Wednesday, January 6, 2010

How to Make History Come Alive in the Classroom

Teachers can probably all guess the reaction of students when they hear the words, “Take out your history books and turn to page….” Before the location in the text book is even announced, many children in the class have tuned out. We have lost them before we have begun! Instead of listening to the bored sighs and watching as kids doodle on their notebooks or daydream out the window, we should make it our responsibility as teachers to take a more proactive role. It is high time teachers everywhere make history come alive for students in our classrooms.
Perhaps the best way to achieve a more exciting atmosphere about history studies is to get excited and creative yourself. If you are bored your students will likely be as well. Don’t be afraid to venture out from your established routine. Let the textbook be a reference book and a starting point, rather than the center of the curriculum. Focus on the essential names and dates instead of forced memorization of multiple isolated facts. History is such a large body of knowledge that we can’t possibly teach them everything, and many of the things we do, if not given meaning, will soon be forgotten.

Teach recurring themes, such as progress, conflict, and resolution, and relate new information to those larger concepts. Encourage discussion about how a new history lesson relates to one just learned and to broader concepts. In math we teach how fractions and decimals are similar, or how addition and subtraction are related, but teachers often fail to make these associations with history. The more mental connections students can make, the more learning will make sense and retention will improve.

Another great way to liven up your history curriculum, or at least its delivery, is to incite emotion. We all remember events much easier if they are tied to strong emotions, either positive or negative. The stories of the past can be told in ways that emphasize the joy, fear, pain, and excitement of the characters involved. Have students imagine what it must have felt like to travel on the Santa Maria with Christopher Columbus. Was the crew frightened or exhilarated at the thought of traveling across the unknown sea? What did the Native Americans feel like when they first encountered the English settlers? Were they nervous or intrigued or angry?

Using all of the five senses is another way to breathe new life into the past. Show illustrations, photographs, and video. If a historical event is in the relatively recent past, listen to a primary source who was actually there and witnessed the action. Listen to the music of the era being studied. Sample some dishes of the time period. Bring in historical artifacts or reproductions for the students to feel in their own hands. Give kids some concrete objects and sensations to relate to the facts of history. A feather and some ink, for example, might be a good visual for the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

History will also come to life more for students if they have a chance to get actively involved. Anything that goes beyond reading the chapter and answering the questions at the back of the book is a step in the right direction. Perhaps limiting the reading of the text and answering the questions to simply one of many activities either at the beginning or conclusion of more active exercises. Of course the facts do need to be taught, but why not make it fun? Consider a game show scenario with those tired old questions or an interview with a historical figure instead.
Countless other ways exist to get students to actively participate in learning history. Children need to be exposed to a variety of literature that supports the history curriculum. Nonfiction accounts and biographies are beneficial, but historical fiction has its place as well. Respond to relevant literature with drawings, timelines, and charts. Use reading these materials as a springboard for keeping journals, writing letters, stories, and plays. Hold a debate between two opposing student groups, such as Revolutionary War patriots vs. loyalists. Allow students to express their writing, or those of fellow students, by dressing up as historical characters and acting out scenes of historical significance.

When teachers become excited about the wonderful adventures of the past, with all the emotion and physical sensations those adventures entail, students naturally follow suit. Add to the mix quality literature, active participation, and a bit of creativity, and history truly comes to life in the classroom!

Lori Jordan-Rice is a former elementary school teacher, mother of three boys, and the author of an imaginative new series featuring a fictional classroom full of memorable modern day characters alongside historical figures such as the pilgrims, the founding fathers of the United States, and Christopher Columbus. The "Miss Trimble's Trapdoor" books follow Tyler, a boy who hates school-that is until he discovers a trapdoor beneath this desk and falls into the school basement. Here he meets a wise talking dog named Barnabas Bailey who takes him back through time to teach him life lessons as he witnesses history first hand. To learn more visit To obtain autographed copies of her books go to

Check out Lori Jordan-Rice's Children's Books on Amazon:

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