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Unlocking the Secrets of Myths


Every society has stories it passes down to its children. These stories often reflect the values and beliefs of the society and help preserve the society's history. Many of these stories, even if they are based on fact, are myths: stories that are erroneous or fictitious, but traditional and widely-held. Even though myths aren't usually accurate retellings of historical events, there is value in studying these stories. They provide insight into the historical period in which they were created. They give us some indication of who we are and would like to be, reflect our values, and represent our ideals. We can study myths to gain an understanding of how our values endure even as the stories change.

In this lesson, students analyze three common myths about early America and create a foldable showing the historical events upon which they are based, the values they espouse, and the relationship between reality and the ideal represented by the myth.


In this lesson, students will:

  • examine a set of myths that have become part of American cultural memory.
  • use primary source texts and images to determine the values promoted by the myths.
  • compare the myths to the historical reality.
  • describe how these myths represent American values and society.


  • Download Lesson Materials (PDF)
  • Myth Images
  • Myth Primary Sources
  • Graphic Organizer
  • Legal-size paper (8 1/2" x 14")
  • Scissors
  • Glue
  • The History Behind the Myths (teacher reference)


  1. Divide the class into pairs. Give each pair a legal-size sheet of paper.
  2. Have each pair of students place their piece of paper in front of them long-ways (horizontally). Have students fold their papers so the short ends meet in the middle. When they unfold it, they'll have three sections.
  3. Tell students they will be making a foldable about American myths and their role in reflecting historical events and the values of the society. Introduce students to the idea of myths using information from the Introduction.
  4. Display the “First Thanksgiving” image for the class. Tell students this is an example of a myth.
    • Ask students what is happening in the picture.
    • Begin a discussion of what really happened using the teacher resource.
    • Ask students why such a painting would have been created. What is the artist trying to say about early Americans? Lead students to the idea of myths as showing values.
  5. Discuss and generate a list of values that represent our American society. Have students write that list on the left-hand panel of their unfolded paper.
  6. Give each pair a picture of a myth, the related summary, and the graphic organizer.
  7. Have students fold their paper closed again and write the name of the myth across the two "doors."
  8. Next, ask pairs to complete boxes 1-4 of their graphic organizers by analyzing the myth image and the primary source. If desired, put pairs with the same myth into groups and have them fill out their graphic organizers cooperatively.
  9. Review the myths one at a time, using the teacher reference to tell students what really happened. Discuss with the class: were they surprised? What are the main differences between the myth and the real story? What are the advantages of each?
  10. Pairs should complete the final two boxes of the graphic organizer based on the class discussion.
  11. When the students have completed the graphic organizer, instruct them to cut around the outside frame and glue the organizer into the middle section of their foldable.
  12. Have students glue the image of their myth to the back of the foldable.
  13. Summarize the lesson with the students considering the impact myths have on our knowledge of history and the values that we supposedly hold as a society. Ask students to write their summaries on the right-hand panel of their open foldables.

Lesson Extension

Ask students what other "history myths" they know, and discuss those myths as a class.

This lesson was written by Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Master Teachers Ron Adkisson, Prospect, KY, and Teresa Potter, Oklahoma City, OK.