Choosing their own Adventures: Exploring Historical Occupations in History Seminars

In my Atlantic World module, we spend several weeks discussing various migration types, including exploration, sojourning, and settlement. Although writing lectures for these topics was simple enough, constructing seminars proved far more difficult. Should my students work through case studies or discuss the groupings more broadly? The former meant privileging one sort of sojourner over another, and the latter ran the risk of gross oversimplification. My solution? A Choose-their-own-Adventure group activity.

The students were divided into groups of 3 or 4 students each and given the following worksheet:

I am a 14 year old boy from Weymouth (Dorset) in 1730. Should I:
  • Join a fishing crew and sail for the Newfoundland Fishery
  • Apprentice myself to a Bristol counting house and hope for a position in North America
  • Attend seminary at Oxford and become an Anglican missionary in Sierra Leone
  • Stay home. It’s barbaric out there!
I am a 14 year old boy from St. Malo (Brittany) in 1690. Should I: 
  • Join a privateering crew and sail for the Channel
  • Travel to Quebec and hire myself out as a Coureur des bois.
  • Attend the Jesuit College and become a missionary in New France.
  • Stay home. Try to win favour with the court and stay out of religious conflicts.
I am a 14 year old boy from Boston (Massachusetts Bay) in 1766. Should I:
  • Join a fishing crew and sail for the Labrador Fishery
  • Travel to England and attend Cambridge University.
  • Attend seminary at Harvard and become a missionary in Liberia.
  • Stay home. Become a merchant and marry well.
I am a 14 year old boy from Lisbon (Portugal) in 1616. Should I:
  • Apprentice to a merchant house and work as a factor in Madeira.
  • Joining a merchant ship heading to Angola to take part in the slave trade.
  • Join the Capuchin order and become a missionary to Brazil.
  • Stay home. Pray the Portuguese monarchy is restored (and make snide comments about Spaniards under your breath)
I am a 14 year old Wendat girl from Montreal (New France) in 1620. Should I:
  • Marry at Coureur des bois and seek out new contacts in the interior.
  • Join the Ursuline nunnery in Montreal 
  • Become a companion to a French official in Quebec, raise a metis family, providing diplomatic support between my two homes.
  • Stay home. Europeans are nothing but trouble.

Each group was also given 24 post-it notes (6 orange and 18 pink). For each child, the group had to choose the best possible option, taking into account nationality and chronology. They would write their reason for this choice on the pink post it. For each of the other options, they had to give a reason why it was a poorer option.

Once all of these groups had completed this, the post it notes were placed on a large grid, drawn on the room white board. As you can see, opinion was greatly mixed.

Using the grid as a point of reference, we could spend the remainder of the seminar discussing multiplicity of options children of the Atlantic had (or didn’t have).

Moreover, it reminded students that chronology (even in a thematic module) was crucial. Almost all of my students decided to send the young Portuguese boy to Madeira; being a merchant seemed the safest and most profitable option. Sadly, Madeira was ransacked in 1617 and would have resulted (most likely) in the young man’s death. The one student who avoided this trap at looked up Madeira on their smartphone to seek out any possible pitfalls.

If anyone else tries a similar activity, here are my words of advice:

  • Use good quality post-it notes. Mine were quite old and only remained on the wall for about fifteen minutes before collapsing like a multi-coloured waterfall.
  • Allow plenty of time for discussion within the groups and as a whole. This is not a 10-minute activity.
  • And finally, enjoy your students creativity. Mine developed quite detailed biographies of these 6 children in order to justify their choices.

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