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Ten Tips for Teaching History

April 2015

Old view of History

Old view of History
If you think history is old news, buried in dull textbooks, then it's time to jumpstart this study in a new direction. Here is a list of ten techniques that will liven things up, no matter what period of history you are teaching or studying! New view of History

New view of History

Ten Tips * Related articles and links * Favorite Books on American History * More Books * History Magazines for Kids
See also History Field Trips and More history field trips in NYC


The most important tip is to study the time period and history that interests you or your student. Choose the time, place, event or subject matter that is most intriguing, and make a project based on that. The skills learned (research, making connections, writing, communicating, understanding) are the same regardless of the period studied. My theater-loving son studied the history of theater by reading plays from the ancient Greeks to today. My ocean-loving son studied the history of whaling, fishing and conservation. They both learned far more about the history of the world by focusing on their interests than they would have by relying on a traditional textbook. A student can learn the history of the world by studying the history of anything! In Toronto there is a museum that illustrates this concept beautifully. The Bata Shoe Museum displays the history of humanity through shoes, from earliest moccasins and sandals to contemporary footwear.

  1. Use the news. Find history mentioned in magazines and daily newspapers. Look for: a commemorative event, a memorial being restored, a street plaza renamed, an archive created, or an excavation yielding archeological finds. This kind of information can reveal historic events that happened in the immediate environment.

  2. Relate history to the child or student. How old are is s/he? What did children that age do, in that place or time? What games did they play? How did they dress? What might have been their favorite foods? What would your child(ren) or student(s) be doing if they lived then?

  3. Listen to music from that era. What songs were being written and sung? What music was played at the court or for the president or in the tribal circle? What lullabies and children's songs were heard? What do these musical examples say about that time and culture?

  4. Look at maps of that period. A map of New Amsterdam makes a fun walking tour of lower Manhattan. Take along a modern map and compare them (or compare any ancient map with its modern counterpart). Keep a period map handy as a reading companion with historical fiction. Resources: New Amsterdam map of 1660, New Netherland Map "The Duke's Plan", When Wall Street Was a Wall, 1660 maps of Manhattan.

  5. Historic fiction. Reading and writing historic fiction are both quick ways to become fully engaged in any era. Books on every period and place are available. Choosing an era in which to set a story can be a motivation for research. Write a typical day in the life of a main character before starting the story. Draw illustrations for inspired by art from the era. See photos of Laurie's Historical Fiction Writing course.

  6. Film and Drama. Watching movies and reading or seeing plays can transport you and your students to another time and place. Browse Netflix or the library catalog to find a good companion movie to the era being studied. Make snacks from the era for movie time!

  7. Food. Find cookbooks and recipes from the era and plan a meal or event inspired by this period in history. An on-line resource is the food time-line, with links to antique recipes from around the world.

  8. Primary Resources. Original documents and items from the time and place are a way to connect directly with that era. Visit the library archives for newspapers from that time. Look for advertisements, letters, wills, etc. Many documents are available online, such as treaties made, and broken, between Native American tribes and the US Government, diary excerpts from the Oregon Trail or the Civil War or the Vietnam War, and more. Resources include online digital collections and archives of the NYPL and the digital Shomburg Collection on Black history.

  9. Museums and Field trips. Museum exhibits have many kinds of primary resources, including: music, art, clothing, and costumes, furniture, toys, ornaments, religious objects, and other items from the time and place. Visiting the actual site, perhaps an historic home or battleground, can make an event or figure come to life. There are re-enactments of Revolutionary and Civil War battles in many states. Visiting a reconstructed or restored village (such as Plimouth Plantation in MA or Colonial Williamsburg in VA) can be an entertaining way to meet history up close. In the NYC area there is Historic Richmondtown on Staten Island, South Street Seaport Museum in lower Manhattan, Old Bethpage Village Restoration in Nassau Cty. on Long Island, Old Sturbridge Village in MA near the CT border, and Mystic Seaport in CT . There are also several historic homes in the NYC area, most with seasonal family activities.

  10. Play the Who Am I? game. The player chooses an historic topic such as a person, event, or place. The player then makes a list of ten clues (younger children might make six or seven clues). Starting with the most difficult or least helpful clue, and gradually going up to the most telling clue, the player gives the audience or fellow players one clue at a time. After each clue, the player can ask, "Who am I?" and let the audience or other players guess. If no one has guessed the topic after all ten clues are given, then the answer can be revealed. This game can be played as a performance, if the player dresses up or pretends to be the historic figure or someone at the event or place. Variation: a group of players dress as historical figures and meet for a meal. Players must be ready to drop clues about who their historical figure is, while engaging in conversation with other figures from history. Guesses can be withheld until after the main course or dessert.

Use your study of history to inspire a fun homemade project: timeline, comic book, quilt, costume, shield, puppets, cookbook, relic or board game. Document your study and projects with photographs. Keep a scrapbook; make a video; perform for family and friends. Make history come to life!

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Related articles and links

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Favorite Books on American History

Here are a few of my favorite American historical fiction books.

For elementary aged kids:

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For teens and adults:

  • Gone with the Wind , by Margaraet Mitchell, a Civil War page-turner, adventure and romance for teens and adults. Also a great movie.
  • The Call of the Wild , by Jack London, a dogís story set in the Klondike Gold Rush in 1890ís Alaska, for age 12-adult.
  • A Tree Grows in Brooklyn , by Betty Smith, Irish immigrant family in early 1900ís Brooklyn, for teens and adults.
  • To Kill a Mockingbird , by Harper Lee, a classic book about a small town in the American South that made an impact on the Civil Rights movement, for age 12-adult.
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More Books

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History Magazines for Kids