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Cold Cases: Did Byrd Fly over the North Pole in 1926?

On May 9, 1926, Richard E. Byrd announced that he and copilot Floyd Bennett were the first to fly an airplane over the North Pole. Though Byrd’s claim was questioned by some during the time, doubters became more vocal after Byrd’s death in 1957. The Richard E. Byrd Papers contain many documents including diaries, letters, and reports pertaining to this controversy. Students will analyze, synthesize and evaluate primary source documents to determine whether or not Byrd flew over the North Pole in 1926.

Lesson Plan


Map of Byrd's flight over the North Pole in 1926

Instructional Unit:

Social Studies Skills and Methods

Grade Level:

9th & 10th


Students will analyze, synthesize and evaluate primary source documents to determine whether or not Richard Byrd flew over the North Pole in 1926.


Three to Four Days (3-4 x 45 min.)

Materials and Resources:

  • Primary Source Materials
  • Handout, “Did Byrd Reach the North Pole?” OR butcher block paper
  • Handout, “Overview of the Controversy”
  • Handout, “Cast of Characters”
  • Description of Primary Sources (Teacher Guide)
  • Rubric
  • Post-it notes
  • Pen and paper

Warm up activity:

(15-20 minutes)
Olympic athletes are under huge pressure to win. Even before they attend the Olympics, prominent athletes are offered endorsements, air time, and celebrity status. Winning will also bestow greater fame, prestige, fortune and opportunities.
Ask students, “Would you cheat if there was a chance of getting caught but the rewards were great? Explain.”
Have students write answers and explanations on post-its. Put on opposite ends of chalk/white board to show contrast. Teacher will read, discuss student answers.

Instructional steps:

  1. Overview of Byrd Controversy (15 minutes) Break students into groups of four. They will remain in these groups for subsequent activities. Give each student the “Overview of the Controversy” handout. Ask students to read the handout quietly, then ask students what they learned and record it on the front board or a large post-it for a quick review on day two.
  2. Preview of the Day Two activities. (5 minutes) The instructor should explain that student groups will be examining primary source documents on day two to collect evidence about whether or not Byrd actually flew over the North Pole in 1926.
DAY TWO (one to two days)
  1. Briefly review what students learned about the Byrd controversy on Day One.
  2. Place student in groups (same groups from Day One): Groups and stations can be set up according to teacher’s discretion, but the following is suggested for a group of 28 students: assign students into groups of 4. Set up seven stations with 2 primary source documents per station. There should be 2 copies of each primary source document, so that groups can examine the documents in “pairs”. If student groups are give 6 minutes per station, this activity will take one 42 minute class period.
  3. Student Activity: Students should examine the primary source documents and use the “Did Byrd reach the North Pole” worksheet OR butcher block paper to record evidence that supports or refutes the idea that Byrd reached the North Pole.
  4. Group Discussion: Once all student groups have examined the documents, allow students to discuss and form a position statement in their groups (suggested time: 10 min.): Did Byrd fly over the North Pole? Once the discussion is finished, students should write individual position statement reflecting their opinion/judgment about whether Byrd reached the North Pole.
  1. Explanation of final project As a final product, each student will select one of the following activities to support their position statement. It is important for the instructor to emphasize that student projects must incorporate evidence from the primary sources that supports their position statement, but must also anticipate AND incorporate evidence from the opposing side.
    • Travel log/diary Daily observations, thoughts, and drawings.
    • Letter from Byrd From Beyond the Grave.
    • Many of Byrd’s critics were suspicious of the authenticity of his expedition, but only aired their suspicions after he died. If Byrd could write a letter from beyond the grave, would he refute their arguments or confess?
    • Utilizing pictures from The Ohio State University Archive: Byrd Polar Research Center, create a photo story project illustrating the student’s thesis.
    • Skit (with written script)
    • Song
  2. Instructor reviews rubric and requirement with students

Extension Activity:

  1. Four Corners Activity – label each corner of your classroom “Agree”, “Strongly Agree”, “Disagree”, “Strongly Disagree”. “Neutral” will be in the middle of the room. Teacher will make the following type of provocative statement: “Byrd never flew over the North Pole.” Students are asked to go to a corner (or center) of the room that most closely matches their opinion. Teacher then encourages students to debate the statement.
  2. Blog (suggested website for teachers: http://www.blogger.com) Teacher sets up a classroom blog and posts a statement to which all students are required to respond.