Lesson Plan for National History Day

By Annie Thornton 05.31.2016 blog

In honor of National History Day, we’ve created a lesson plan that busts some popular history myths. Separate historical fact from fiction with these Channel One News videos — usually available to subscribers only. Then, guide students through a hands-on history research project using primary- and secondary-source documents to inform their work.

A subscription to Channel One News delivers a daily newscast for grades 3–5 and 6–12, with wraparound standards-aligned curriculum. The searchable Video Library holds more than 2,000 video segments, many with supporting slideshows and associated curriculum. This is just one of countless ways to use Channel One News for multi-day lesson planning in your classroom.

History Myths

Myth #1: America gained its independence on July 4, 1776.

Check for Understanding:

  • Which of the following best describes the Declaration of Independence? What did it do? What didn’t it do?
  • What actually did occur on July 4, 1776?

Slideshow: How the United States Won the Revolutionary War

On July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress (a body of delegates representing the people of Britain’s 13 North American colonies) approved the final version of the Declaration of Independence, a letter telling Britain’s King George III “That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be Free and Independent States.”

It’s one thing to declare independence, but to actually win it the Colonists would have to defeat the British army, the world’s greatest military power. The task seemed almost impossible. In 1775, when the first shots of the Revolutionary War rang out in Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, the Colonists didn’t even have an army.

What they did have was a bunch of ragtag local militias made up of part-time soldiers. It fell to General George Washington to stitch these militias into a unified and professional Continental Army, a frustrating task. “Connecticut wants no Massachusetts man in their corps; Massachusetts thinks there is no necessity for a Rhode-Islander to be introduced among them,” Washington complained.

Added to the lack of unity was the fact that initial recruits only enlisted for a year so that by the time they were trained they would leave and be replaced by new, untrained recruits. “Could I have foreseen what I have, and am likely to experience,” Washington wrote, “no consideration upon earth should have induced me to accept the command.”

Still, the mighty British army had serious disadvantages. It was far from home and orders and supplies traveled slowly. The Colonists were fighting for freedom. The British were fighting against it and were less motivated. The longer the war lasted, the more unpopular it became in England, and the Continental Army showed no signs of surrender no matter how many losses it suffered.

In 1778, Britain lost its advantage when France, impressed by the Continental Army’s victory in the Battle of Saratoga, sent 12,000 soldiers and 32,000 sailors to fight alongside it. Spain joined France the following year. What had begun as a civil war between Britain and its colonies had turned into a world war.

After the Continental Army’s decisive 1781 victory in the Battle of Yorktown, Britain began to negotiate an end to the war. On September 3, 1783, representatives of Britain, France, Spain and the Colonists signed a set of treaties called the Treaty of Paris, ending the war and making the United States a truly independent nation.

Check for Understanding:

  • How and when did the United States achieve independence?

Turn and Talk: If we were just now choosing a date to celebrate America’s Independence Day, which day would be most appropriate? Why?

  • July 2 (the Continental Congress voted for independence)
  • July 4 (the Continental Congress approved a final edited version of the Declaration of Independence)
  • August 2 (the signing of the Declaration of Independence)
  • September 3 (the signing of the Treaty of Paris)


Myth #2: Benjamin Franklin discovered electricity by flying a kite in a storm.


Check for Understanding:

  • Which details support the idea that Benjamin Franklin conducted the kite experiment? Which details disprove it?
  • According to meteorologist Jeff Ranieri, what would have happened if Franklin had successfully conducted his kite experiment?
  • What kind of evidence would be necessary to clearly prove that that the experiment had, indeed, occurred?

Slideshow: Electricity in Ben Franklin’s Day

Lightning can be pretty frightening — especially if you don’t understand what causes it. And in the 18th century, most people didn’t. If fact, many saw it as something supernatural, a sign of God’s anger. But Benjamin Franklin saw the opposite: Lightning was a natural phenomenon with natural causes.

People in Franklin’s day knew about electricity. Some even had machines that generated static electricity by rubbing materials like glass and leather together to create a charge, then channeling that charge through a metallic rod. But they saw these machines mostly as amusements and used them to perform party tricks like attracting objects to each other or creating sparks.

Franklin approached electricity with scientific curiosity. He noticed a few similarities between electrical sparks and lightning. Both created light, both exploded with crashing sounds and both were attracted to metal. To test the theory that lighting was electrical, he proposed an experiment in which a long metal rod would be used to "draw down the electric fire" from the clouds.

At some point, Franklin realized that flying a kite with a key attached to it would also do the trick. It would also give him more height than his original proposed experiment. Whether he actually tried the key experiment is up for debate. It would have been a pretty dangerous thing to do during a thunderstorm!

What is certain is that Franklin did invent the lightning rod, a metal rod placed on a building’s roof to protect it. Franklin’s invention was especially helpful for churches, since their steeples were the tallest things around and attracted lightning. But it sparked religious controversy.

One prominent minister claimed that the lightning rod caused the Cape Ann earthquake of 1755 by interfering with God’s usual way of expressing displeasure. In response, Franklin joked that if God didn’t mind people building a roof to keep out rain, He wouldn’t mind using a rod to protect them from lightning.

Argumentative Writing

So, does Benjamin Franklin deserve his reputation as a scientific pioneer? Why or why not? Use specific information from the video and the slideshow to make your case!

Myth #3: Christopher Columbus discovered America.

Check for Understanding:

  • Who actually proved that the Earth was round? How did he prove that?
  • According to scholars, what would have happened to Columbus if he hadn’t accidentally landed in America? Why?
  • Who were the first Europeans to set sail to America? When did they do it?

Slideshow: Who Got Here First?

Who was the first European to discover America? Most people know that in 1492, Italian explorer Christopher Columbus sailed across the Atlantic ocean from Spain hoping to reach the spice-rich countries of East Asia. Instead, he bumped into an entirely different continent by accident. But did you know that other explorers arrived here 500 years before him?

Nearly five centuries before Columbus, Viking Leif Eriksson might have discovered America in much the same way, by accident. Around the year 1000 AD, he was sailing from Norway to Greenland but veered off course. He arrived at the coast of eastern Canada, reaching a place he called Vinland (wine land).

But according to some accounts, it was the Viking Bjarni Herjulfsson who arrived in North America first. While headed to Greenland in 986 AD, his ship was blown off course and he ended up sailing along the Canadian coast. When he finally reached Greenland, he told Leif Eriksson about this new land and Eriksson set out to find it.

But legend has it that the Irish monk Saint Brendan reached America five centuries before any of the Vikings did. It is said that Columbus actually used the legend to argue that it was possible to cross the Atlantic. But was it possible to cross it in a currach, the kind of tiny wood and leather boat that Saint Brendan would have used in the sixth century? Historians say yes!

So was Saint Brendan the first European to discover America? Maybe not. Native Americans arrived on the continent more that 12,000 years ago. And last year, DNA evidence linking them to a European Stone Age boy revealed they might actually be the first Europeans to discover it.

The boy, who died in Siberia about 24,000 years ago, is the oldest human to ever have his DNA sequenced. His DNA showed he was a common ancestor of both Europeans and the people Christopher Columbus called “Indians.” Columbus saw American natives as an alien race, but it turns out they were more like him than he knew.

Explanatory Writing
Write a new paragraph for your history textbook explaining the myths and realities surrounding Columbus and the discovery of America. Use specific information from the video and the slideshow to support your response.

History Research Project

1. Choose a history topic. You may consider something that’s been covered in class, one of the historical myths listed above or another topic or historical figure that you’d like to learn more about.

2. Read about Primary and Secondary Sources: http://guides.library.ucsc.edu/primarysecondary

Examples of primary sources include: documents, artifacts, historic sites, songs or other written and tangible items created during the historical period you are studying.

Examples of secondary sources include history textbooks; biographies, plays and novels written after the event took place; and reliable websites (look for .gov or .edu in the URL for the most reliable websites).

3. Research your topic

Identify one primary source (photograph, letter, diary, original newspaper article, first-hand accounts or audio recording), one secondary source text (article, textbook or biography) and one reliable website to include in your project. Each type of source is required. Sources should help illuminate the historical figure or event you’ve chosen, so that your audience gains a deeper understanding.

Refer to this guide to help select your sources.

4. Choose project option

There are five final history project options to choose from. View examples of each option below. Students may work as individuals, in pairs or in small groups to complete their projects.

Paper: Write a multi-source paper using proper citations, including primary and secondary sources. Read “How to Create a Historical paper.”
See a student example here.

Exhibit: Create a three-dimensional, visual representation of your topic’s significance in history. Read “How to Create a Historical Exhibit.” 
See several student examples here.

Video Documentary: Read “How to Create a Historical Video Documentary.” 
See student documentary examples on YouTube about Henry Ford and Stan Lee.

Performance: Perform an original dramatic portrayal. Read “How to Create a Historical Performance.”
See student examples on YouTube about
Brothers Grimm” and the Grimké Sisters The Two Sisters Whose Legacy Turned the World Upside Down.

Website: Design an interactive website incorporating primary and secondary sources.
See student examples about John Muir and Morris Frank.

5. Outline project

Write a paragraph explaining your entire project. Be sure to explain all of the elements you plan to include, as well as a description of the final project. How will your work help your audience gain a greater understanding of your topic?

6. Present final project


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