The Boston Massacre
by Elizabeth Berlin Taylor
In this lesson, students will be asked to learn the disputed and agreed-upon facts of the Boston Massacre in small groups and then discuss them and propose a website definition of the Massacre as a class. This lesson should not only provide students with an opportunity to look at disparate representations of so-called historical facts surrounding a very famous event that preceded the American Revolution, but will also teach them to deliberate with their classmates in a cordial fashion.
On the night of March 5, 1770, American colonists attacked British soldiers in Boston, which resulted in the soldiers firing on the crowd and killing five of the colonists. This event became known as the Boston Massacre, a rallying point for colonists against the stationing and quartering of British troops throughout the colonies, and against the Townshend Acts, which the British soldiers were deployed to enforce. Many different accounts of this encounter are extant as John Adams successfully defended the British soldiers in court and thus had to depose numerous witnesses.
Deposition of Theodore Bliss, Boston Massacre Historical Society
Captain Thomas Preston’s Account of the Boston Massacre, Boston Massacre Historical Society
"The Soldiers Trial: October 24 to 30, 1770: Selected Testimony," The University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law, Famous Trials Project
Summation of John Adams, The University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law, Famous Trials Project
Anonymous Account of the Massacre, The University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law, Famous Trials Project
Library of Congress "America’s Library" site for kids, which gives a brief overview of the Boston Massacre.
What really transpired on the night of March 5, 1770?
- Students will be able to read and understand primary documents that are key to understanding the Boston Massacre and the ensuing trials of the British troops and their captain.
- Students will be able to identify similarities and differences between primary source documents.
- Students will be able to discuss the Boston Massacre as a class to decide what they think actually occurred.
- Students will be able to propose and vote on a definition for the Boston Massacre for a history website for elementary school students.
Motivation: Give students five minutes to read over the information at the "America’s Library" site. After that time, ask students to close their computers, or, if using a print copy, collect that copy. Ask students to remember as many details about the Massacre as they can from the site. The teacher should record the facts on the board as they are announced by the students so that they are visible to the entire class.
After the motivation has provided a basic understanding of the events of the Boston Massacre, inform the students that for the rest of the class they are going to be history detectives and decide what they think really happened in the Boston Massacre.
Project the famous Paul Revere engraving "The Bloody Massacre," and ask students a variety of questions about what they see:
- What do you see in this engraving?
- How are the colonists portrayed?
- How are the British soldiers portrayed?
- According to this engraving, who is at fault in this Massacre? How do you know?
As students identify that the engraving seems to put the British soldiers at fault for the Boston Massacre, the teacher will inform them that they are going to read a variety of other documents and decide if Paul Revere was conveying the truth about the circumstances of the event.
Put students into eight groups of four. The members of each group will analyze the same document, as the primary sources are fairly challenging reading. Give each group a packet that includes copies of one of the following: the Deposition of Theodore Bliss, Captain Thomas Preston’s Account of the Boston Massacre, the Summation of John Adams, and the Anonymous Account of the Massacre. Students will read and analyze their group’s document, noting at the bottom of the handout five of the described events.
Students will jigsaw so that they will be in a new group in which each member reads a separate article. The students will fill in the attached worksheet that asks them to find events that were discussed in more than one source. Also, students will write a summary of what they think took place during the Boston Massacre. Each group will choose a spokesperson who will read a brief explanation to the class of what they think happened.
The teacher will request the input of up to three of the groups and then summarize the work that was done in that period.
(This can also be an optional extension of the prior lesson.)
Students will briefly review the facts that they think are true about the Boston Massacre, referring to their previously read articles and the worksheet they completed with their second group.
The teacher will then pose the question, "If we were going to make a website for elementary school students about the Boston Massacre, what should the site say?" The class will decide this question by having a whole-class discussion.
Each student will get two popsicle sticks. When the student wishes to speak, he or she will raise her stick and then turn it in as he or she speaks. Thus, each student will have at most two opportunities to speak during the discussion. The teacher will need to guide the discussion by asking the following questions (and by recording the answers where they can be seen by the entire class):
- Can we agree as a class upon what actually happened during the Boston Massacre?
- What seems certainly to be true? Why?
- What might be true?
- What do you think is certainly untrue? Why?
- How should we write our definition for a website?
- What should we include and what should we omit?
The teacher should stress that the goal of the class is to come up with a well-written and historically accurate definition of the Boston Massacre for a website.
Debrief the discussion. What are some of the benefits and drawbacks of that method of decision making in a piece of writing? Was it hard to come up with a definition? Are you pleased with the definition you wrote?
Students can create a podcast about the Boston Massacre that uses the class definition. Another extension would be to have students create a website on the American Revolution and use the class definition as a page in the site.