In his essay, “Interpreting John Brown: Infusing Historical Thinking Into the Classroom,” Bruce A. Lesh describes an extended lesson plan that offers a powerful challenge to his students:  create the text for a historical marker commemorating John Brown’s 1859 raid at Harpers Ferry.  You can read Lesh’s full essay inside the print edition of Volume 25 of the OAH Magazine of History (April 2011) or online via Oxford Journals.  On this page, you will also find a link to the full lesson plan (with resource materials) as well as an extended description of the exercises pasted below.

John Brown Lesson Plan by Lesh

Interpreting John Brown: Infusing Historical Thinking into Classroom Instruction

Author: Bruce A. Lesh

Duration: 90 minutes


  • Identify the facts surrounding John Brown’s role in Antebellum America
  • Compare and contrast various historical interpretations of John Brown
  • Construct an historical argument regarding how John Brown should be memorialized


1.     Initiate the lesson, by asking students why we would commemorate an historical event with a marker, sign, statue, or plaque.  Display examples from your neighborhood, state, or region. Discuss why certain people or events might merit commemoration over others.

2.     Display the visual depictions of John Brown and lead students through an evaluation of the messages conveyed by the sources. Further the examination of John Brown, by asking the following questions:

a.      Why would artists produce two dramatically different interpretations of John Brown?

Answers should mention that pieces could have been created during different time periods, the artists may have a bias or point they wanted to make, or it could represent a particular historical interpretation.

b.     What contradiction regarding democracy and freedom might John Brown’s actions symbolize?

Brown’s actions bring to the forefront the fact that the United States was formed to protect freedom and yet harbored within its borders an institution that was designed to restrict freedom.

c.      Should John Brown be considered an American hero?

Student answers will vary depending upon their feelings regarding the rule of law, morality, and the use of violence as a political tool.


3.     Review the beliefs and actions taken by John Brown by discussing the homework found on Resource Sheet 1. Introduce students to the basics of John Brown and his actions in Kansas, Missouri, and Virginia. Consult information found at the following websites to reinforce the review of the homework:

Be sure to emphasize Brown’s religious beliefs, his role in “Bleeding Kansas,” his raid into Missouri, and the Harper’s Ferry Raid. Discuss with students the various sectional reactions to Brown’s failed raid. Inform students that it is their task to determine how John Brown should be memorialized historically.

4.     Provide each student with a copy of Resource Sheet 4 and one of the primary or secondary sources from Resource Sheet 3A-3L. Select six of the sources so that group size remain manageable. Ask students to read their source and answer the questions on Resource Sheet 4. Remind students that they are reading to determine the type of person that Nat Turner was described to be by the author.

5.   Have students reorganize themselves into groups of six and share what they found in their respective

sources.  Students should record the information that is shared on their worksheet.

6.  Come back together as a full class and share the information that was gleaned from the documents and from discussion.  As students share their findings record the information on the board or the overhead. Further the classes understanding of John Brown by asking:

  • Why would the author’s interpretations of John Brown differ so much?
  • Why would the author’s interpretations of John Brown be similar?
  • How can we develop an interpretation of John Brown?

5.     Return to some of the images displayed at the outset of the lesson.  Ask the students which picture they feel best represents the accurate historical John Brown.  Prompt students to defend their choices with information gleaned from documents and discussion. Focus students back on the question of whether or not John Brown should be considered a hero. Ask:

  • What do we know about the sources of information and how that might impact the interpretation we develop?

6. Discuss how the background of the sources’ authors might impact our interpretation. Discuss the interpretive nature of history and how authorship of documents impacts the interpretations of past events, people, or ideas.


Assess students’ understanding of the lesson, distribute Resource Sheet 6 and instruct students to complete the activity.