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The Best Resources For Teaching “What If?” History Lessons

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I’m a longtime fan of “alternate history,” and last year was thrilled to read about how some teachers applied that concept in their classes.

This is how Carla Federman (who borrowed the idea from Diana Laufenberg) introduced her lesson to students:

You are to identify one specific point in American history for which you are interested in changing the outcome. Once you have identified your point of divergence, you will need to consider both the immediate changes and the long-term impacts that divergence would have on modern society. You will present your “revised history” through the creation of “new” primary sources and a multimedia project.

I’ve written about this idea, and included links to both Carla’s and Diana’s projects, in three previous posts:

Extraordinary “What If?” Student Project

Asking “Why Not?” & “What If?” As Well As “Why?”

New Excellent “What If?” Projects

In many of our classes, I think, students tend to look at history as just the learning of facts that are set in stone and almost as destined to be…

Through a “What if?” project, I think students can gain a greater grasp of the fragility, interconnections and imponderables that we confronted in our past and will face in our future.

I’ve finally gotten around to trying it out in my own classes.

Earlier this month I did a what I think is a scaled-down version of what Carla and Diana did. I gave my IB Theory of Knowledge students a couple of days to work in pairs and develop a short PowerPoint presentation. They then gave three-to-five minute presentations, during which all students had to come up with a question and the presenters picked on one student to share theirs.

You can see the lesson and links to PowerPoints at our Theory of Knowledge class blog, and I’ve embedded one example below:

It was a fun, useful lesson — an excellent one to do near the end of the year so students could take a short break from the intense experience of having to write their TOK final essay.

In two weeks, I’ve arranged for my TOK students to come in to my Beginning/Intermediate ELL United States History class to help them develop similar projects, though they’ll probably be on posters and not in PowerPoints (actually, they did use PowerPoints and you can see them here at
“What If?” Slideshows From My English Language Learner Students).

I also had my TOK students respond to a few reflection questions. Here are some responses:

What Did You Like About The “What If?” Project?

Many students said it was “fun.”

I liked that the presentations were short and simple.

I liked how it was simple and complicated at the same time.

It was fun using our imagination.

I really liked people asking good questions.

I liked how we could see that a little event from the past could change the future by a lot.

How Could The Project Have Been Better?

It could have been better if we had more time.

What Did You Learn About History?

I learned that one minor event can change history on a major scale.

Every event can have an impact on what is happening right now.

The present might have been better if some things happened but our present isn’t as bad as what could have happened.

The fact that a tiny change in the past could lead to a dramatic change in the future.

I learned that in history even the smallest detail counts, especially when you are researching it, as it can lead to some very unexpected results.

I learned a lot from my classmates, including many real events that I hadn’t even known had occurred.

I’ll report how things go with my ELL class in June.

I’ve written a post about how my recent “What If?” lesson went. Here’s one of the PowerPoints:

The Anti-Defamation League has just launched an “Imagine a World Without Hate” video and action campaign with the posting of this pretty amazing video. It can be used in many ways, including as part of a “what if?” history lesson:

SPECIAL ADDITIONS:

What-If and What-Is: The Role of Speculation in Science is from The New York Times.

The “what if” habit of mind for all. is by Deborah Meier.

Why Does History Matter?

Killer Waves: How Tsunamis Changed History is an article from Live Science that could be very useful in my “What If?” history projects.

“Possibilism” — Maybe A New Word For “What If?” History

“Travel back in time to share one piece of scientific knowledge from today”

More “What If?” History Projects — Plus, What Students Thought Of Them….

Here are a few examples from my recent TOK class. The third one is just a thumbnail and you have click on it:

“What If?” History Presentations By English Language Learners

“What If?” History Project At NPR

Skills Practice | Alternative History as Narrative is from The New York Times Learning Network.

The What If’s of History is an interesting Storify.

What If World War I Never Happened? is from Discovery News.

What If America Had Lost the Revolutionary War? is from The Atlantic.

Have any of you tried similar projects?

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Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.

7 Comments

  1. I have used Diana’s project twice–once for a particular unit (American Imperialism) and again as a final exam project. They did not like the first, but seem to enjoy the freedom to change any point in American history. Carla’s rubric is way better than the one I developed!

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  4. maybe you’re already aware of this but there is a burgeoning field of study called “counterfactual history, in which historians are doing exactly this kind of activity! Robert Crowley has put out a couple of fantastic books, entitled “What If?” and “What If? II” where historians pick important moments that could have verrrry easily gone the other way, and they think about what the immediate and long term differences it would lead to.

    My favorite chapter is on the William’s conquest of England in 1066…it turns out William was a bit of klutz. His side was losing the battle, and going into retreat, when William fell off his horse. His troops thought he had been killed, went into a rage and won the battle after all. William got up, dusted himself off, and was King of England. Imagine what would have happened if he stayed on his horse!

  5. Hi Larry,

    I used, presented, and written about a similar activity when I was in the classroom. My 8th grade students loved this lesson.

    My article was published in The Social Studies (2011). The link to the article is http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00377996.2010.525547#.UvVqu9GYaUk.

    Glad to see teachers all over the country using counterfactual history!

  6. Check out this “What if?” Podcast project:

    The Story Engine:
    http://thestoryenginepodcast.podomatic.com/entry/2013-11-17T12_37_40-08_00

    and this one:
    Twilight Histories:
    http://www.twilighthistories.com/

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