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Bringing History to Life in the Classroom

Outside the Box Teaching Ideas


Bringing History to Life in the ClassroomThe other night I was attending the “meet and greet” with my daughter's teachers at her high school. We were given our child's schedule, and we were asked to follow their daily routine. An announcement would signal the transition from one period to the next.

I had the opportunity to sit down and talk with my daughter's history teacher, “Ms. Jones.” Ms. Jones was full of excitement as she showed me the class syllabus and shared the upcoming activities and projects her class would be completing this year. Ms. Jones informed me about some ideas she had to engage her students in relating the past with current events. This included using music (an all time favorite), literature, current films, field trips, etc. I for one wanted to join the class and absorb all that Ms. Jones had to offer.

Why? I love history!  The good, the bad, and the ugly parts of history. It is like reading one big bedtime story with many unsavory antagonists and a hopeful, life-changing protagonist. What's not to like?         

Sadly, my daughter does not like history. She claims it is boring! She joins the ranks of hundreds of students who do not like learning about history. Perhaps it is the methods in which it is taught or perhaps it is the content of the material that makes it “boring.”  Regardless of the reason, history should be one of those subjects that opens the door for class discussions, debates, dramas, projects, and my personal favorite, creative writing.

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What can we do to help students overcome the boredom of history, bring history to life? Here are some things I have done in my classroom to overcome the doldrums of history.

Gettysburg Address

I remember having to teach the Gettysburg Address to my fifth grade class one year. I was met with heavy sighs, moans, groans, and disgruntled students. Before we dove into “Four Score and Seven Years Ago,” we did a little research on Abraham Lincoln.

I had my students make top hats and fake beards. We took turns standing on a small step stool (to imitate standing on the back of a train) and slowly but surely began piecing together one of the most famous presidential speeches of all time. The students loved imitating Lincoln and as we learned the speech the students began to ask questions as to why the words were written in this manner, what did they mean, and who was he addressing.

One small course requirement turned into a lesson with much greater content. All it took was reviving Lincoln!

Bringing History to Life in the ClassroomWhen in Rome

Our history curriculum at one time was based on ancient history. To bring the culture of Greek and Roman to a greater level of understanding, I instituted Greek and Roman day.

At the end of our unit, I made each student a scroll indicating whether they would be Greek or Roman for the day. I had parents donate old sheets and pillow cases to make tunics and togas, we made traditional head wear, jewelry from clay, pipe cleaners, and other craft items, and we even had a Greek/Roman feast.

The students were engaged in activities from writing, acting out Greek tragedies, Olympic Games, and of course my favorite the reenactment of Julius Caesar’s death. Through all of these activities, the students gained such an insight into a culture that has over the years evolved but has not been forgotten. The pictures made a great collage for the hall and later, for my scrapbook.

Student Timeline

When studying a specific time period, where so much is happening, having students create a student timeline is one way to ensure students are understanding the sequence of events and the effects they had on future events.

For example, in studying the 1920-1940 time periods, there was a great deal to learn.  The manufacturing of automobiles, gangsters, prohibition, jazz music, Suffrage movement, factories, Great Depression, and the New Deal were just a few things that evolved in this time period.

To simplify the events, I divided the events into categories. I had the students research a chosen category (great for written report), and then I set aside a day where the student would present a brief report on the selected topic.

Students were able to dress up, act out, create props, posters, or provide pictures to go with their presentation. While the student was giving his/her presentation, I took a picture for our class time line.

After all students have presented, I had students help me post pictures correctly on the time line. (You can also post their report under their photo for additional information.) This was a great way to involve students in learning sequence of events and learn a little history along the way.

The Great Debate

There are many events throughout history that are considered “Great moments in history”. This is my favorite activity to do with students.

When learning a specific time period or event in history, I like to challenge my students to find other events similar to what we are learning. Once we have found such an event, having the students “debate” which event was/is greater is so much fun.

Using historical facts, cause and effect, dates, details, and reenactments if needed, students present their case. Not only does this encourage research skills, but it is also a method to improve oral presentation skills, compare and contrast skills (a little grammar lesson), and opens the door for great insight and class discussion. 

Posing questions such as “Which had a greater impact on the U.S.  WWI or WWII?” before introducing the wars, is a great way to entice student thinking.

Where in the World is Mrs. Conway?

Geography is a difficult subject for many students. When given a map of the United States and having to learn all 50 states and capitals, many students feel overwhelmed. 

To help students have fun learning a specific area, I would give a trivia question (for extra credit or points towards a class reward) describing a place where I would be traveling. Borrowed from the video game and Saturday cartoon Where in the World is Carmen Sandiago, I posted a  large map of the world on a bulletin board with the caption, “Where in the World is Mrs. Conway?”. I then placed a small picture of a plane with my name on the board. At the end of the day, I would post a question about a specific location and the students would have to look it up using atlas or other means. When the answer was given, a pin would be placed on the map.

Bringing History to Life in the ClassroomSpecial Guests Music Makes the World Go 'Round

When I was teaching about India, I have the privilege of having several students whose family originated in India. I asked them to come and share their culture with the class.

Not only did they come and share but they included activities for the students to participate which brought the culture to life.

For example, the art of applying henna in hands and feet is known as Mehendi and it is a very old custom and ancient art form in India. One of the parents brought in materials needed and applied henna to the students' hands.

Another parent showed the students how to make and wrap a turbin, while another handed out treats. The kids loved it!

Another idea, I have yet to try but look forward to adding:

Music Makes the World Go 'Round

Ms. Jones gets all the credit for this idea of combining music and history. Throughout history, music has had its place and tells a story all its own.

For example, what would the world have been like without composers such as Bach, Beethoven, or Mozart? What story did their compositions tell?

Remember the little diddy “In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue”? If it wasn't for this song, I would never remember the date of Columbus' great voyage. Setting dates, facts, people, and events to music is a wonderful way to remember important historical facts.

And just a thought, Batman had his theme song. What if George Washington had a theme song as he was crossing the Delaware, or if Paul Revere as he was riding to give the British warning, what would it be?

You would be amazed at how quickly students would sit down to write a theme song (using historical events of course) for Mr. Washington and Mr. Revere? This not only engages them in the learning, but allows them to use their creativity to enhance their learning experience.

History is a wonderful story just waiting to be told. Engaging students is key. Once they are engaged, learning will take place.


How do you bring history to life in your classroom? Share in the comments section!

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