Teaching us History

Teaching United States History can be one of the most rewarding and fun subjects to teach as long as you don’t take the boring lecture and note approach all the time.  The key is to have interactive lessons in which students can actually relive history and walk the shoes of historical figures. This can be done in three different ways, each containing a variety of activities and learning opportunities: Art, writing, and acting.

Art:

Artistic activities provide a break from writing research papers and/or listening to lectures all day. Obviously, there will be some lecture and note taking involved in a history class.  However, once you teach the class some content, you can give them some higher level thinking activities that involve art.  For example, you might have the students create trade cards over a historical figure.  You can have them draw the person on one side and give biographical information on another.  You could also have them design an action figure based on a historical figure and have to give certain facts or aspects of that person’s life on the box.

For your students who like to read graphic novels, you can have them design a mini graphic novel over a historical scene, perhaps a court case, a battle, a movement, or maybe they will even make up their own story based on what they have learned about a particular time in American history.

You might also take the collage route.  Have the students find symbols and pictures that represent an era.  Then they have to be able to explain the significance of each picture or symbol on their collage without any cues.  This would be a good way to assess what they know and remember about a historical topic.

Students can also design board games based on a historical event or era, or maybe a group of people.  You would have to give the students some specific structure on the requirements of the game and how they would be graded, but the basic idea would be for them to design the board, create game pieces, and then write out question cards and answers in order to test their knowledge about the topic.

An interactive art idea is to have the students create an art gallery and then invite other classes to tour the gallery.  Students could find or make pieces that are significant to an event or time.  You could hang them up in an auditorium, gym, commons area, hallway, or even a classroom. Your students will have to prepare the information that describes the time and the significance of their pieces.  When other students walk through the gallery, your history students should be there to explain what the small group is looking at and give an overview of the topic that they are covering. They could make brochures, information posters, or each student could act as a tour guide for different groups of students and explain the pieces to the group that he or she is leading.

Writing:

You might think that writing research papers is always boring and the same.  However, you can have the students do research and write in creative and different ways. For example, if you are learning about the Civil Rights Movement, you could have the students design a newspaper that deals with events from the movement.  You might include a wide array of writing projects in the newspaper, such as a comic strip, advice column, editorials, and movie or book reviews.  This could also include some drawing.

Another good writing idea is to have the students do poems.  There are many ways to make this work.  One of the easiest ways is to have the students do Acrostic poems over a historical figure.  This is when they write the name of a person, event, or other topic vertically down the side of their paper.  Then they have to think of a phrase to go with each letter of the person’s name.  For example, if students were to write George Washington, for the “G,” they might say “Gave in to become the first president.”  For the “e” they might say, “Everybody agreed that he would be the best choice.”

A more advanced poetry ideas is to have students do poems from two opposing voices.  For example, if you were teaching the students about The Trail of Tears, the student could write a poem as if they were one of the Cherokee forced to walk the trail and then the student could write a second poem from the perspective of one of the white soldiers that oversaw the march. This allows students to see various perspectives and perhaps to empathize with certain groups.

Writing letters can also be a different way to assess understanding.  Students can pretend that they are a person or even a group and write what that person or group would say to people who are living now.  They could even write imaginary letters between various people that have historical significance. Or for an emotional impact, students could pretend that they were a soldier who was dying in a specific war and writing to his family, or perhaps pretend that they were someone who was about to be lynched and write a letter that would depict the victim’s last thoughts and wishes.

If you have access to computers, you can have your students create blogs or websites dealing with historical events or people.  They could blog like they are a certain person from history or they could design a web page that depicts a part of America’s past. You could even have them design a Facebook or MySpace page for a historical figure. If you couldn’t do this on the computer, they could just use paper and colored pencils to design it by hand. This again, would involve writing as well as art.

Acting:

Acting out history can be one of the most memorable ways for students to learn history.  One of the most obvious ways to do this is to have students write out scripts, design props, and act out historical events.  This could be anything from the sit-ins of the Civil Rights Movement, to important Supreme Court cases, to an important invention. You would probably want to design some sort of rubric to show to the students in order for them to have clear ideas of what you are expecting.

A fun modern way that students can act out history is to have them design a talk show featuring a plethora of historical figures. You would have to dictate how they write questions and answers and make sure that you pre-teach the expectations of what is school-appropriate and what is not.  This is a fun way for students to take things that they see every day and turn it into a learning experience.

Another modern historical lesson could be to have the students design a short mini-episode of a reality show featuring some people or an event from history.  Again, you would have to make sure that they were away of what information to show and to keep it appropriate.  Given the right structure, though, this could be really fun, especially for high school students.

One way to combine writing and acting would be to have students create raps about certain things in history.  Have them present to the class.  Also, a close idea to this that does not include rapping is the two-voice poem that involves writing and presenting.  This always involves at least two kids working together.

If you want your students to have a lot of creative freedom, you might allow them to create their own little mini-drama representing a historical time or event. You might even let them create their own characters. You would have to stipulate that the characters and events have to be true representations of what actually happened.  Within the mini-drama, the students would have to demonstrate certain knowledge of understanding of the topic.

As you can see, there are so many ways to teach history.  Do not be afraid to give students a project or activity outside of just essay writing and note-taking.  The students will probably be impacted by interactive assignments more than anything else.  Above all, take a risk outside of your comfort zone in order to provide optimal learning experiences.