Credible or Incredible? Smith & Bradford Face Off

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SWBAT provide evidence from colonial narratives to validate their evaluation of the author's credibility and draw comparisons between Puritan and modern lifestyles through textual analysis and class discussion.

Big Idea

Who to believe...a man accused of the "erasure" of colonial history or a man elected as governor 30 times? The answer might surprise you.


This lesson occurs near the end of our unit utilizing early American literature as a springboard for essential Common Core skills, like close reading, developing varied reading and word analysis strategies, using evidence to support logical reasoning, and determining author credibility, we will actively apply to a variety of text throughout the year.  So far, we have discussed literature from Native Americans, early explorers, slaves, and colonists.  We will be continuing to look at colonial literature today before moving on in later lessons to explore literature that came specifically from the Puritans at this time. 

At the end of the last class period, students began working through an analysis of an excerpt from John Smith's "General History of Virginia," which included writing an objective summary of every 1-2 paragraphs, another key base skill in the Common Core.  In addition to the objective summaries, students were instructed to continue the procedure that we had modeled in class to note specific places (that I refer to as "red flags") in the text where Smith appeared less credible and include an articulated reasoning of why the statement or section did not seem credible.  They will be arriving today with these summaries and credibility judgments in a Google Doc within their shared folder.  Students are appearing much more relaxed with the skills of determining credibility and expressing their reasoning for doing so, which makes me ecstatic for the possibility that this will be a complete, ingrained habit by the time they write their research paper.  We used an excerpt from "A Journal of the First Voyage to America" to begin guided practice on the credibility skill, and they have had time to practice this skill in groups as well.  This is the first time they have been explicitly asked to apply the skill in a completely independent and unguided way, so I'm prepared to do some reteaching today if that becomes a need.  To that end, students will work on completing the same style of activity using an excerpt from William Bradford's account, "Of Plymouth Plantation," as a whole group and then individually before comparing and contrasting the accounts and digging deeper into understanding Puritan life through a video and Venn Diagram.


35 minutes

Bell Work (5 minutes):  To begin the hour and get students back in the "colonial" state of mind, I will have students first ensure that their "General History of Virginia" summaries are properly located in the appropriate "shared" folder within Google Drive so that I can grade it.  Many students are still misplacing digital documents since we have moved to the 1:1 environment with Chromebooks, so I am going to gently harp (oxymoron?) until the correct habit is picked up by all of my students.  Next, I will direct students to review their own summary and credibility analysis of "General History of Virginia" by highlighting all credibility issues (and associated reasoning which informed their judgment of credibility) in red font.  This will serve two purposes.  The first purpose is that it will require students to go back through their summaries to review the text in order to be prepared for the discussion ahead.  The second is that students must review their own work to ensure that they have both made and supported inferences with textual evidence.

Review of "General History of Virginia" (30 minutes):

Before any credibility issues are addressed, I will question students about the experience of reading John Smith's account using the Reading Apprenticeship model's framework.  The series of questions will be:

  • What made this text difficult to read?  (Frequently, students will respond with syntax, word choice, context, lack of clear transitions, and lack of pronoun clarity.  These are all exceptional talking points for you to be the (requested!!) expert to offer strategies to overcome this reading barriers.  These issues also make an ideal situation to require students to provide textual evidence and examples to explain their issues.  For example, some students will have an immediate issue with "fortune" being used twice in the first sentence, albeit in different ways.  Talking them through what each "fortune" means is an unbeatable opportunity to discuss context clues and word choice.  As another perk, the more we talk as a class about words and struggles, the more attentive they are to noticing these issues and seeking guidance about them.)
  • What kinds of things did you do to improve your comprehension while reading?
  • Does his tale remind you of anything else you have read or seen?


Next, we will work as a group to review the summary of the text and point to credibility issues.  During this time, students are encouraged to add to their own documents to make them more complete with suggestions from their peers.  In order to move relatively quickly through this process, I will ask students to volunteer to read their summaries for each 1-2 paragraphs.  While we summarize, I will ask students after each summary if there were any credibility "red flags" in the preceding section.  We will continue in this manner until we finish the selection.  Upon conclusion, students will offer a final summary of credibility for John Smith's account.    In the resources for this section, I have included my own summary and credibility reasoning as an example.  

Throughout the course of this activity I want to draw attention to the fact that much of Smith's text lacks a sense of time, leaves the reader uncertain about all of the facts surrounding the expedition, and glamorizes Smith to near epic-sized proportions while nearly ignoring any information about Virginia itself.  These traits will make the best contrasts to Bradford's text in the next section.  Additionally, this emphasis benefits my students because they are often uncomfortable when texts leave them with uncertainty, but this text makes a great example to show that sometimes that happens through no fault of the reader!  Building reader confidence is critical to maintaining thoughtful, participative students who grow and build on successes over the course of the year.  

Building Knowledge

20 minutes

After our complete review of the Smith text, we will move on to reading and completing the same summary and credibility analysis of William Bradford's "Of Plymouth Plantation" excerpt.  Though it is the same activity, I will start this one with them as well to make sure that they are ready for the so-called "plain Puritan style."  This is a great time to mention oxymorons if you're looking for a little English-nerd humor, because students will see almost nothing "plain" about the Puritan style at first glance.  After reading the text, students will have likely come around to see that the "plain" description really refers more to the lack of figurative language rather than vocabulary use, sentence length or syntax, or other commonly considered notions of "plain."

As a class, we will read the first "Safe Arrival at Cape Cod" section of Bradford's text (at a maximum).  The primary purpose for this is to ensure that students recognize that credibility issues do not all have to be as blatant as Smith's wild claims, but could instead be more subtle forms of bias.  A secondary purpose is that while we read, I will sketch a little cartoon of the plot on the whiteboard (complete with stick figures and elementary-level storm clouds) to model a helpful reading skill to students who are primarily visual learners.  This activity will be another point of humor, but it will also serve as a visual summary!  Once all students have verbally participated (in this or the John Smith activity) by summarizing, offering credibility questions with evidence, or debating credibility with others in the class, students will complete the summary and analysis individually.  In my class I strive for 100% participation, so offering many opportunities for students to share information is critical for making that happen.  Some other tips for nearing or reaching the 100% participation mark are also featured below.


25 minutes

As a final application of the task, students will complete their analysis of the "Of Plymouth Plantation" text, summarizing each paragraph in their own voice and explaining any credibility "red flags" that they find with evidence.  Furthermore, they will compare and contrast the two narratives and write a final "overall" statement explaining which colonial author is more credible and why.  I will ask that they include what specifically made the story more credible, as opposed to what made the story "incredible," because otherwise I have a feeling students will be tempted to take the easy way out and just cut down Smith's text rather than deeply analyze Bradford's text.  Of course, Bradford (who was indeed elected as the colony's governor 30 times) is more credible than Smith (who did legitimately get accused of the "erasure" of history), despite the intrigue that perhaps it could be the other way around!  Introducing the lesson by stating that the credibility "might be a surprise" based on the evidence is, however, a tricky and useful way to get students to more genuinely evaluate the text!


10 minutes

In the last minutes of class, I will ask students to offer their overall logic for determining the "credibility winner" and provide an introduction to the video students must watch for homework tonight.  The video depicts the "typical" life of a Puritan family, but it is actually a pretty old film clip called "Puritan Family of Early New England."  I will go out of my way to make it sound "cool," while relating it to our pending deeper study of Puritan texts and subtly connecting it to literary elements.  I try to sneakily teach related topics whenever I can, so when I introduce the video I will point out that the "tone" of the video seems very formal, but family-oriented.  It appears to be a clip that would have been used in a classroom, but it does appear odd outside of this historical context.  Additionally, I will draw attention to the fact that to me it almost feels like it is going to be a satire of a lesson (since we so rarely see these kinds of films anymore and when we do it usually "busts out" into something else), though it is in fact not supposed to be satirical.  I will also assign homework (listed in the "Next Steps" section) and answer any outstanding questions at this time.

Next Steps

Students will view the "Puritan Family in Early New England" video (10:29) to learn more about the family structure and ordinary life.  Additionally, they will use a template to create a Venn Diagram which compares and contrasts Puritan life with modern life.  I want students to recognize that many of our customs, traditions, and values originate with the Puritans, so rather than focus on how different we are, I like the focus more on the similarities which unite us.  

Next time, students will take a brief multiple-choice assessment using to ensure that they have viewed the video.  If you would like this quick 10-questions assessment, you can sign up for a free account at and enter SOC-1994532 to "Import" this assessment into your quizzes.  See the screencap below for a better idea of what this assessment looks like.  Also, I will ask for student "scribe" volunteers to use the whiteboard to collect all unique student entries on the Venn Diagram.  Next, we will begin an investigation of extended metaphor to better understand "Huswifery" by Edward Taylor.