I have read and used a few good textbooks, Joy Hakim’s History of US comes to mind. The key word in that sentence, of course, is few. Most textbooks do a pretty poor job of providing context for their content and giving kids concrete examples of history.
But there is hope. Cheri Lucas of Edutopia provides a variety of ways that you can breathe life into your history instruction.
Many students, particularly young ones, have an abstract view of history. Putting artifacts in their hands and giving them characters, chores, language, and events to reenact adds a three-dimensional aspect to the textbook page, injecting knowledge with empathy and understanding.
Cheri discusses six different ideas for moving beyond the textbook to give kids a more concrete understanding of events, people and places:
Make the local historical society your home away from home.
Organizations that preserve and interpret local lore can be a rich source of historical data and news on upcoming museum exhibits and educational programs. For Kansas, the Kansas State Historical Society is a great place to start. Your own state will have their own society and most counties and even some cities have their own local historical society. And every society has an archivist or educational liaison that is dying to work with you and your kids.
Ask for a private tour
Don’t be afraid to ask the archivist or educational liaison for a tour specific to your needs. Most societies will bend over backwards to get kids excited about their collections. All ya gotta do is ask.
For example, Cheri shares that the Virginia Historical Society, in Richmond, holds private tours that can accommodate thirty to seventy-five students, depending on your lesson, whether it is Virginia’s African-American history or the Civil War. Students in grades K-5 can get their hands on reproductions of artifacts from Pocahontas’s tribe, the Powhatan, while Civil War exhibits give kids an idea of what soldiers wore, ate, and wrote.
The KSHS has a whole series of tours aligned to specific state history curriculum indicators that can be customized even more to meet your needs.
Ditch the stereotypical bio
Though it’s vital for students to understand why historical events are important and which figures were instrumental, try tossing the common biography assignment for something new that may also be more relevant.
Ask kids to interview family members or residents of your local retirement community. Have kids write resumes of “famous” people for different periods of their lives.
Provide Facebook templates and Twitter profiles and have your students complete them as the person they are researching.
Use the tube as your tool
Most of your kids are visual learners. Period movies and video clips provide an invaluable resource for teachers. The recent HBO John Adams mini-series is a great example of how kids can learn not just the historical content but also get a feel for the period. (I especially liked the scene where the Continental Congress was literally sweating through the Declaration of Independence argument. You could almost smell the tension in the air!)
Have your students combine book and online research of clothing and accessories with critical screen watching. When did women wear corsets? What weapons were used during the American Revolution? Watching period films gives kids an idea of a historical setting: Think ancient Rome in Gladiator or China during the Qing Dynasty in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. After they take notes, allow them to design their own variations on the settings they are studying, from a layout of their period bedroom with furniture and artwork to a colorful sketch of an outfit they’d wear on a typical day.
Look for vintage props and outfits.
Your class will need its own closet of costumes to get into character.
Provide extra credit for your kids to go out and sift through local vintage and thrift shops for props, costumes and artifacts. You can also find cheap stuff doing a basic web search. Talk with local colleges or your own high school drama departments to borrow their goodies.
Your local or state society may also have resources you can check out. The KSHS has a great Traveling Trunk program.
Watch for local re-enactments and rendezvous
Every state has reenactors that breathe life into the Civil War or the Old West or as Mountain Men. You can find black powder guys who can’t wait to show off their collections. When kids can touch these collections and view what a battle actually looks like, textbook content suddenly makes more sense.
Whatever you choose to do, giving kids hands-on and concrete examples of history helps provide a way for them to stick basic, low-level content to – it’s like”mental velcro.” Activties like the ones listed above make content sticky and makes learning long-lasting.