The History Mystery and the 11th Grade


One group’s look at Mussolini’s pathway to power.

For my 11th Grade Standard Level Diploma History class I wanted to morph the SOLE a little.  I have 10 students of varying abilities.  Some could be taking Higher Level, others struggle with the English language.  I wanted to do something interesting to kick off our Causes of World War II.  I gave the same rules to the 11’s as I did the 6’s, but this time I omitted the “Student Helper”.   They got in groups.  Researched the question for 40 minutes.  Reflected for 10 minutes with the same questions as the 6’s.  Then the following lesson they got 5 minutes to prepare their presentations, then a presented.  We then had a group discussion about the process and more.  But I’ll save the details of that conversation for the end.

The Set Up:

I told the students I had been studying up on Mussolini over the weekend and I found something that left me perplexed.  I read somewhere that Mussolini had fled to Switzerland to escape the draft.  Was he a coward?  A chicken?  And how did he later become “Il Duce?”  How did this guy go from avoiding conscription (service to his country) to being Il Duce (the supreme leader of his country)?

The Process:

Using iPads and laptops, the 11’s frantically combed the Internet for information near and far.  Some used Wikipedia as a starting place, some went to revision sites for the IB, some students stuck with their favorite history sites where they usually find good and trusted information.  The room was a buzz.  One group wanted to go so far as to create a “back story” for Mussolini.  Did he have a secret lover in Switzerland?  What made him return to Italy?  Did they break up?

One group quickly got to researching and writing.  They figured they could come to a conclusion at the end.  Other groups separated, researched alone, then they came together to put the poster together in the last 10 minutes.  The last group discussed everything that they found as they found it.  They assessed its relevance to the question and then put their poster together.

It was time to reflect, they begged for more time to research, but I stuck to my framework.  They frantically wrote their reflections for 7 minutes without making a peep.  I told them their homework was to watch Sugata Mitra’s TED talk and the video about students designing their own schools.


The presentations were at times comical.  They were more like three advertising teams discussing how they would sell or spin the product. One group hit the basics and showed the path of Mussolini’s rise to power with silly stick figures.  Another group had a time line with key concepts.  They presented entirely in an Italian accent.  Well, one them had a better Italian accent than the other.  The last group discussed in a more random way what they discovered but quickly began making comparisons to Hitler’s rise to power.  If you compared their talks to an IB revision outline for Mussolini and Single Party States, the kids pretty much hit on all the key points.

I then switched over to this idea…what would we find if we looked at Hitler?  After all, wasn’t he this quirky artist guy who later tried to take over the world?  Didn’t he gain power through similar means?  A few students jumped on this and discussed for a few minutes.  Then one girl raised her hand. “Mrs. Ralf, when are we going to discuss those videos we watched?”

Well, now that you mentioned it….

I said, let’s compare and contrast Hitler and Mussolini in tomorrow’s lesson.  Why don’t we talk about the learning process we just experienced.  Did it work?  Should we do this all the time?  Should we throw the texts out the window?  Should we design our own school?

Their responses would surprise you.  One boy said there is no way, never!, would he be able to work in an Independent Project like was is underway in Massachusetts.  He needs someone to say here is what you need to learn, do it now, let me check your answers.  Others said they liked the freedom to answer a big question and decide for themselves what information was relevant and interesting.  Another boy said, I like this kind of stuff, being creative and discovering the answers, but there is this voice in the back of my head that says “You are missing something.”  He wanted an outline, objectives, a checklist to ensure that the canon of knowledge he is supposed to know will be learned before the test.  They agreed that there is a place for structured learning, skills practice, but that ultimately they want variety.  They want to learn in different ways, not just in the same style every lesson.  Most of their frustrations at school come from sitting in a class where the teacher uses one mode of delivery for information, and that mode is not a mode they can learn from.  “We waste a whole class period taking notes, and then we end up having to go home and teach ourselves the all information over again.  Our notes are worthless to us.”

So What Role Does the Teacher Play In Your Learning?

I wanted to know from them.  What do you expect from me?  You have a breadth of information you need to know at the end of two years in the Diploma.  What is my responsibility in getting you to the test?  Am I the lecturer?  Am I the guide?  Am I to get out of the way?

“Don’t waste our time,” a girl said.  It came back to their frustration with another class.  They began to talk about what works and what doesn’t work in our school.  They talked about a class they had for 2 years with the same teacher who didn’t follow the school set objectives, and now they can’t function in their new class because they never got the foundation of knowledge they needed.  They talked about the teachers they learned from and what those teachers did to help them.

Variety, hands on, practice, discussion, guided note taking, but bottom line, those teachers who vary their teaching practices, seemed to appeal most to these students.

Thanks, Mrs. Ralf for letting us talk!

Students just want to be heard.  They want teachers to engage them in how they learn.  They want to know you will do your best to give them the information in a way that is helpful to them.  But they also know that their major responsibility is to learn.  The teacher doesn’t take the test at the end of the Diploma, they do.  My 10 left relieved of a burden they wanted to share:  We are frustrated, we feel unprepared at times, and we know we need to be better advocating for ourselves.  I felt relieved too.  They confirmed for me that by including them in the “how do you want to go about learning this” is really the best way to guide my 11th graders through this course.

So now what?

Students who believe Hitler and Mussolini are more different in their rise to power.

Students who believe Hitler and Mussolini are more different in their rise to power.

We did another History Mystery.  Were Mussolini and Hitler more similar or more different in their rise to power?  They researched, presented and then did a spectrum debate.  Each student stood somewhere on the line from more similar to more different.  Each had one minute to present why they felt this way.  Then the other students could move on the spectrum if they felt convinced by that student’s argument to move.

This led us to the next question.  As they argued it was clear they were stuck on one point.  Did Hitler use a more legal means to gain power than Mussolini?  Well, THAT is the subject of our next lesson.

This group felt Hitler and Mussolini were more similar in personality and circumstance, yet their differences lie in how they ultimately achieved control of the country.

This group felt Hitler and Mussolini were more similar in personality and circumstance, yet their differences lie in how they ultimately achieved control of the country.

2 replies

    • Hi Tan, I’m sorry. This was done about 5 or 6 years ago. I don’t have the posters anymore. I think the key here is that the poster serves as a place to park their big ideas while researching for 50 minutes.

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