Help Your Students Engage with History
July 8, 2020
Lately, there has been a lot of discussion about history.
Actually, it might be more accurate to say there has been a lot of discussion concerning a lack of history. Americans everywhere are suddenly getting a crash course on subjects like the Tusla Race Massacre or the construction of Confederate monuments. Events which rarely made it into our childhood textbooks. The recent protests have demonstrated how many of us tend to view the past the same way we view our Netflix selections.
- We decide what’s interesting or important.
- We’ll gravitate towards characters who look and think like us.
- We generally ignore the rest.
This attitude might work for our binge-watching habits, but it’s a perilous way to treat human history. The past is our roadmap into the future. If big chucks of that map are missing, it’s only a matter of time before society drives off the edge of a cliff.
Engage with the Past
You probably know the old saying, “Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” This is undoubtedly true, but how we learn history can be just as important. In some classrooms, antiquity is reduced to a series of names and dates. It’s an approach that has all the wonder and energy of a grocery list. Worse, it causes students to grow detached. They start viewing major events as happening long ago and having no bearing on their lives.
I’ve written before how I was fortunate enough to have an African American teacher who regularly educated students about people of color. One of her most impactful lessons was on the life of Ruby Bridges. After teaching us all how Bridges helped desegregate American schools, my teacher showed us an interview Bridges had given that year. None of the class had known she was still alive (as of writing this, Bridges is only 65). This realization connected us to the past and made us understand how close these events had occurred to our lifetime.
Engage with People
The truth is, if you want to help your students engage with history, they first need to engage with people. Older generations have so much to teach us—if we take the time to listen. Every community has people who have lived long, full lives with valuable stories, knowledge, and skills to share. By incorporating their lived experiences into project-based learning, you can give your class a tangible connection to the past. Here are just a few strategies you can try:
- Write a Letter: There are many elderly individuals in retirement communities who would love to receive mail from inquisitive students. Have your students become their pen pals and learn about their lives through a series of letters. Students could ask where they were during major historical events, or what social movements shaped to their upbringing. There’s nothing like a firsthand account from someone who was actually there!
- Host an Interview: If you’re looking for something a bit more substantial, why not host an interview? Meet them on Zoom or bring them to your school while practicing proper social distancing. Many soldiers, scholars, and Civil Rights activists would be happy to share their experiences with your class. This would also give students an opportunity to ask questions and interact with them personally. It’s the ideal way to make history real for your class.
- Play a Song: Pop culture often reflects the era in which it was created. If you cannot introduce your classroom to someone personally, an examination of their art might give them a better sense of their lives and perspectives. Play famous songs or read poetry from bygone eras, then ask your students why the artist chose to express themselves this way. What events were taking place that made them feel like this? This approach doesn’t just build understanding, it also builds empathy.
- Share Some Toys: If there’s one thing kids love, it’s toys! Have senior friends share some of their favorite childhood toys and games. Give your students time to explore and experiment with them before sharing toys of their own. You can use this opportunity to discuss how culture has changed over the years and consider why such toys were popular during their time. These questions and wonderings can give students a better sense of the time they came from.
Engage with Your Classroom
We are all affected by the past whether we realize it or not. We can help our students engage with history by giving it a face, a voice, and a presence within our classroom. In doing so, we can strive to right the wrongs of the past and give our students the wisdom they need to chart a better course into the future. Because in the end, history is shaped by those who learn.