Phony Document Reading Strategy with Julius Caesar

One of the reading strategies I really enjoy using is called Phony Document, which I’ve taken from the book Content Area Literacy: An Integrated Approach by Thomas W. Bean, John E. Readence, and R. Scott Baldwin. In a nutshell, the teacher creates a document that sounds highly credible and authentic, but it’s entirely made up. There are a number of forms that this can actually take, but I’m going to share one I use before I teach Julius Caesar.

One of the things we do before reading Shakespeare’s play is to read an excerpt from Plutarch’s biography on the historical Julius Caesar. I do this in part because Julius Caesar is a hefty play both in terms of language and themes for ninth and tenth graders (the two grades I’ve taught it with) to grasp, so I frontload with as many historical details and pre-reading activities as possible before we delve into the play itself. After reading Plutarch’s biography, I present them with a critique of Plutarch’s account written by a “Dr. Shripner,” who is the writing clone, if you will, of a mother I know who lives on an island with her LCB and three small people. The critique is as follows.

Excerpt from Dr. James Shripner’s Commentary on Plutarch’s Biography of Julius Caesar

While Julius Caesar has many biographers, perhaps the most famous and reputable of them all is Plutarch. In particular, Plutarch’s compelling account of the days leading up to Caesar’s assassination has, in the past, been considered to be largely accurate. Despite this, however, there are any number of contemporary scholars who question the validity of his account. Due to several inconsistencies and more than one testimony that pushes the bounds of rational thought, the authenticity of Plutarch’s biography needs to be thoroughly reexamined by a new body of scholars.

The section of the biography that has received the most scrutiny in recent years is the account of the supernatural events that occurred directly before Caesar’s assassination. The least controversial details of this section are the descriptions of the lights in the sky and the crashing sounds, which can fairly easily be explained as a severe storm of sorts. Much more controversial are the eyewitness accounts of men on fire walking through the streets. According to Plutarch, one man even walked the streets with his arm on fire, but when the fire was extinguished, his arm remained unharmed. Furthermore, skeptics question the philosopher Strabo’s claim that when Caesar made an animal sacrifice, the animal’s heart was missing, as this certainly goes against the laws of nature.

Another widely questioned aspect of Plutarch’s account of Caesar’s death involves the soothsayer. According to Plutarch, witnesses say a soothsayer warned Caesar of a great danger that would befall him on March 15. When March 15 came, Caesar seemed to think he was out of danger, but the soothsayer reminded him that the day was not yet over. Shortly after, Caesar was in fact murdered in the Senate. Before the actual murder, however, the soothsayer again tried to warn him by handing him a small document warning him of the plot against him. Caesar apparently appeared to attempt to open the document to read it, but was distracted by the people who kept wishing to speak to him. While the soothsayers were not uncommon in Caesar’s day, it is questionable as to whether one would have been able to get as close to the great Caesar as this soothsayer is said to have done.

Finally, according to Plutarch, during the actual assassination of Caesar, apparently everyone who supported his leadership (and there were more than a few who did) stood stunned and made no effort to stop his assassination. This, a growing number of scholars believe, is the most implausible part of Plutarch’s biography. How is it possible that all of his friends stood by and watched while he was stabbed some thirty-three times? Did the statue of Pompey really become “drenched in his blood” while all his friends watched and did nothing? If only he had been stabbed once or twice, perhaps the case could be made that there was not enough time to respond to his death. However, is it really believable that all of his friends, even Antony, were “too afraid to even utter a word” during the entire stabbing and after the stabbing were too afraid to leave the Senate to notify the outside world? While technically possible, this seems improbable, leading many to add this scene to the list of questionable details in Plutarch’s biography.

I’m a terrible person, really, so I must confess I have frightening amounts of fun with this. Before we begin reading, I casually start throwing out comments like, “Have any of you heard of or seen Dr. Shripner? He’s one of the most famous historians of our day, with regular gigs on the History Channel and several major news networks. He’s pretty geeky, you know, as you might expect, tweed jackets with elbow patches and all that good stuff.” I paint a predictable picture, and inevitably, a few heads start nodding in recognition and often a student or two will “remember” seeing him on TV. I try not to get too exuberant about the whole thing, but, well, that’s usually a futile attempt on my part.

Within the document itself, I imbedded two or arguably three mistakes. It is extremely telling to note which students notice the mistakes and which ones actually voice their observations.

After we read the commentary and discuss it, I reveal that Dr. Shripner is a figment of my imagination. After the initial uproar subsides (more fun for everyone ;)), I ask students to explain why they believed Dr. Shripner was real and credible prior to my revelation. Their reasons usually go something like this:

  1. Our teacher acted like Dr. Shripner was both real and respected in his field.
  2. He sounds like he knows what he’s talking about.
  3. He has a doctorate.
  4. He uses big words.
  5. He sounds kind of geeky like our teacher. (Okay, they don’t actually say this, but surely they think it.)
  6. What reason would I have for questioning it?

This is the fodder for potentially endless discussions on evaluating the credibility of everything from their future college professors to internet sources. More than anything, it encourages students to be critical readers, listeners, and thinkers, but our subsequent discussions also reinforce key details in the events leading up to Caesar’s assassination. Furthermore, I do a great deal with the use of persuasion within the play itself, so we discuss the persuasive elements of both Plutarch’s account and Shripner’s commentary. 

It’s highly enjoyable stuff for geeks like me. (Just to qualify the depth of my geekiness, I’ve rewritten two acts of Shakespeare’s plays just for fun. Y’all don’t know the half.)

If no students bring up the embedded mistakes of their own volition, which sometimes happens, I ask if anyone wants to challenge anything in the commentary. We then go through the mistakes individually.

The mistakes are as follows:

  1. The soothsayer did warn Caesar about the Ides of March, but it was Artemidorus who gave Caesar the letter of warning, not the soothsayer.
  2. The other senators did not attempt to stop the assassination, but they did flee the Senate as it finished rather than being “too afraid to leave.”
  3. This is a small variation, but in Plutarch’s biography, he mentions eyewitnesses that saw a man walking through the streets of Rome with his hand on fire. Dr. Shripner claims that Plutarch said the man’s arm was on fire. It’s a small distinction, but your more detail-oriented students will get hung up on this discrepancy.

You can certainly modify this strategy as needed, by perhaps including incorrect analysis or incorrect terminology, for instance, instead of incorrect information. How you craft your phony document would depend on your goals for the lesson. The only downside is that once you’ve used the strategy, the jig is up, so it’s difficult and probably inadvisable to reuse it with the same group.

Interestingly, it’s been over two months since I introduced my students to my friend Dr. Shripner. And yet yesterday, with a new lesson I presented that included some historical information, my students started asking if I was pulling a “Shripner” on them and making up parts of the information to challenge them.

Didn’t I love that.

2 Comment

  1. This is so cool! What a great idea! I’ll need to do this with my kids when they get to that section in our lit studies. If we ever get there. We’ll get there, right? At some point? Before I lose my sanity? (That’s assuming I have some.)

    1. You’ll get there. Not that I know from personally experience, as my oldest is only ten. But, reportedly, it’s how things go. I can’t speak to the sanity issue, however, other than to note that it seems as if you have the appropriate amount. Besides, in the end, some of those types of things are highly overrated. At least I hope.

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