Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Unsolved Mysteries from History

The Mary Celeste: An Unsolved Mystery from History
Mysteries are a great way to get reluctant students excited about reading, thinking, and writing. As students become involved in what they are reading, they use deductive reasoning and research skills to discover solutions to the mysteries. Students also work on improving their questioning and inferring skills as they toss about possible hypothesis. Learning to read critically and analyze information is fundamental.

Unlock the Mystery of Mary Celeste

The book we chose for this activity is The Mary Celeste: An Unsolved Mystery From History by Jane Yolen and Heidi E.Y. Stemple. It is a true story of a clipper ship, named the Mary Celeste, which left New York harbor for London on November 15, 1872 and was found floating aimlessly near the Azores (islands near Portugal) a few weeks later. The crew was missing and was never found. Questions abound as to the fate of the people on board.

  1. Introduce the Mary Celeste mystery to the students. You might want to hook students by showing a YouTube video   or a video of the expedition that found the remains of the Mary Celeste or by reading an article that appeared in the New York Times in 1873.
  2. Read the introductory page in The Mary Celeste: An Unsolved Mystery From History. Explain to students that they will be collecting clues as you read about the mystery. They will be using those clues to unlock the mystery of the Mary Celeste.
  3. Create a 3-column chart with the following headings:  Clues, Inferences, Questions
  4. Read the story, stopping to record the clues found in the text, any inferences made by either the narrator of the book or the students, and any questions that students have.
  5. Shutterfold Foldable®:  Using 11" X 17" tag board, have students create a Shutterfold Foldable®. You can find directions for creating a Shutterfold Foldable® in any of Dinah Zike's Foldable® books. Have students fold the 3-tab theory Foldables® (Theories 1-3  Theories 4-6) hot dog style so that the theories are on the outside of the tabs. 
  6. Glue these 3-tab Foldables®  inside the left and right tabs of the Shutterfold Foldable®. Make sure you glue them so that the fold of the 3-tab Foldables® are aligned with the folds of the Shutterfold tabs.
  7. Inside the tabs of each theory, students are to answer the following questions. Is this theory plausible? Why or why not? Use clues and your own background knowledge to support your answer.
  8. Fold and cut the Mary Celeste Shutterfold cover in half and glue each half on the outside of the Shutterfold Foldable®.
  9. Layered Look Book Foldable®:  Have students make a Layered Look Book Foldable® out of 2 sheets of 8½ X 11 paper.  On the cover, have students write the question, What DID happen to the Mary Celeste? Label the three tabs with the following:  Theory, Clues, Final Theory.  You can find directions for creating a Layered Look Book Foldable® in any of Dinah Zike's Foldable® books.
  10. Ask students to choose the one theory that they believe to be the most reasonable. They need to write that theory on the first tab that says Theory and explain why they believe it to be the best theory. If they have a different theory, they can write that down and explain why. They must use factual clues to support any theory that they choose. Tell them that they are going to be researching additional resources to look for more clues to support that theory. 
  11. Either have students research on their own or provide them with another article to read. They need to be looking for and writing down clues that prove or disprove the theory they selected. They will record the clues on the second tab that says Clues.
  12. After students research their theory, discuss these questions. "Do you still feel the same way about your theory? If not, how has your thinking changed? Why? Do you have another theory now?"
  13. Students write down their final theory under the last tab and explain why they believe this to be the most plausible theory.
  14. Glue the Layered Look Book Foldable® on the inside of the Shutterfold Foldable®. Be sure to leave room for the Mini Photo Album.
  15. Mini Photo Album: Make a Bound Book Foldable® out of the 4¼" X 5½" sheets of paper. You can find directions for creating a Bound Book Foldable® in any of Dinah Zike's Foldable® books. Students can use the Mary Celeste graphics to make a Mary Celeste photo album. Glue the photo album to the inside of the Shutterfold Foldable®. 
  16. Mary Celeste Summary or News Article:  The About the Mary Celeste graphic can be used to write a summary about Mary Celeste or an article that might have appeared after the Mary Celeste was discovered. Glue it on the back of the Shutterfold Foldable®.
Mary Celeste Resources
Mary Celeste Wikipedia article
Mary Celeste, Fact not Fiction 

There are three more titles in the Unsolved Mysteries from History collection, The Salem Witch Trial, Roanoke: The Lost Colony,  and The Wolf Girls.

What ideas do you have for using these books?

The Salem Witch Trials: An Unsolved Mystery from HistoryRoanoke: The Lost Colony--An Unsolved Mystery from History     The Wolf Girls: An Unsolved Mystery from History


  1. I am planning to do this activity with my class next week! I can't wait! Thanks so much for providing all of the links and resources!

  2. I just wanted to come by and let you know that the lesson was a HUGE success! My 5th grade class LOVED it! They were beyond excited and said they couldn't wait to see what their parents thought about the whole thing. Thanks again!

  3. Christina,

    Thank you for your feedback. We were thrilled to hear that your lesson went well and that your students responded so positively. It is inspiring for us when teachers let us know that they are using the Foldable activities and lessons posted on our blog, especially when they have such wonderful results!

    Keep on Folding! Donna and Rebecca