Breathing Life into History

by Lyndon Martin

History is a lively story full of original characters, interesting places, and surprising plot twists. But history class tends to reduce it to a lifeless assortment of facts and dates. How can we resuscitate history for our students? Lyndon recommends seven tactics, beginning with telling a good story.

 

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How can we get our students to see history as moving, as seeing, as being visual, as responding, communication, information going both ways?

Stories

In the Dim, the temple in North Africa, the boy repeated the words, “I will hate Romans. I will have no other goal in my life but to punish the accursed Romans. I will reject appeasement; I will reject compromise, and I will win complete victory.” Hannibal was only nine when he clasped his father’s hand and repeated those words after his father in that Dim temple in Carthage. The first Punic War had been a humiliation for Carthage, and now Hamilcar, Hannibal’s father, was plotting revenge on the Romans. He wanted his nine-year-old boy to enter into that revenge with him, so the first tactic for resuscitation that I have is to tell stories.

Do you ever think about that the Bible is largely stories? Stories are tremendous focus builders. The Bible is not so much names and dates as it is stories.

Tell a story and the chattering and the restlessness fades. The eyes focus, the minds are engaged, the imagination is fired. Students are transported back to that threshold of time, and they start to hear things and see things, and their imagination connects with what you’re trying to tell them.

And so stories are captivating and promote concentration. They’re entertaining, and they feel excitement.

One tip that I have found to be exceptionally helpful with telling stories is to make sure the characters have names. Even if you don’t know their names, give them names or simplify them down to their primary characteristic, and then refer to them in that way through the story. Utilize your voice and your facial expressions and your gestures. Use an object or a picture if you can. If you can make those people stick, it’ll go a long way into the overall concepts sticking.

William Henry Harrison was the only US president formally trained to be a doctor. The poor guy died 30 days into his term from pneumonia because he refused to wear a topcoat to his inauguration and proceeded to give a two-hour inaugural address in the rain.

Ulysses S. Grant, the butcher of the Civil War, coincidentally could not stand the sight of blood. So if you can just find snippets of that type of information, those will stick.

Mnemonics

Use fun mnemonics. If a picture is worth 1000 words, a mnemonic or a memory device is worth 1000 reviews. I’ll just give you one.

Who’s that?

Henry VII.

And who is behind him?

His six wives.

If you want Henry VII to stick in your student’s minds, here’s a mnemonic I picked up that’ll help you remember Henry VII.

Show Visuals

There are lots of visuals. I tend to be a visual person.

Timelines, I think, are incredibly important to history, and this is not something I did the first year I taught. It took me a number of years to get this all pulled together but I put two timelines around the entire classroom. One was world history, and the other was American history. I could switch them out depending on which year I was teaching. They provide visual spacing.

So I started with Columbus and went around to 2020. So that’s roughly 500 years. And then you can say, “Okay, so from here, the whole way around is 500 years. When were the Vikings? Five hundred years before Columbus. That means we would have to take Columbus and go the whole way around the room again to get to the Vikings. Now, what do you think happened in America in that whole 500 years?”

Maps

Maps: political maps, topographical maps.

I had my whiteboard screen, or I was projecting on my whiteboard here and my map was here. And some days I didn’t have any space to write between them because I needed them both.

Maps are hugely important.

Primary Sources

One of the benefits of primary sources is that you’re not relying on the interpretation of others. You can do a lot of your own interpretation. It also helps put in the historical time context. But keep it brief and interesting.

I found that it does not work well to read entire book pages of primary sources. And of course, primary sources don’t have to just be text. Some photographs are technically primary sources.

Keep it brief and interesting. Take your eyes off the page and move around while you’re reading. Connect with the audience.

When you study the Hippocratic Oath, show them a copy. Give them a copy of the Hypocritic Oath. Don’t just rely on them to recognize the Hippocratic Oath, show them. When you study the Church Creeds, bring in the Creeds and show them how they evolved.

Real-Life Examples

Spin real life examples. Get your students involved. And there are a couple of ways to do this. Involve the students. Use their names in examples. I use this, for example, when we study Hammurabi. Hammurabi said everybody who commits the same crime should be punished in the same way.

Use them in examples. So if Jordan does this and Andrew does this. And I like Jordan because he just gave me a candy bar. And they’ll get this sort of sheepish expression; the teachers calling on me again, look. But they love it. And you won’t find those students daydreaming so quickly.

Another place I would use it is the forms of government, like the monarchy and the oligarchy and the dictatorship, that cycle of Greek government. So, Tom whispers in all the peasants ears, and he promises them–and you know your students–he promises them this and this. They’ll connect.

Help them understand the Inquisition. Students like to–or children like to trump up stories about each other.

Cause and Effect

Show cause and effect. Connect stories to previous stories. How does it affect us today?

Imagination

Imagine how it was. And this can be a tie into composition class: write as if you were there. Write a newspaper article that covers the event that we’re studying. “What do you think their fears were? How were their fears and concerns different than yours? How are they the same as yours?”

Keep a historical diary, Oregon Trail diary. “What do you think happened today on the Oregon Trail?”

Take them to a forest and say, “Now, how would you develop this forest into”–this may be for a little younger students– “but, if you were a pioneer and I brought you to this clearing, how would you go about changing it? Where would you get your source of heat? Where would you get your water? Where would you get your food?”

“How would this city have looked 100 years ago, 200 years ago?”

“What would you do and why?”

You got to be careful with this. I always tried to steer clear of situations that would put them into scenarios where they would weaken their nonresistance or their morality. You don’t want to put them into a situation and say, “Soldiers barging through the front door; what would you do?” Be careful with it.

But Oregon Trail; I did this with my students, gave them a list of supplies, how much they weighed. “Here’s your weight limit. What would you take?” Or “Here’s the size of the wagon.” (It’s not as big as you think, by the way.) “How would you fit everything in?” Get a big piece of paper, draw it out, and have them try to fit the barrels and trunks in.

The Great Depression. Put them in the situation. Some families in the Dust Bowl, if they could not make their ends meet, if they could not lay up enough supplies for the winter, would literally send their children out. “Go, try to make money, and send it home.” Some of those families were never reunited.

“What would you have done?”

“Would you have run a station on the Underground Railroad?” Now, that’s one where you can address moral dilemmas head on. “What were some of the things that you could have done, but what were some of the things that you couldn’t have done?”

Projects

Do hands-on.

Projects. I had my American history students do projects, write a little report. They profess to hate it, but deep down in, they’ll never forget it. He did a little water wheel. This fella explored different types of fencing.

Resources

The Library

The library. I think this is incredibly important.

I don’t know how many books I have, probably more than what I should. I remember when Melvin Lehman said at Teachers Week a number of years ago, “My wife and I didn’t have a lot of money, but we decided we’d always have money for two things: good books and good music.”

And you really don’t have to spend that much. Go to use book sales, library sales. The type of books that are on that list, like from Readers Digest, National Geographic, are books that people gave other people for Christmas. And the other people say, “What are we going to do with this big book of pictures of Ancient Egypt?” “Nice thought, Aunt Matilda,” and they get rid of it. That’s a great resource for somebody like me. Hold up pictures of what the different styles of pyramids were. Amazon, eBay, there’s tremendous online resources.

Periodicals

Subscribe to history magazines. This is a great one. American History. I’ve gotten this one for 20 years. I have 20 years worth of these. National Geographic: go to used bookstores and see if you can get back copies. Got a complete set back to about 1960. From 1888 up to 1960, you can get on CD/DVD Rom and print them. I’ll let this up here. You can take a look at it. This is one that I would highly recommend: National Geographic History. It’s by National Geographic with the same quality of pictures and all of that, but it is dedicated primarily to history. That has tremendous resource material. Smithsonian is not quite as good, but it’s another good one.

Get a national daily newspaper, at least secondhand. I couldn’t afford to buy The Washington Post, but I got it secondhand. Who cares that it was two months old? An article like those poppies– I didn’t have to have that the day it happened, but I’ve got it now.

But, have some efficient filing system. My cabinets are color coded, the drawers are A-B-C-D, and the files are numbered. So it’s in my database. I do a spreadsheet that I can search. If I’m going to put the article in– I put this in as “Shipwreck” Kelly So “Shipwreck” Kelly sat on flagpoles for 45 days at a shot simply as part of the excess of the Booming Twenties. So I would put that in as “Shipwreck” Kelly, and then I would put keywords in– Roaring 20s, “Shipwreck” Kelly, flagpole, and then I could search. And then it would tell me. This one was B67.

Travel

Visit historical places and take pictures. The pictures I’ve taken over the years visiting Colonial Williamsburg come in wonderfully handy when you study colonial government, and when you study the “classes”.

Okay, so here’s a picture.

“Do you think this was upper class, middle class, or lower class?”

“Here’s a house.”

“Is this upper class, lower class, or middle class?” And you’re engaging them.

And that’s where I bought the Valley Forge poster. And I got these at the Capital Gift Shop. That one at the White House gift shop.

This was one that I was going to mention. You have to have a book like this. This is called a Historical Atlas of the United States. And it doesn’t have to be a 2021 edition. It can be a 1990 edition that you can get cheap. These things, brand new, are probably $100. You can get them used. This is Henry Ford’s assembly line with a key. The boys will be over that like flies over a piece of meat, at break.

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CONTRIBUTOR: Lyndon Martin

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