Tug for Truth: History Mysteries

Who doesn’t love a mystery? The adrenaline rush of following a trail of clues and the surprising detours of red herrings (I didn’t see that coming!) all combine into a final sense of satisfaction as the pieces of the puzzle start to assemble. And, some of the most memorable mysteries contain an ambiguous ending that lead you to continue to ponder a series of new questions.

Amelia Earhart’s Last Flight. 1937. National Archives, https://www.archives.gov/news/topics/earhart. Accessed 17 Jan. 2020.

Captivating historians are like good mystery writers, and our school’s upcoming writing workshop with author and historian Candace Fleming provided an opportunity to introduce “History Mysteries” to sixth graders using Fleming’s book about Earhart’s disappearance. In Amelia Lost, author Fleming presents some of the lingering questions about Earhart’s disappearance during her flight in 1937 to circumnavigate the globe. Fred Noonan was Earhart’s navigator in this flight, and it is assumed that Earhart’s plane crashed when she lost communication and the plane ran out of gas. Theories regarding her fate abound, and I set up a “Tug for Truth” activity for students to weigh the evidence of one of the theories: Earhart and Noonan were rescued by the Japanese and imprisoned.

Setting the Stage for a Mystery
Using a large globe, I asked students to suggest why this type of flight, circumnavigating the globe, was particularly risky. Students mentioned flying over large stretches of water and the risk of running out of gas. Showing the communications log of Earhart’s last flight, students read aloud her fateful message to the ship Itasca that was sailing near her flight path: “Itasca we must be on you but cannot see U…but gas is running low been unable to reach you…flying at 1000 feet.” This was a chilling moment for students as they empathized with Earhart’s distress.

Radio Log of the Last Communications of Amelia Earhart. 1937. National Archives,       catalog.archives.gov/id/6210268. Accessed 17 Jan. 2020.
Radio Log of the Last Communications of Amelia Earhart. 1937. National Archives,
     catalog.archives.gov/id/6210268. Accessed 17 Jan. 2020.

Tug for Truth
Students were told that they would be evaluating a claim (theory of Earhart’s disappearance) by gathering evidence and sorting the evidence on a “Tug for Truth” line. “Tug for Truth” is a Visible Thinking routine that challenges students to weigh the merits of evidence. The essential question for this activity: Does the evidence support the claim as TRUE or NOT TRUE? White boards and flippable writing tables were set up with a tug-o-war line and this essential question. Students were given a red post-it note to write the CLAIM (Earhart and Noonan were rescued by the Japanese and imprisoned) and green post-it notes to write EVIDENCE statements as we examined primary source photos and articles from NYTimes and CNN. After students considered the evidence and wrote a brief statement, each student group decided where on the line to place the evidence.

Mysterious Photo
At the heart of this claim that Earhart and Noonan were captured by the Japanese is a mysterious photo taken at a Marshall Islands dock.  The small seated figure on the dock is suggested to be Earhart and the tall figure standing at extreme left is said to be Noonan (see the CNN article for an enlargement of the photo). Students circled these two figures in the photo and made factual statements about what they saw: 1) one seated figure with short hair appears to be a white woman and 2) one standing figure appears to be a white man.  Most students placed this evidence note near mid-center on the line–not definitively proving the claim as either true or false. They also wrote an evidence note that the photo was hard to see (blurry) and placed this evidence toward the middle of the line. 

Marshall Islands, Jaluit Atoll. National Archives, www.archives.gov/news/topics/
. Accessed 17 Jan. 2020.

The range of evidence notes got more interesting as students read the article from NYTimes.  Where would you place these pieces of evidence on the Not True–True line?

In 1981 an investigator interviewed a crew member about their ship’s role in a search effort
for Earhart.  Crew member reported no trace was found of her. The ship’s log also did not
mention Earhart.

In 1937, the year of Earhart’s disappearance, America was not at war with Japan.

In 1960s a journalist initiated several investigations in Saipan to try to find evidence to
support the claim of the photo as picturing Earhart.  No evidence was found, but the
journalist remains adamant that Earhart is pictured in the photo.

The “Tug for Truth” activity promotes critical thinking as students evaluate various factors, and it encourages lively discussion among groups as they support their reasoning for placement of evidence on the True or Not True area of the line.  For instance, one student said that an interview of a person many years after the event took place could be suspect because the person’s memory might be colored by more recent events or by a faulty memory. Other students pointed out that the ship’s log might be a more reliable piece of evidence (unless absence of Earhart’s name in the log was a deliberate effort to conceal evidence).  As you can see, students began to realize how sorting out truth can be complex and that many factors are involved in evaluating credibility. One of my favorite aspects of this activity was to ask students to select their strongest piece of evidence and place it at the end of the line (as you would place your strongest person at the end of a tug-o-war line). This encouraged further debates as groups justified their reasoning.

Extension Ideas
This CNN article was read at the close of the activity. I don’t want to spoil your mystery–but read this surprising article to decide if recent evidence has debunked this photo’s role in explaining Earhart’s disappearance.

Several other theories persist about Amelia Earhart. Students could explore the Bevington photo and discuss evidence found in a recent exploration by Dr. Ballard, as discussed in this
NYTimes article.

I encourage you to discover a “History Mystery” and immerse students in their own tug-for-truth discussion. Puzzling events engage students’ curiosity and promote opportunities for critical thinking and discussions.

Works Cited
Amelia Earhart’s Last Flight. 1937. National Archives, www.archives.gov/news/topics/earhart. Accessed 17 Jan. 2020.

Butler, Susan. “Searching for Amelia Earhart.” New York Times, 14 Oct. 2019, www.nytimes.com/2017/07/11/opinion/amelia-earhart-photograph.html?searchResultPosition=4. Accessed 17 Jan. 2020.

Cohn, Julie. “The Amelia Earhart Mystery Stays Down in the Deep.” New York Times, 14 Oct. 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/10/14/science/amelia-earhart-robert-ballard.html?searchResultPosition=2. Accessed 17 Jan. 2020.

Fleming, Candace. Amelia Lost. Schwartz & Wade, 2011.

Marshall Islands, Jaluit Atoll. National Archives, www.archives.gov/news/topics/earhart. Accessed 17 Jan. 2020.

“A New Clue in the Earhart Mystery.” The Earhart Project, Tighar, 12 Apr. 2010, tighar.org/Projects/Earhart/Archives/Research/Bulletins/57_Bevingtonphoto/57_HidinginSight.htm. Accessed 17 Jan. 2020.

Radio Log of the Last Communications of Amelia Earhart. 1937. National Archives, catalog.archives.gov/id/6210268. Accessed 17 Jan. 2020.

Wakatsuki, Yoko, and Ben Westcott. “Amelia Earhart Mystery: Photo Appears Taken 2 Years before Pilot Vanished.” CNN, 13 July 2017, www.cnn.com/2017/07/12/asia/amelia-earhart-photo-japan/index.html. Accessed 17 Jan. 2020.