Making History fun in the classroom

Originally Published July 14, 2009

When you think back to school, what subject did you find interesting, even if you didn’t much like it? I’ll bet your answer is science. What subject did you maybe like, but found the most boring thing ever? I’m willing to bet it was history. And why? Because in science, sometimes you got to do things with chemicals, make things turn different colors, crystallize, give a bad smell, cut something open to see its innards, or if you were really lucky, someone – on accident – made something explode. In other words, you were involved in youreducation. History class? Names, dates, this battle, that battle, blah blah blah blah blah. I can say this, because I’ve sat in many history classes, and sometimes, I’ve been that teacher who has stood at the front of the room and gone blah, blah, blah.
Oh, it wasn’t really blah, blah, blah, but the more you talk, the more likely it is the information isn’t being absorbed, no matter how often you quiz or test upon the subject. Think Charlie Brown’s teacher – that’s how we all sound sometimes. But we can get around that.
Sometimes, you need to stop and make the history come alive and relevant to the class, no matter what the age. Here are some suggestions for teachers, homeschoolers and parents just trying to keep something educational in front of their kids during the summer.
Make it relevant. But what does that mean? A lot of kids – and adults – have a hard time visualizing a life different than theirs. Pictures help, but how can you understand why a group of men wore skirts (kilts) or women could sit with a hula hoop in her skirt?
The first and easiest way is to try to put things in a frame of reference they can understand. Get them into the lifestyle the people of your time period lived. Now I’m not suggesting you take a class of fourth graders into the woods, have them strip naked and attempt to hunt deer with wooden spears like the cavemen. Or attempt mummification techniques on a classmate. But there are other methods for getting hands on. AND on a budget.
First, I would suggest a visit to a living history museum in your area or state. Now, not every state has one, nor are there always the funds in a school or family budget that will allow you to go to the museum. However, if you can, you will find that the museum has an educational program/tour in place. Some museums offer an in-depth program – usually popular with the older students and home school groups – where they spend an hour or more at a specific site and create an item that would have been made at that site. For example, they get to feed livestock and milk a cow at a farm site. Or they help cook a meal over an open fire, and eat it too. Or they help make a class broom. Any number of things, things they will remember long after they’ve graduated high school.
Getting a local expert in something relevant to the time period to come in and demonstrate for the students is another good idea. Most of these bring something that the class can do and keep, to get them engaged and interested.
Can’t afford to do this? That’s ok – put on the thinking cap, call friends, go to the conventions – ideas on a really tight budget are there in abundance.
. One of the best presentations I’ve ever seen for any age, and one I’ve used myself, is the historical artifacts presentation. A group of common artifacts (usually kitchen implements) or reproductions is gathered and the children are put into groups and have to guess what the artifact is for and how it was used. It’s actually quite humorous some of the answers you can get, and now the children are invested in finding out what this item really is, so they listen when you explain and demonstrate the item. Even adults love this.
Getting clothing from the time period- there are a lot of costumers who will volunteer their time if you provide the materials – and having a dress up time in the class helps bring the pictures to life. It’s silly, there will be giggling, but it can help give a better understanding of some of the behaviors of the folks during that time. Tip – if a student doesn’t want to participate in the dress up, don’t force them. They will learn just as much if they watch the others. Be sure you’re not just providing a pile of clothes – explain what they are and why they are worn as they are pulled out. Make this a guided activity, not a recess.
Bulletin boards – what? They are not passé, I promise you. In fact, they can be a great lead in to the next section you’re going to be studying. Make them colorful, interesting, informational and make them 3-D. It can be done. Go to a museum of natural history for inspiration on how to set it up with enough, but not too much, info. Make it something they get to see often – like put the assignment  baskets under the billboard. If a student is engaged in looking at the bulletin board, let them- unless, of course, there is a time issue. This can be done at home as well as in a classroom.
Recipes are a great way to make children realize that history is current as well as past. Have them go to a family member and get their favorite recipe, and have them find out why that recipe is a favorite and memories around it – whether it is a family tradition, a childhood memory or something more. Make a class recipe/history book that each student can have.
Make something – and give them class time to do it. Civil war your topic? Recreate an aspect of it. Make a cannon, make a battle diorama, make a doll in proper costume. Get creative with the materials – one of my favorites was the 1/10 scale cannon made fully out of legos – in the right colors. My At Risk students make stone brochs with a little clay from the art teacher, stones from out in the parking lot, and grass from the field for thatching.
I was very lucky with  my supervising teacher during my student teaching; he allowed me to experiment and do these kinds of things to get the students involved. Our favorite activity was regarding immigration and Ellis Island. I made a slideshow on the computer with music from the era. Some students were bored. I talked about the era. More students were bored. I gave a test – some students outright failed, which meant I failed to engage them. But our last activity was remembered. We took over the auditorium, got an extra class period and my A students became my co-conspirators. On a small budget, with some note cards, some cardboard boxes, a spray bottle full of water and a piece of rabbit fur on a string tied to a stick, the whole process of immigration got reenacted. Total spent? About $10, because I got the cards laminated. The students- two classes at a time – had to endure the process of coming to America and making it through immigration. As we started, each student got a card with an identity. Each card had a coded mark that my “Inspectors” knew but the class didn’t. The cardboard boxes became the boat on the stage – the students carried all their class books in a pillow case to simulate bringing all they owned with them, and had to sit all crammed together in the boat. A blindfold of some kind was on each student to simulate the darkness of a ship’s hold; the squirt bottle demonstrated how the boat could leak and the rabbit fur on the string became a “rat’ that scurried over passengers. The helpers pushed on the sides of the cardboard boat to simulate a rough sea. Of course, all this was narrated for the students in the “boat” by me.
Next, the students got to stand in line with their bags – never setting them down for fear their stuff could be stolen- and got to go through the inspectors. They had their names mispronounced and written down wrong in a book, had to have their tongues and eyes checked, and at some point, some of them – due to the codes on their cards – got to go back onto the stage to wait for the next boat to take them home due to disease or criminal record. Once everyone had been through the line, we all sat down and discussed the event. Even the students who had been the inspectors realized that they now understood the whole process better; the students who were getting sent back actually felt a bit upset that they had to leave. All in all, the students gained a better understanding of what their ancestors had gone through to get here, and some even remembered it into adulthood. And my supervising teacher had the best laugh of his life.
Now this was a complex undertaking, and took a lot of time. But the same kind of experiences can be had on a smaller scale, within the confines of your classroom. A little creativity, a bit of willingness to step outside of the box, the principal or department head’s permission (always get this) and you can come up with new ways to teach history that will make it the MOST memorable class in school, rather than the least.
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