARA), "History in the Raw"

2. Be a Historian
Working in groups, students will use the source documents and their Evidence Evaluation Worksheets to write a historical narrative of the Wright brothers' first flights at Kitty Hawk on December 17, 1903.

Guiding Your Students
Group members may have found factual differences in the source material (for example, the length of time of the Wrights' longest flight). Point out that professional historians also grapple with differences in "facts." When they find discrepancies, they look for other sources to validate disputed facts. But ultimately, they may never resolve these differences. For example, we may never know whether the Wrights' longest flight on December 17th was 57 seconds (Orville Wrights' telegram) or 59 seconds (his diary).

3. Compare Your Historical Narrative with Others in Your Class
Have each group share their history with the entire class. How did the narratives compare? Even if all of the groups used the same facts to create their historic narrative, their stories may still be different. Groups may have come to different conclusions about the reliability of different evidence. Or they may choose a particular point of view in telling their story (The Wrights' or a neutral observer, such as Daniels).

Historians bring their own bias and point of view to their evaluation of historical documents. That's why secondary source accounts of events-such as the Wright brother's first flight-may differ, and why dozens of books about the Wright brothers have been written.

4. Evaluating Wright Websites
Primary and secondary source documents are the building blocks historians used to reconstruct the history of the Wright brothers. But students more commonly get their information from the web. Literally hundreds of websites contain information about the Wright brothers. How can your students tell which sites are credible?

To guide your students in critically evaluating websites, your class will develop a Website Evaluation Worksheet, similar to the Evidence Evaluation Worksheet. Then, your class will use that worksheet to evaluate three Wright brothers-related websites.

To begin the process of developing a Website Evaluation Worksheet, ask your students: What have you learned from evaluating primary and secondary source material that is useful in evaluating websites?

Your students' responses may include:
 • To examine the source of the information
 • To weigh the bias of the creator or recorder (owner/sponsor of the website)
 • To consider the intended audience
Emphasize that because anyone can put material on the web, it's even more important to evaluate the information on a website critically and skeptically. Ask your students: What additional questions should you ask in evaluating the reliability of a website? You students' questions might include:
 • What is the website's purpose?
 • How is the website supported? (Organizational support, supported by advertisers or sponsors?)
 • What do you know about the website owner? If you don't know anything about the organization or individual, how can you find out about the website owner?
 • Can you easily contact the website owner with questions? (Is there an e-mail address, a phone number, and a mailing address?)
 • If the website is advertiser or sponsor supported, is the advertising clearly separate from the content? Is advertising disguised as "fact?"
 • What are the website's sources of information? Are sources clearly credited? Is the information derived from primary sources, or is the information a synthesis of many sources?
 • Is the information on this website in line with other sources of information? (The more radically the information departs from other views in the field, the more you should carefully and critically evaluate the ideas and the information sources.)
As a class activity, develop a Website Evaluation Worksheet that includes the questions and criteria your class has agreed upon.

These websites provide additional guidance on evaluating websites:
 • "Rating System for Evaluating Public History Web Sites." Public History Resource Center
 • "Evaluating Information Found on the Internet." The Sheridan Libraries, The Johns Hopkins University
 • "Critically Evaluating Information Sources." Reference Service Division, Olin*Kroch*Uris Libraries, Cornell University
 • NetTUTOR: "Evaluating Web Sites." Ohio State University Libraries,
When your class has finalized its Website Evaluation Worksheet, use it to evaluate these four websites:

1. Heritage Collectors' Society

2. Franklin Institute
First Flight

3. The Wright Experience

4. The Wright Brothers and The Invention of the Aerial Age

Which website did your students find most credible? Which was the least credible? Why? How would you go about "fact checking" a website where you questioned the credibility?

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