Educators Smithsonian Education
The Wright Brothers
Lesson Plan
Preparation - Background on Virginian-Pilot Story - Activity Steps - Assesment and Enrichment

Activity Steps

Step One
Hand out the primary source documents.  As the groups read their assigned documents, hand out the graphic organizer, which contains these questions:

a. When did the flights take place (date/time of day)?

b. Where did the flights take place (town/state)?

c. Who flew the plane?

d. What was the time/distance/altitude/speed of the longest flight?

e. Where was the plane launched (an incline or level ground)?

f. Why did the flights end?

g. Who witnessed the flights?

Each group should fill out only one row of the organizer.  (Group A fills out the Document A row, etc.)  In answering the questions, students should only use information contained in the assigned document.  They should not draw upon anything they’ve previously learned about the Wright brothers.

Let the students know that not every document contains an answer to every question.  If they come to a question without an answer, they should put down a question mark.

Step Two
Ask each group to summarize its assigned document for the class and to report its answers to the questions.  Have all of the students follow along by writing down the other groups’ answers on the organizer.  You might also reproduce the organizer on the board or on an overhead for the whole class to see.

Again, question marks will suffice for unanswerable questions.

Step Three

As a class, address the question at the end of each column:  What seems to be the best answer?  Try to reach a consensus.  When there are discrepancies between the groups’ answers in the columns, ask students to consider factors that would affect the reliability of sources—distance from the event, reliance on memory, reliance on hearsay, etc.

An example of a discrepancy:  Orville Wright’s telegram says that the longest flight lasted fifty-seven seconds, but he says in his diary that it lasted fifty-nine seconds.  Bishop Wright says fifty-seven seconds in his letter.  Should the bishop’s statement be taken as good supporting evidence? 

A study of the documents should reveal that the bishop relied on the information in the telegram.  At some point in the relays of the message, Orville’s report of fifty-nine seconds—the correct time—was misstated or mistyped.  Students might have noticed a detail that calls the accuracy of the telegram into question:  Orville became “Orevelle.”

There will be times when no amount of study will reveal conclusive answers.  Students will have to decide if, as historians, they should reach an answer based on inference or if they should let the question go as unanswerable.

Step Four
Hand out copies of the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot article, which Bishop Wright calls “friendly, though incorrect.”  Ask students to read the story and mark anything that differs from the conclusions on the graphic organizer.

As a class, make a list of the differences that the students found.  What accounts for the differences?  Does it seem that the writer of the article was on the scene at Kitty Hawk?

The students will probably agree that the newspaper story is almost entirely inaccurate, but is it entirely without value?

Says Smithsonian archivist Pam Henson, “The article tells us how newsworthy this event was.  The inventors are compared to Archimedes [the alchemist].  So although we have to question the facts, it is useful to see how such an event was received.”
Required Materials

Graphic Organizer

Group A: Diary

Group B: Telegram

Group C: Letter

Group D: Interview

Group E: Magazine

Entire Class: Newspaper

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