Bring History To Life: How to Better Connect Students to the Past

The history classroom has a bad reputation in many schools. Students and teachers alike can quickly associate history with rote memorization and an endless stream of dates, figures and events — many of which start to blend together over time. The reality is of course very different. If you can bring history to life, the subject is creative, emotional and personal. It is replete with fascinating people who fought for their lives and died for their beliefs.

Many history instructors go above and beyond to help students step into the shoes of people who lived in the past. Here are some approaches and lesson plan ideas you can use in your own classroom to bring the subject alive.

Use Primary Sources

Instead of relying on a textbook to summarize events and ideas, look for primary sources — or first-person accounts in the form of letters, journal entries, recordings and drawings. 

Primary sources are particularly valuable when helping students connect with historic situations and people. Julia Delacroix, a senior editor at Teaching Tolerance, explains that primary sources are essential to teaching diverse lessons from people of multiple shared experiences. She uses the lives of slaves in America as an example. 

“When we make space for the lived experiences of enslaved people in our classrooms, we don’t just give students a fuller understanding of individual lives…we give them a clearer picture of American history,” Delacroix writes.   

Primary sources can also be used to better understand the thought process and mental headspace of historic figures. 

For example, history teacher Kevin Gregory has students compare two letters Benjamin Franklin wrote to the governor of Massachusetts — one written before and one after the Revolutionary War. Students can notice changes in tone, experience, intent and objectives from the two letters. This opens up the floor to discussion: How did the war change Franklin? How can our emotions or biases cloud our judgment and view of current events? 

There are resources for educators who want to learn how to access more primary sources. Jennifer Boren, an elementary school library media specialist in Tennessee, participated in the  Library of Congress Teaching With Primary Sources Summer Institute. The Library of Congress collects 10,000 new items every day to document primary sources, from letters and news articles to tweets and comics. 

Boren says the experience taught her how to better develop lesson plans with primary sources that can be applied to any grade level. She encourages literature, media and history teachers to apply for the summit (once it is held again post-pandemic.) 

Bring history to life concept

Look for Untold (or Under-Told) Narratives

One challenge that history teachers are working to address is the often-one-sided nature of history lessons. Many textbooks primarily focus on European influence (centering around rich white men). This disconnects students from history who don’t see themselves in the narrative — or at least not in a positive light. 

“Proponents of greater inclusivity in history say that when young people see themselves in the story of our shared past, they not only develop a deeper appreciation of the subject but become more civically active,” writes journalist Holly Korbey, author of “Building Better Citizens.” 

Korbey gives the example of an eighth-grade student, whose family is from the Caribbean, who was excited to hear Caribbean people mentioned for the first time in school. The context, however, was with respect to Christopher Columbus’s genocidal expedition to the New World. Surely there are better ways to teach about Caribbean culture without starting and ending with colonization? 

Sarina Behar Natkin, parent educator and licensed independent clinical social worker, wrote an article about helping kids develop a sense of cultural identity at ParentMap. In it, she encourages parents to pass down stories and lore, but says teachers too can also play a role in highlighting the histories and cultures of students. 

If the only time students learn about their cultures within a historical context is during lessons about genocide and oppression, then those are going to be the stories they internalize. While these events are important, students also need to learn about the contributions of their historic cultures and positive history as well.     

Engage Students With Historical Fiction

History and literature are closely intertwined. Many people would argue that history is literature, with the victor telling the story. Some educators are embracing this idea and using historical fiction to engage students. 

“Good historical fiction opens a dialogue between the past and the present,” Ellen Klages, author of “Out of Left Field,” a story about baseball and the fight for equal rights, writes. “The attitudes of the past, from the more enlightened perspective of a present-day reader, may seem wrong-headed, even ugly…I think it’s important for kids to be aware that the past was often less than savory, that they learn about what actually happened, not what some would like to pretend it was like.”  

Naturally, the context you provide to your students will vary by grade level. Older students especially appreciate learning the truth about some of history’s heroes.

There are many books, poems and media created to highlight historical events. Just look at the popularity of Hamilton as an example. If you can get students reading about history, you can build emotional connections and challenge perspectives about the people in your textbooks. 

“One of the myths in education that involves reading is that students don’t like to read,” Lisa Matherson, Ed.D., clinical assistant professor of social sciences at the University of Alabama, writes. “I have a strong feeling that students in upper elementary, middle, and secondary education settings will tell you they don’t like to read what they are made to read, but love to read what they want to read.”

Kids often start reading historical fiction in picture books when they are first developing their reading skills, but students of all ages can connect with characters and expand their horizons through fiction. 

For a good starting point, Tirzah Price, author of The Jane Austen Murder Mysteries series, curated her 50 must-read historical fiction books that are appropriate for kids. They cover a wide variety of topics and figures so can fit into most lesson plans. 

Spark Creativity With Alternate History

Along with tapping into historical fiction, which provides an artistic context to facts and dates, educators can also use alternative history scenarios to teach cause and effect or to better understand how small events can revolutionize society. 

“History shows us how, by the choices and deeds of individuals and groups, societies and civilizations rise and fall,” Christopher Zehnder, former teacher, now general editor and author at Catholic Textbook Project, writes. “How human choice, influenced by circumstances, environment, and the interplay of human wills, sets individuals and peoples moving along definite trajectories. History is tragedy. It is comedy. It is a tale of triumphs, but also defeats.”

For a good starting point on alternative history ideas, Mark Ball at SciFi Ideas generated 50 alternate history questions you can use to get your students writing creatively and thinking about the repercussions if historical events had taken a different turn.

Some of these scenarios can be discussed with younger learners (like “What if the French decided not to sell the Louisiana territory to the USA?”) and some are more advanced and nuanced, (“What if Charles Darwin had sought political office?”). You can develop in-depth writing and research assignments around these alternate histories or create lesson plans where students hold debates or create plays re-enacting the new historic events.

The questions spark creativity while also encouraging students to think differently and push back on what they are learning. They can ask “what if” in a healthy and safe environment. 

“How much do we ask kids to gather and grasp ideas, versus encourage them to consider them lightly, weigh them, toss them in the air, and open to something new?” asks registered therapeutic counsellor Vince Gowmon, author of “Let the Fire Burn: Nurturing the Creative Spirit of Children.” “How much do we educate to fill their bucket, versus encourage them to empty it and start over?”

Your students may enjoy writing their own history and changing the world through a small prompt where a minor fact or detail from the past is rewritten.

Bring history to life concept

Travel Back in Time

If you want to help students connect with history, bring them back in time. You may think a time travel machine is out of your classroom budget, but some models are surprisingly affordable. 

For example, the team at TimeMaps developed a lesson plan for students who become “time traveling tour guides,” based on the location and period that the class is learning about. Students can design itineraries, create travel brochures, and make a presentation on why a visit to that time period would be exciting and valuable. This is a creative way to think about the past.

Another example is shared by Roy Winkelman at The Florida Center for Instructional Technology. It’s a simple lesson plan involving word bubbles and historical characters. Students are asked to write a sentence or two from the perspective of the character, and then discuss those sentences as a class or in small groups. Do the other students agree that the statements are plausible? Why or why not? 

This activity can be scaled up for older students by asking them to write letters as characters facing different situations.  

Ask Students to Make History Today

One way teachers can help students step into history is by making them realize they are a part of it. High school social studies teacher Bryan Shaw created a shared document teachers can use to help students process the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Students are asked to write a journal entry each day answering questions like, “What is closed in your neighborhood?” or “Did you see anything today that gave you hope?” Journals can become part of a multimedia project including tweets, videos, and news stories, with all of the content documenting the pandemic.

In this way, students of all ages understand that they are a part of history and how historic figures must have felt. The team at Kids News in Australia has a printable activity booklet called “My COVID-19 Story.” It can be expanded into a time capsule project for kids to collect items that are important to them during this time. Students might add a roll of toilet paper to remember the shortage or a mask that they wore to school. This is something students learning remotely can easily do because they are already at home.

If you can build an emotional connection between your students and historic figures, then you can engage them in lessons about events, places and people. History uses more creativity and art than most people realize, which can become powerful tools when discussing the past in classrooms today.

Images by: bowie15/©, jarmoluk, rawpixel/©, PourquoiPas

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