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Home > Education > Online Learning > William Bradford: the Pen & the Person  

the pen & the person
Curriculum unit for grades 9-12
Subjects: History, Writing, Literature, Civics and Government, Ethics

Introduction for educators
Pilgrim William Bradford was the long-time leader of the Plymouth Colony. His ability to manage men and affairs was a significant factor in the survival and success of the colony.

William Bradford kept a journal. From that journal, he wrote his history of Plymouth Colony, now known as Of Plymouth Plantation. It is a first-hand account of the Pilgrim adventure: from the decision to move to Holland and then to America, through the Mayflower voyage and establishment of the little settlement of Plymouth, to the expansion and growth of Plymouth Colony. Bradford himself referred to his history as an "unfolding." The events he recorded were sometimes momentous, sometimes humble. He wrote of colony and business matters and, occasionally, of his own thoughts. In his later years, William Bradford also wrote poetry, describing his life and his emotions.

In this unit, students will read passages written by William Bradford. The original 17th century language and spelling have been maintained. The selection of readings is determined both by the historical significance of the event described and accessibility to high school students. The focus of the unit, both the readings and the supporting activities, is to impart the ability to follow and absorb historical accounts so as to reflect thoughtfully upon them. Students will explore the writings of William Bradford for insights into the nature and limitations of primary source materials and for insights into Bradford’s character and the nature of personal leadership.

This unit consists of 7 lessons:
1. Meet Bradford & His Journal provides an introduction to the nuances of keeping a journal.

2. Memory & History leads students to examine the nature of memory using personal experience and contrasting 17th century accounts of a single event.

3. Writing in the Plain Style introduces students to Bradford’s 17th century writing style.

4. Class Journal engages students in creating a class journal, "A week in the life of…"

5. Poetry as History examines poetry as an alternative means of commemorating events.

6. Bradford the Person uses Bradford’s writings to discover clues to his personal character.

7. Bradford the Leader uses Bradford’s writings to analyze the nature of successful leadership.

Educational Objectives:
1. Students will become familiar with the craft of the historian by framing questions that can be answered by historical evidence and drawing conclusions from primary sources.

2. Students will understand the importance and limitations of primary sources in forming conclusions about the past.

3. Students will become acquainted with a complex and rich writing style. By evaluating and using this material for writing exercises, students will enrich the style & content of their own writing.

4. Through reading first-hand accounts of the 17th century, students will have the opportunity to examine their personal value system and to enter into the point of view of others.

5. Students will consider the nature of personal leadership by discussing such elements as choice, cooperation, purposeful effort, flexibility, authority and responsibility.

6. Students will discuss and evaluate the power of ideas in shaping history.

7. Students will analyze the roles of work, community spirit, individual choices, personal character, and religious belief for the survival of Plymouth Colony.

1. Meet William Bradford and His Journal
Vocabulary & concepts to be defined:

  • journal
  • record
  • document
  • colony
  • governor
  • first-hand
  • primary source
  • historian
  • manuscript

Classroom reading assignments:
Who was William Bradford?
What is the Bradford Journal?

Classroom discussion questions:
What is a journal?
What does it do?
What other ways have people of the past used to record their reactions to events?
How do people of the early 21st century record their reactions to events?
How can poetry be used to express emotions?
How are poetry and a journal alike? How do they differ?

2. Memory & History
Classroom activity:

Each student should list four significant activities that took place in the classroom on the previous day. The teacher should then list the chosen activities on the board.

Classroom discussion questions:
Does everyone in the class agree about what were the four most memorable activities of the class?
Why did different students choose different activities?
Is there any disagreement about what actually happened on the previous day? Do the details of everyone’s memory agree?
If your 4 memorable activities were going to be recorded and then read by a descendant 400 years later, would you choose the same 4 activities to be remembered by?
What is memory?
What triggers our memories?
Are memories trustworthy?
Why are memories important?

Activity continued:
Link to Primary Sources for Thanksgiving
Read two accounts of the autumn of 1621. The first is William Bradford’s memory of the autumn of 1621 as written in his journal 20 years later. The second is Edward Winslow’s account of the autumn of 1621 written within weeks of the actual events.

Answer these two questions:
In what way do the two accounts differ?
What reasons could there be for the two accounts differing so significantly?

Writing assignment:
Write a single unified description of the events of the autumn of 1621, combining the two 17th century accounts.

3. Writing in the "Plain Style"
Vocabulary & concepts to be defined:

  • imagery
  • metaphor
  • figure of speech
  • clarity

Classroom activity:
William Bradford wrote in a particular style known as the "Plain Style." This style emphasized simple sentences and the use of everyday words. It avoided elaborate images and figures of speech. The goal was clarity of thought.

The first lines of Bradford’s Journal (using Bradford’s own spelling) read
"Of Plimoth Plantation. And first of ye occasion and indusments ther unto; the which, that I may truly unfould, I must begine at ye very root & rise of ye same. The which I shall endevor to manefest in a plaine stile, with singuler regard unto ye simple trueth in all things, at least as near as my slender judgmente can attaine the same."

Rewrite Bradford’s lines in modern English, using correct modern spelling.
Next, rewrite the lines in your own language. Is your version longer or shorter than Bradford’s?
Students contrast and compare their "rewrites."

Writing assignment:
One striking example of William Bradford’s use of the "Plain Style" occurs in his concise yet dramatic description of the Pilgrim exploring party, caught in the shallop in a storm and eventually finding its way to Clarks Island. The clarity and power of Bradford’s passage is particularly remarkable because the passage was only written once! William Bradford was writing by hand, in ink. Every sentence had to be carefully composed before he wrote. There was no opportunity for rewriting or correction -- and no "Delete" key!

Read Bradford’s description of the exploring party caught in a storm.

Write one paragraph about a personal memory of your own. The last sentence should sum up why the memory is so vivid. Write this paragraph in your own style, as if you were telling the story to a friend. Then, using William Bradford’s writing as a guide, take this paragraph and rewrite it in the plain style. Use simple sentences, use everyday words, avoid elaborate images and figures of speech.

4. Class Journal
Writing assignment:
Students begin their own handwritten, seven-day journals. Class time may be designated initially, with at-home time over the weekend or for final entries. Suggested topics include weather, descriptions of places, class activities and field trips, events in which the writer participates.

Classroom activity:
Compile individual journals into a composite class journal (A Week in the life of…). Artistically-minded students then prepare the class journal in 17th century-style penmanship (see Of Plymouth Plantation for a sampling of the lettering used). The lettering can be done either by hand or using computer graphics, or a combination of techniques, with appropriate decorations.

When the project is complete, students sum up their discoveries about written records and the way in which language interprets events.

5. Poetry as History
Vocabulary and concepts to be defined Vocabulary and concepts to be defined:

  • poetic meter
  • iambic pentameter
  • rhyme scheme

Reading assignment:
Along with his journal, Bradford tried his hand at writing poetry. Although his verse is stiff and awkward, it reveals his abiding wonder, a specific designation of himself as a pilgrim, and a lifelong sense of mission. Read a poem written by William Bradford:

Certain verses left by the honored William Bradford, Esq.
governor of the jurisdiction of Plimouth, penned by his own hand

From my years young in days of youth,
God did make known to me his truth,
And call'd me from my native place
For to enjoy the means of grace.
In wilderness he did me guide,
And in strange lands for me provide.
In fears and wants, through weal and woe,
A pilgrim, passed I to and fro:
Oft left of them whom I did trust;
How vain it is to rest on dust!
A man of sorrows I have been,
And many changes have I seen.
Wars, wants, peace, plenty, have I known;
And some advanc'd, others thrown down.
The humble poor, cheerful and glad;
Rich, discontent, sower and sad:

When fears and sorrow have been mixt,
Consolations came betwixt.
Faint not, poor soul, in God still trust,
Fear not the things thou suffer must;
For, whom he loves he doth chastise,
And then all tears wipes from their eyes.
Farewell, dear children, whom I love,
Your better Father is above:
When I am gone, he can supply;
To him I leave you when I die.
Fear him in truth, walk in his ways,
And he will bless you all your days.
My days are spent, old age is come,
My strength it fails, my glass near run.
Now I will wait, when work is done,
Until my happy change shall come,
When from my labors I shall rest,
With Christ above for to be blest.

from Nathaniel Morton's New Englands Memoriall

Bradford was not the only English emigrant to New England to write poetry. Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672) was born in England and emigrated with her husband to Massachusetts Bay Colony (north of Plymouth) in 1630. Anne Bradstreet is regarded as one of the great 17th century poets. Her shorter poems in particular are genuine and heartfelt, even though they are based on the formal poetic conventions of the time. Read Anne Bradstreet’s poem To My Dear and Loving Husband:

If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man were lov'd by wife, then thee.
If ever wife was happy in a man,
Compare with me, ye women, if you can.
I prize thy love more than whole Mines of gold
Or all the riches that the East doth hold.
My love is such that Rivers cannot quench,
Nor ought but love from thee give recompence.
Thy love is such I can no way repay.
The heavens reward thee manifold, I pray.
Then while we live, in love let's so persever
That when we live no more, we may live ever.

Classroom discussion questions:
Is Bradford’s poem written by a young man or an old man? Why?

To what does Bradford attribute his peace of mind? What is his attitude towards suffering and disappointments?

Unlike the Plain Style used in his journal, in his poetry Bradford uses figures of speech. What are some of the poetic images Bradford uses?

Anne Bradstreet and William Bradford used the same rhyme scheme (aa, bb, cc) and the same meter (iambic pentameter). The two poems, however, are very different in their use of language. What are some of those differences?

Contrast Bradford’s use of imagery with Bradstreet’s use of imagery? Who uses richer and more vivid language? Which poem is more emotional?

Which poems seems more personal? Which poem gives you a better picture of the writer’s character?

What do you think motivated each of these authors to write their poetry?

6. Bradford the Person
Vocabulary & concepts to be defined Vocabulary & concepts to be defined:

  • personality
  • character
  • attributes
  • motivation

We have no real idea of what William Bradford looked like. No artist ever painted Bradford’s portrait during his lifetime. The only clues we have to his personality are from his own words and the opinion of those who knew him.

Reading assignment:
Read these passages from William Bradford’s journal looking for clues into the personal character of William Bradford:

Writing assignment:
Draw up a list of 10 adjectives that describe William Bradford as a person, citing the passages and reasoning that justify your choices.

Classroom discussion questions:
What was the main motivating factor in William Bradford’s life?
Would you have wanted William Bradford as a father? As a friend?
Compare and contrast the lists of adjectives that each student compiled. Have the class agree on a unified list of 10 adjectives.

7. Bradford the Leader
Vocabulary and concepts to be defined: Vocabulary and concepts to be defined:

  • integrity
  • justice
  • honesty
  • conscientiousness
  • courage
  • altruism
  • flexibility

Reading assignment:
Reread these passages, looking for attributes of William Bradford as the leader of Plymouth Colony:

Writing assignment:
Draw up a list of 10 adjectives that describe William Bradford as a leader, citing the passages and reasoning that justify your choices.

Classroom discussion questions:
Compare and contrast the lists of adjectives that each student compiled. Have the class agree on a unified list of 10 adjectives describing William Bradford’s attributes as a leader.

How can a single historical character make a difference to other people?

Actions sometimes lead to unintended consequences. How did the settlement of Boston ultimately impact unfavorably (in Bradford’s view) on Plymouth? Could these unfavorable results have been avoided?

What MIGHT have happened to Plymouth Colony without wise leadership? What were some of the particular challenges that Bradford’s leadership solved?

Would William Bradford be a good leader today?

Do the attributes of an ideal leader change over time? Vary with circumstances?

Can you think of other examples of people being motivated to action by the ideas and leadership of individuals?

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