Strategy Share: Using History Mysteries to Engage Students

Our Strategy Share series features innovative ideas, projects, and approaches from our community of educators. This post was written by Alison Travis after her expedition to Galápagos as a Grosvenor Teacher Fellow with Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic Education.

First-grade teacher Alison Travis brought back puzzling stories from her Galápagos expedition to inspire students’ curiosity and help them practice reasoning skills. Photo by Stacy Gasteiger

Anyone who has spent time around children knows they love to wonder, “Why?” By using history mysteries in our lessons, we can turn the questions of “Why?” and “How?” back onto students to engage them fully.

A history mystery is any historical narrative that is peculiar, mythical, unsolved, or controversial. In my first grade class, one of the most memorable history mysteries is the Lost Colony at Roanoke in our Early American Settlers social studies unit. I describe how in 1587, John White set up the second Virginia colony and then returned to England. When he returned three years later, the settlers had vanished, and all that was left was a cryptic message carved into a tree.

I proceed to ask students, “What do you think happened to them?”

Theories (of varying plausibility) begin to fly. Eventually, a student asks, “So what really happened?”

“Nobody knows,” I tell them, to their surprise.

I relish this answer. Students are astonished and insist that we must have uncovered some information in the past centuries. When I share that we still do not know and will probably never know, I can see the flash of realization across their faces. The gears begin to turn.

This shell embedded in a rock sparked interested in the uplifted sea floor at Urbina Bay. Photo by Alison Travis

An Unlikely Story

This is the magic of historical mysteries. We’ve all come across an unanswered question that has eaten away at us or a bizarre anecdote that we won’t soon forget. History mysteries tap into students’ love of solving puzzles and figuring things out. These ambiguous situations can easily be woven into almost any unit or subject.

On my Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship expedition to the Galápagos Islands, my naturalist guides shared a bizarre history mystery on the island of Isabela. As I hiked through the forests at Urbina Bay, I snapped a photo of an unusual rock to bring back to my students.

After finding the history mystery, I set it up for students. Primary sources such as art, photography, and original documents enrich the narrative. You can also choose to present a visual alone, with little or no added context. This increases ambiguity and works especially well for older students.

A fossilized sea urchin in the middle of a forest serves as a jumping off point for history mysteries. Photo by Alison Travis

Complex and Critical Thinking

Next, I posed an open-ended question that invited students to offer their opinions. When I returned to school, I asked students to look closely at the photo of the rock and see if they noticed anything. The work of thinking through history mysteries is complex. Students must pull from background knowledge and connect it to the topic at hand. Then, they must provide reasoning for their thinking either verbally or in writing. This can serve as a jumping-off point for class debates or persuasive writing assignments.

Finally, I revealed the true story of my Galápagos history mystery. I explained to students that a huge section of the seafloor suddenly rose 16 feet up out of the water. Exposed sea creatures and aquatic plants eventually decomposed and made Urbina Bay more rich and fertile than the surrounding volcanic areas. This brain-teaser kicked off our geology unit and a discussion of tectonic plates.

Students enjoy developing their own theories about what they think happened to the lost colony at Roanoke.  Photo by Alison Travis

Understanding History 

Through history mysteries, students gain a better understanding of how history has been recorded and interpreted over time. History can seem black and white to children; factual content is poured out by teachers and absorbed by students. By using history mysteries, students learn that there have been gaps in knowledge, disagreements about facts, and outright lies. This reinforces why written language was such a powerful development, how archaeology provides crucial discoveries, and the benefits of multimedia resources like photography.

Making Historical Discoveries

Oftentimes, as with the uplifted sea floor in the Galápagos, a history mystery is a surprising story that students would never guess. Other times, as with the Lost Colony of Roanoke, what really happened is still unknown. In these unsolved cases, history mysteries model for children that teachers, scientists, and historians do not always have the answers. In fact, much of the work of those professions is about actively uncovering new ways of thinking. 

By turning historical events into riddles, students take ownership of their learning and often extend it beyond the classroom. I’ve found that history mysteries spark interest to share stories with parents and continue researching at home. History mysteries reveal an important lesson for students at all levels: adults are not the keepers of all knowledge. We empower students to join the conversation and seek out answers for themselves.


Alison Travis is a first grade teacher in Broomfield, Colorado.

This post reflects a Grosvenor Teacher Fellow’s field-based experiences on a voyage with Lindblad Expeditions. The Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship is a professional development opportunity for pre-K–12 educators made possible by a partnership between  Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic Education

3 thoughts on “Strategy Share: Using History Mysteries to Engage Students

  1. I am inspired by your trip! What a great idea to tie in a mystery- I’m sure your students loved this project!

  2. Using personal travel experience in classrooms is often all the ‘hook’ you need to gain the interest of the kids. I’m looking forward to getting to the Galapagos island sometime soon and can’t wait to share my experience with whoever will listen!

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