Constructing History - The Effect Of Limited Evidence

Ronald Martinello

I am currently the History/Geography head at  St. Benedict Catholic Secondary School in Cambridge, Ontario. I teach History, Law and Civics. I am in my 26th year of teaching.

I had the privilege of working with a teacher who once taught me in high school. As my program head, I would often ask his advice on something new I was planning. His response would invariably be: “Try it. If it works, tell me about it. If it doesn’t, try something else.” As a young teacher at the time, I took that as a vote of confidence to experiment in my classes without fear of having a critical eye over my shoulders watching for every mistake. I share that with you because I tried a bit of a different approach to a lesson, and I am not sure if it worked or not. But, I will share it with you anyway.


I tried an exercise in constructing history, the idea being that historians can only work with the evidence they have and the story they tell is limited by that evidence.  The same goes for our students. The stories they tell, whether it through an essay or a diorama or a monologue or whatever, are limited by the evidence they have found in their textbooks, their personal research, or the information given to them by their teacher.  The evidence used in the stories they construct can be affect their accuracy, their detail, or their perspective. I tried to demonstrate this in the following exercise.


I chose the Cuban Missile Crisis as my focal point. I thought that while some students would have some knowledge, most or all would have little to no knowledge of the events.


In looking at the crisis, I found a site that listed a number of key events on a timeline. From this list, I narrowed down the key events to approximately 25 “key” events. This was the first act in limiting evidence. I then copied each of these items on to separate strips of paper and created 10 piles of each set of events (so each pile had each of the 25 events; each event was dated according to the timeline). Students were then organized into 10 groups and each group was given their pile of events. Without looking at the events themselves, students randomly selected 15 strips of paper from their pile. Theoretically, each group should have had some shared events with other groups, while at the same time, having some events that would be unique or different from other groups. Their next task was to select the 10 most important events they thought told the story of the Cuban Missile Crisis. These events were then organized and pasted on to a piece of paper that could be displayed in class.


I then showed the class a video on the crisis. I used:


Based on the video, the students evaluated themselves on how much of the essence of the Cuban Missile Crisis they were able to capture in their timelines. They highlighted items they included and items they missed. They then went on a gallery walk and viewed the other “stories” told by the timelines. They then rated the groups on which ones were best able to capture the spirit of the crisis.


I was hoping to show that depending on the evidence used, very different stories would emerge, so different in some cases that the “crisis” may have had more urgency in some retelling than in others. It was also my hope that students would see those differences when comparing their stories.

To this extent, I don’t know how successful my attempt was. Limitations of time to construct their stories and to debrief the exercise certainly played a role in my ambivalent analysis. Regardless, I think the exercise has some value if properly conducted. 

Try it. See if it works. If not, try something else!