Is History Dead in Your Classroom?

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“History is philosophy teaching by examples.”

That quote is attributed to the great Athenian general and historian, Thucydides.  We all know the old saying, “those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it.”  While true, the quote from Thucydides gives that saying true gravity.  History not only teaches us about the past, it teaches us about ourselves.  It teaches us the principle that everything throughout history has a grand purpose and plan laid out by our Creator.

So this bears the question, do you find yourself in a history teaching rut?  Do you find yourself repeating endless lessons without flavor and life?  Do you spend too many days assigning text without context or meaning?

Don’t feel ashamed, we’ve all been there.

I’ve got good news, you can bring history to life immediately.  Allow me to share just a few ideas and a little background on myself.

I teach four grades of history…together.  Specifically, I teach grades 5-8.  I wouldn’t have it any other way.  This allows me great depth in my teaching because I have these students for four years of history.  It is so wonderful.

You may be wondering, how do I cycle through all of that material?  First of all, I don’t use a textbook.  Ever.  I use a volume of over 300 of my personal history books and put together units of study that are pertinent to all of history.  No fear, even if you use a textbook, you can do the same thing!

My four year cycle is as follows (students can jump into the cycle at any time, it really doesn’t matter because we constantly review past material.)

Year One:  Ancient Mesopotamian civilizations, Egypt, Persia, and Greece to Alexander the Great.

Year Two:  Greece starting at Alexander, Rome, Dark and Middle Ages

Year Three:  Revolutionary War and Civil War

Year Four:  World War I, World War II, Vietnam, Modern Warfare

These are the broad strokes of history.  Obviously, there are many other small units of study to fill in those gaps and give context and depth to those major units.

Most importantly, I focus on depth in my teaching of history.  We spend 6 months of the school year on Rome alone.  So often we sacrifice depth for the sake of covering “everything.”  This is a major mistake.  In our relentless pursuit of covering a mile of material an inch deep, we sacrifice engagement, passion, and knowledge.

Imagine reading the first book of Harry Potter but there is not explanation to who Harry is, the setting, the surrounding characters, the conflict, or any of Harry’s background.  Let’s all say it together, B-O-R-I-N-G.  Because of that, we cannot get invested in Harry or any of his struggles.  We can’t identify with his character.  In the same respect, why would we ever do this to History?

In the effort to cover it “all,” we strip away all emotion and feeling from history.  We are left with a series of events, dates, and people that are utterly meaningless.  No purpose, no connection.

You can turn around you history class today with one simple step:  depth.

How does an author construct their story?  We must look at our history lessons the same way.  We are constructing a story for our children.  A nonfiction story better than any author could possibly dream up.

Who are the characters in this time period and why should we care about them?  What is the hook in this lesson?  What are the struggles of this time period? What are the surprising twists and turns that will keep our students on the edge of their seats?  Where is the tension?  Why is this important?  These are just a few of the questions, we, as teachers of history, must be constantly asking ourselves.

I challenge you to find something your students can really wrap their minds around no matter what unit of study you are currently in.  Let me give you a few “lessons my students would buy a ticket for” from my four-year history cycle to hopefully give you a little motivation.  These lessons are geared for the junior high level.

Ticket-Worthy Lessons

Writing in Ancient Sumer

The Pyramids

Mummification

King Tut

The Battles of Rameses

The Chariot in Battle

Cyrus the Great

Cambyses and Bardyia

Ancient Sparta

Peloponnesian War

Battle of Marathon

Battle of Thermopylae

Esther

The Death of Philip of Macedon

The Rise of Alexander

The Battle of Alexander

The Death of Alexander

The Rise of a Republic

Hannibal crosses the Alps

Battle of Cannae

Third Punic War

Death of Hannibal

Caesar and the Pirates

Caesar and the Gauls

Cleopatra and Antony

Death of Caesar

Life of Christ

Nero

Caligula

The Spread of Christianity

Khan

That is just a small listing from creation to Rome.  Believe me, there is so much more.  In a future blog post I will go over my ticket worthy lessons for our two years of American/World History.

I leave you with a picture from our class earlier this spring on Cannae.  It is the picture that you saw at the beginning of this post.   It truly is one of the most incredible battles in all of history.

By the way, those students you see crowded around.  We began class at their desks, they couldn’t contain themselves.  They had to get a closer look.  Their excitement and passion is infectious.  What we learn from history is infectious as well.

Share history with your students.  Share a story.

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