Book review: History’s Mysteries (Alphabet Publishing)

Mysterious creatures, unsolved crimes, disappearances, conspiracies. My YouTube viewing history is full of this stuff. I’ve watched pretty much every episode of Thoughty2, most of Geographics, the grizzliest That Chapters… With this in mind, it should come as no surprise that I LOVE Alphabet Publishing’s latest resource.

History’s Mysteries is a collection of history-themed readings for the ELT classroom aimed at high-school and college students. They’ve been compiled by (among others) Taylor Sapp, whose ‘Stories Without End’ is one of my favourite classroom resources. Just like with SWE, this new book is bursting with engaging and exploitable content that my students will really enjoy. In fact, it covers a lot of angles, being great for vocab building, an awesome springboard for project work and research, a useful resource for developing digital literacy, aaaaah quit with the gushing praise, Pete. Tell us more about the book!

Each of the 40 ‘chapters’ in History’s Mysteries centres around a text exploring a puzzling/controversial/interesting event in history. The chapters are grouped into eight sections which include ‘Monsters and Mysterious Creatures’, ‘Heroes and Villains’, ‘Unsolved Crimes’, ‘Aliens’ and so on. Some of the content will be familiar: Bigfoot, The Loch Ness Monster, crop circles, you know the stuff. Some less so: Dyatlov Pass Incident, museum heists, random Picasso sculptures, ancient art from Botswana. There were some that I personally found informative too – things like the assassination of Lyuh Woon-Hyung and the Osage Indian Murders.

The content is broad ranging yet (importantly) there’s enough familiarity in parts for it to work as a supp for the English National Curriculum (or perhaps another mainstream curriculum). There are texts linking to WW2 (History, KS3), Shakespeare (English Lit KS3/4), lost colonies and settlements (Geography KS3), Hoaxes (KS2), Victorian England (History, KS3) and so on. This makes it a really useful book in an EAL context to keep literacy development in extra lessons relevant to curricular topics but not treading on the subject teacher’s toes. They’ve also chosen some more recent topics too (e.g. Slender Man) which might hook the learners. Wait, that’s not actually recent is it? I’m getting old.

What’s done around the text in each chapter? Well…

  • There’s your typical context building questions at first
  • There’s a vocabulary pre-teach task (just as with Sapp’s SWE resource) which is useful and of course the teacher can adapt if needed. I like that there a few follow up questions related the vocab once introduced, but not overkill.
  • Then comes the (enhanced) text which end in a call-to-action (‘Your mission as the reader is…’)
  • Comprehension questions follow
  • Then discussion questions…
  • And finally a kind of ‘ideas bank’ for possible projects and follow up tasks.

I bet these were fun to write tbh. While the texts appear graded at times, I’d say most of the resources aim high. That said, there’s a good level of scaffolding overall and visual support at the right times. The range of follow-up tasks is also quite broad, with the vocab building and graphic organiser activities the most useful.

Interview questions to ask classmates are used a lot in the suggested projects sections – this could be seen as a bit repetitive, although there are always other task choices, and learners might appreciate the familiarity if using the resource regularly. I’d have called the project bit ‘tasks’ or ‘extension tasks’ perhaps as not all suggestions are project-based. To be honest, I don’t think that really matters though as teachers can let learners run with some of the task ideas and they may evolve into a more substantial focused project – just something worth considering.

So, that activity flow that I just described – there are 40 of them in the book. FORTY. Nuts. Given how engaging most of the topics are and how much use we will get out of it in/out of class, I’d say $22 is a very fair price. But there’s more…

There’s a supps section with the bulk the activities focusing on media literacy, research skills, and developing criticality. This section is versatile  – I can see it being used across the Humanities and would be the most applicable aspect of the resource to a mainstream classroom. As most examples given are (naturally) History-focused they might need some adapting, but the ideas as a whole in this section are excellent.

My favourite activity in the supps was one on logical fallacies. It explains eight common fallacies (cherry picking, ad hominem, strawman, whataboutism, etc) and guides the learner towards identifying these in a text:

This type of criticality is not something I’ve taught/needed to teach often in my previous contexts, but need to now so it’s great to have some ideas for how to approach it.

Any areas for development?

Ummm. Well, topics do lean towards more ‘Western’ events (couldn’t think of the right term) making some of them less relevant in my context. I guess if there were one thing I’d improve it might be to include more events from my part of the world (Asia). That said, it really does depend on the target audience, and there are still enough events that are globally relevant to make the resource worthwhile in a range of contexts.

I now feel harsh saying that. Let, me think of another improvement… I guess I wasn’t sure how the ‘Your Mission’ (call-to-action) bits worked exactly. They are tagged onto the main text, which reads as a ‘brief’ like it’s written to an ‘agent of History’, so it’s part of the imaginary role…

… but then I was like ‘Okay, so… should I get the learners to do something with this? Like… Maybe some free writing to imagine what happened, or some research into the suspects, or… Is it just there to give the text the feel of being for a real audience?’ I had ideas for how to exploit these sections, I just wasn’t sure exactly what the authors intention was. No biggie though, I just glossed over them and used the project ideas as they were clearer.

Overall

How do they do it? Another awesome resource from Alphabet Publishing, and another with Taylor Sapp’s stamp of quality all over it. With so many authors involved in the book and such a range of resources, I’d have thought they’d have priced it higher. Luckily for us they haven’t! I see this resource as great for teens, with many chapters suitable for lower Secondary (ages 12-14) and all resources suited to upper Secondary (context dependent of course). It would also complement a mainstream curriculum and would be perfect for a History/Conspiracy Theories/’Delve Deeper’ type extra-curricular activity.

Love it. Highly recommended.

ELT Planning rating: 4.7 / 5

Link to book here

Aside: I do love Thoughty2 and That Chapter, but I think Lemmino do a better job with the Dyatlov Pass Incident. See below if interested:



Categories: General, reviews

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3 replies

  1. As a true-crime obsessed millennial, I love this. One day I will use one of these ideas as a “break” from the syllabus.

    Liked by 1 person

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