For many students, history means a lot of reading and memorizing facts. They may fail to see the point in expending so much effort to study something that happened 100 or 1000 years ago.
How can we, as educators, make history come alive for our students? Here we offer our suggestions for classroom activities that will make history more real and more hands-on. We focus primarily on high school/middle school activities, with free supporting materials available for download. In addition, we have also assembled a fun collection of activity resources for elementary school students.
Make History Come Alive for High/Middle School Students
For your convenience, the following high school activities have been formatted as a free teacher’s download, which you can print for your classroom.
“I couldn’t have said it better myself” – 3 Historical Writing Exercises
- Historical Journalism – Assign your students to write a newspaper article covering an event from the period of time you’re studying.
- Historical Diaries – Ask your students to imagine they are students in the period of time you’re studying. What would an entry in their personal daily journal look like?
- Historical Speeches – Assign your students to write a persuasive speech that a famous historical figure might have given – either to the public, or to his/her buddies. This exercise also helps your students develop the art of persuasion, and, if the students present their speeches to the class, will develop important public speaking skills.
What Would YOU Do?
History is influenced by the acts and decisions made by the men and women of the time. Students can best understand these influences when they put themselves in the place of those people. Assign your students to take the roles of various characters living at pivotal points in history and answer the questions: What would you do? Why (or why not)?
Examples of the students’ historical decisions:
- You are a statesman in Massachusetts, New York or South Carolina in 1775. Would you lobby in favor of independence from Britain?
- You are a young Jewish person in the 1940’s. Would you fight to establish the State of Israel on Palestinian land?
- You are a successful business person living in New York in 1860. Would you put your family in a covered wagon and strike out for California or Oregon?
- You are a young adult in Russia in 1917. Would you fight to overthrow the Czarist autocracy and support the rise of Communism?
- You are a citizen in the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1859. Would you join John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry?
Your students’ answers can be formatted as a written report, or as an oral presentation for the class.
Are your students ready to get up out of their chairs and move around? Let them bring history to life at the same time, by acting out a pivotal scene from the period of time you’re studying. Ask for volunteers to play the key historical figures from this era, or assign them to specific roles in which you think they could shine. When the familiar figures have been assigned, ask the remaining students to imagine what other types of people would have been involved in this historical activity, and take on their own imagined persona. Instruct them to stay true to the events and beliefs of the time, but let them exercise their creativity!
Seeing Is Believing
History comes alive at several noted museums and historical attractions throughout America. Find one near you and take your students to explore history outside of the classroom. Here are some of our favorite sites:
- Plimoth Plantation in MA – Experience life as an American Pilgrim in Plimoth’s outdoor living exhibits, including the 17th-Century English Village, Wampanoag Homesite, the Plimoth Grist Mill and Mayflower II
- Harpers Ferry, WV – At this National Historic Park, the setting for John Brown’s raid, your students can step back in time and experience Living History Workshops
- Civil War Reenactments – These exciting and historical reenactments take place in almost every state that was involved in the Civil War. Some of the most notable include:
- Boston offers a plethora of historic attractions, including the Freedom Trail
- And of course, all students should try to visit our nation’s capital: Washington D.C.
- Historical Festivals – Your students will enjoy this wild collection of events, celebrating everything from the Renaissance to Steampunk to Sherwood Forest
- The National Park Service – Offering a rich variety of teacher’s resources, including the National Register of Historic Places
- Click here for a great list of the Best History Museums in the U.S.
Best Historical Movies and Documentaries
Movies can teach us a lot, while evoking excitement and emotion. Show your students some of these acclaimed films and documentaries.
- Mighty Times: The Legacy of Rosa Parks – A documentary depicting the life and times of an inspirational central figure in the national crusade against discrimination, and how that fight changed the world.
- All Quiet on the Western Front – One of the first and most memorable war movies, this classic Best Picture winner about World War I was first released in 1930. It was based upon the timeless novel by Erich Maria Remarque.
- Liberation – Featuring popular actors Patrick Stewart and Whoopi Goldberg, this dramatic historical documentary depicts the World War II Allied effort to defeat Nazi forces in Europe and liberate the captives in concentration camps.
- All the President’s Men – The Washington Post says, “No film blends the elements of journalism and Washington intrigue more compellingly than ‘All the President's Men,’ the story of two Washington Post reporters who helped take down the #1 resident on Pennsylvania Avenue, transforming both politics and journalism.”
- Braveheart – This epic movie depicts life in the 13th century, and William Wallace, the warrior who led the Scots in the First War of Independence against King Edward I of England.
- Hotel Rwanda – Sometimes referred to as an “African Schindler’s List,” this film explores genocide, political corruption, and the repercussions of violence, as it recounts the story of Paul Rusesabagina’s efforts to save the lives of more than a thousand refugees during the 1994 Rwandan Genocide.
- Casablanca – No one should miss this classic from 1942, set in the unexpected location of Morocco, against the backdrop of World War II
- Dr. Zhivago – Another award-winning classic that will teach your students about both World War I and the Russian October Revolution/Civil War.
FREE ACTIVITIES DOWNLOAD
U.S. Presidents: Envision Lesson Plans for Grades 7-12
Last year we posted original Envision curricula based on the history and leadership of two of our most popular U.S. presidents. If you missed these lesson plans last year, now is a great time to check them out, and integrate them with your classroom coverage of the 2016 presidential race. Each includes a free Educator’s Guide and supporting presentation, for download.
Make History Come Alive for Elementary School Students
Although our focus for this article is primarily on activities for high school and middle school students, we also assembled this fun collection of activity ideas for your elementary school students:
Signing the Declaration of Independence – American History comes alive as young students take on roles as the forefathers of our country. This great resource from Education.com includes detailed instructions and a free download.
Load Up Your Wagon – Students experience the arduous effort behind our country’s coast-to-coast expansion, as they partake in Covered Wagon Learning Activities, including:
- Make a pioneer trail meal – such as journey potatoes, peach leather and hardtack
- Build a covered wagon model – Students build their own wagon, using supplies you can easily find around the house
The Mummy Returns – What better way to get kids interested in Ancient Egypt than to start talking about mummies? This activity is very hands-on, as students learn about the scientific process of mummification while mummifying a chicken. We were led to this intriguing exercise by the lady who brings us 100 Hands-On Activities for Middle School and High School – another great teachers’ resource (with more emphasis on elementary school activities than the title implies). We’ll close with a quote from her:
“Is it possible to study ancient Egypt without mummifying a chicken? I don’t think so.”
Post your own ideas for hands-on history activities in our Comments section.
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