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Mary Jo Wellington

School: Pioneer Charter School

City/State: Fort Collins, CO

Grade(s): 8

Format(s): Character file: Historical

Subject(s): English Language Arts, Social Studies, Visual Arts

Project Overview

8th grade students at the Pioneer Charter School in Fort Collins, Colorado each created a historical character file (HCF) as part of a Learning Expedition on slavery. The process took two months and included multiple drafts of writing and artwork. 

As the students write in their introduction (included as the first page in each student’s “file”), each HCF is a fictionalized account of an historically/geographically accurate character. Each file contains a portrait, a narrative/biography, a character map, a bibliography, and artifacts based on their character’s life.

These HCF encouraged students to truly understand the details of slavery while acknowledging the humanness of slaves. This product/project is a means for exploring history through a deeply personalized accounting of experience.

Students used multiple sources to research their HCF including primary, secondary and expert sources. At the end of this HCF are the resources this student used.

Mary Jo Wellington tells the story of Tatu life as an enslaved woman through a series of letters she wrote to her father. The letters recount her brutal treatment – they end when she leaves in search of freedom on the Underground Railroad. 


Models of Excellence recognizes the challenges of teaching students history that includes sensitive topics such as enslaved people, genocide, and human rights abuses. Student projects that involve topics like this should be planned with care for the emotional safety of students, respect for the people and cultures studied, and should use reliable primary and secondary sources so that content is not built upon assumptions or stereotypes. Written simulations (e.g., fictional diaries or documents) should be closely informed by student research, fieldwork, and adult experts. 

How This Project Can Be Useful

  • Highlights a format that allows for a deeply personalized account of an historical period
  • A unique and engaging way for students to explore a topic and show the depth of their knowledge and understanding
  • Format contains multiple components, each allowing for some degree of student choice, to increase student interest and input
  • Contains an unusually helpful introductory project overview, which combines a few words from the teacher as well as orienting concepts from the students
  • Writing style is engaging and carefully done
  • Compelling combination of writing, portraiture and the creation of artifacts
  • Highlights the candid exploration of troubling topics
  • Portrait of historical character is very well done
  • Demonstrates a format in which individual work can be assessed

Common Core State Standards

Standard Long Term Learning Target
  • I can use correct grammar and usage when writing or speaking.
  • I can intentionally use verbs in active and passive voice and in the conditional and subjunctive mood.
  • I can use resources to build my vocabulary.
  • I can produce clear and coherent writing that is appropriate to task, purpose and audience.
  • EL has not created long-term learning targets for WHST standards.
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