Editor’s Note: today’s guest article comes to us courtesy of author Jenna Smith.
If your history curriculum consists of little more than reading paragraphs out of textbooks and completing multiple-choice worksheets, it’s time for you to get to work. We are living in an unparalleled era of access to history archives, video, documents, and other tangible items that will get your history lessons out of the textbooks and into your students’ imaginations.
When today’s teachers were in elementary school history classes, 30 to 40 years ago, video was rarely integrated into the daily history lesson. Yes, there was footage of the Moon Landing, of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech, of the famous debate in which Kennedy defeated Nixon. However, even a generation ago it was too hard to access those videocassettes, not to mention too expensive to give every classroom the full panoply of historical videos required to bring history to life.
So we read, instead. We read that John F. Kennedy looked handsome and poised, and that Richard Nixon looked sweaty and flustered, and tried to imagine the scene for ourselves.
Now, all today’s teachers have to do is pull up the appropriate YouTube video. Everything is there: the Kennedy/Nixon debates, the “I Have a Dream” speech, even the groundbreaking moment when Star Trek featured the first interracial kiss on television, between Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Uhura. Use these videos to teach your students history as it was originally experienced: by watching these great moments, instead of reading about them.
In addition to historical video, it is your job to bring actual historical documents and artifacts into the classroom. Consider items like Civil War soldier daguerrotypes, 1950s crinolines, or even the early brick-shaped cell phones of the 1980s. A quick trip to an antique store or a resale shop will provide you with numerous artifacts to take into the classroom, and giving your students the opportunity to actually see the girdles and crinolines their ancestors wore will help them better understand why “bra-burning” and other public activities were essential to the Women’s Movement.
There are also one-of-a-kind historical documents available, such as famous autographs for sale. If your school pools its resources, it can own an actual George Washington or Thomas Jefferson autograph, signed at the bottom of an important letter or piece of legislation. Imagine your students stopping in the hallway to look at that autograph, protected under glass. With one purchase, you have done more to bring history to life than a thousand textbooks.
Showing your students historical videos, or letting them pass around an old cell phone, only goes part way. Give your students a sense of ownership in history by letting them perform independent research projects on a topic of their choosing. Yes, this means you’ll get a lot of presentations about the Titanic or about fighter planes in WWII, but you’ll also be giving your students the opportunity to truly discover what types of historical materials are available for them to study.
The Vietnam War, for example, is not a few paragraphs in a history textbook; it’s a collection of stories and songs and memories that are right there for anyone to uncover. Even young Titanic enthusiasts have access to more materials than we could have ever imagined, when we were their age, from three-dimensional video models of the original ship to music from a pig-shaped music box that a child played to comfort lifeboat companions as the ship went down.
As you can see, if you are limiting your history lessons to the materials in the standard curriculum, you are preventing your students from gaining a true understanding of history. With so many videos, audio recordings, and tangible artifacts available to bring into the classroom, it is essential to take advantage of these opportunities to unlock history, take it out of the textbook, and make it come to life.