• What if Ben Franklin died in his electricity experiment?
  • What if Albert Einstein died before the Theory of Relativity was released?
  • What if Alice Paul and Lucy Burns were assassinated?
  • What if the Selective Service Act from WW1 was not ratified?
  • What if Prohibition was not repealed?
  • What if Joseph Kennedy Jr. lived?
  • What if JFK did not come to a diplomatic resolution to the Cuban Missile Crisis?
  • What if Reagan did not survive his assassination attempt?
  • What if Britain and US did not have the Revolutionary War?
  • What if Nat Turner did not get caught?
  • What if Puerto Rico was not a US territory?
  • What if Amelia Earhart returned?
  • What if segregation in schools was still in effect?
  • What if Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, never ‘caught on’ and DDT was never banned?
  • What if Osama bin Laden dies in 1980?
  • What if Bill Gates’ middle school never bought the computer from a garage sale?
  • What if al Qaeda was successful in the car bombing of the towers in 1993?

This is a sampling of questions asked by my juniors in their final project for American History.  Choice of question was completely left up to the students.  Counterfactual or alternate history is a fringe topic amongst academic historians.  However, as a class activity it opens up the world of history for inquiry, investigation and creativity.  The What If? project focuses on the specific engagement of the individual student with a deep investigation of the historical record.  The steps that take the student through the exercise are challenging, couched in research and steeped in creativity.

Steps for Executing the What If? Unit

  1. Brainstorming for Ideas – Ask students to think back to the most interesting units of study from the past year as a place to start, inquire as to what they are most curious about in American history.  The goal is to establish the Point of Divergence (POD)
  2. Spend a day investigating 2-3 PODs for the project
  3. Choose one POD and complete the contract for completing the project.
  4. Distribute the graphic organizer that serves as a one-stop shop for the pieces of the project to be written down.
  5. Students identify at least three primary source documents that PRECEDE the POD to establish understanding of the historical record leading up to the POD.
  6. Students use the National Archives Primary Source Document Analysis Worksheets to analyze at least three different primary sources related to their chosen POD.
  7. After students are relatively comfortable with the existing history, they then brainstorm three NEW events to add to the altered timeline that results after the POD.
  8. Each new event requires students to create two primary source documents to establish the event as ‘real’.
  9. Finally, students use all the pieces amassed on their graphic organizer to pull together a multi-media project that utilizes each piece of the evidence real and created in order to represent 2011 as it exists after the POD.
  10. Students post their work on their blog and write a lengthy reflection – What did you like about this project? What was most challenging? Describe the most interesting fact or event that you investigated. How do the actions of individuals impact the historical record?  How do systemic changes impact the historical record?  How influential can one decision be in the historical landscape? How could this project be improved? If you had it to do over, what would you change about your process for the project?

Many times over I hear the students say things like… you have no IDEA how much I know about this topic.  They push back when I try to poke holes in their logic with events from the historical record, cite primary sources when I need more proof.  The reflections often are most telling for the learning that occurs during this process, they write:

“The thing that I found most fun about this project, was coincidentally the same thing I thought was the most difficult, and that was the fact that there were so many different possibilities. It was very fun to see how different events related to one another, and how changing one could set off this long domino effect about all of history.”  —Dennis

“My favorite part of the actual creating of the project was definitely fabricating primary source documents. I felt so cool, like some kind of all-powerful, primary-source-creating being.” – Luna

“I liked that I had free control to change something in history. It gave me the opportunity to choose something I was passionate about and change it to my liking. On the flip side, it was hard to pick something to change that would give me the outcome I wanted.” – Ayanna

“I really liked the hypothetical part of this benchmark, it left a lot of room for creativity. I enjoyed making my primary source documents and making up a different future for our country. However, Topic choice was definitely the most difficult thing for me.” –  Emma

“What I like about the project was that it made me do a lot of thinking and I learned a lot of history by going out on my own and researching the information that I needed.” — Sam

This unit causes my brain to hurt.  This project causes my students’ brains to hurt.  It puzzles, stumps and perplexes us.  Students choose topics poorly but do not realize it until well into the project. I approve a topic that is ‘too big’ and we are challenged to find a way out as the project comes to a close. There are contracts, organizers, analysis, predictions and sweat involved in this project. In the end, each student learns.  Learns content in an intense and curious manner.  Learns skills with an urgency of ‘I need to know this right now’.  Learns their limitations and challenges in the most constructive of ways. This unit pushes me in all these ways and more. It pushes me as a teacher and as a constant student of history to be the type of resource they need throughout this project. This is learning in its most messy and beautiful form.