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Ideas for Teachers

Making History
Come Alive

How to teach history in
the classroom by portraying
real or imagined characters

Me (far left) and (clockwise) my sister Amy, my mother Sandy, and my older daughters 
  Tatyanna and Kyrstie (sitting) in early Twentieth Century costume


Students are not very interested in dates, places, and names.  But they can become interested hearing about  real people with real problems - people who can make us laugh and make us cry, people we can love or hate. Students care about history to the extent that it affected real people and to the extent they believe it affects them.  Students care about geography because where someone lived affected the events that shaped their lives. Only after  we care about individuals in history will students care about the dates, names, and places that place them in order and context.

Finding and Developing Characters

A good place to find characters is in picture books for the very reason that you have a picture to show you how the character dressed. It is very effective to use a character that is an “average Joe or Jane.” The students will be better able to relate to the circumstances and events of their life. It is not necessary to go for the spectacular - average people participated in significant historical events.  It is possible to portray famous characters, as well, but you run the risk that your students will not relate as well to a person that has been glorified with fame. You want them to relate to the character and care about his or her life and the events and circumstances that shaped that life.

For example, If you want to teach about the Civil War’s Battle of Gettysburg, you might come to class as a boy bugler for either the Union or Confederate army. The book “The Last Brother” is excellent on this subject. You could talk at length about the subject’s family and other brothers that went off to war. You could talk about how much the young subject missed his mother. You could share concerns about the subject’s other brothers in the war and where they were. You could describe how difficult it was to learn each of the bugle calls and the hours of practice it took.  You could talk about the rigors of camp life, of marching long distances, of going hungry, of the problems of weather. You could talk about more famous people, such as General Meade or General Lee, through the eyes of the boy bugler. You could talk about a meeting you had with a bugler from the other side and the fun it was for two 13-year olds to talk together. You could share the battle - the fear, the sounds, the smells, the cries. You can carefully insert important information about where and when the battle was, how long it lasted, the number of men killed and wounded on each side, and the consequences of the outcome.  These become important to the students after they care about the boy bugler. There’s another interesting perspective on the same battle in “The "Cemetery Keepers" by Linda Oatman High.

There are lots of great characters in every significant event.  Use the knowledge you get from personal accounts and then apply your ingenuity to make it relate to the students by either contrast or similarity.

Remember to make the character a real person! Choose a character knows lots of interesting facts. Make things as visual as possible. If  you want the students to know how much rations a prisoner got in Andersonville, instead of saying “they received a cup of meal and a third of a pound of bacon” say, “They received a cup of corn meal (cup your hand to show a cup) and three slices of bacon to last them all day.  They had nothing to mix with the corn meal but water – this meant they ate a gritty pancake and three slices of bacon. One meal - that’s is all they had for the whole day.” Give some facts, but make them visual and meaningful. (Later I’ll talk about how you could make corn-meal pancakes and the students can eat them out).

If you are the opposite sex of the character you are portraying, you can tell a story from someone else’s perspective. for example, if you are portraying George Washington, you could dress as Martha Washington and tell George’s story as if you had seen it all or read it all in his letters.

You don’t have to portray a real person at all. You can make up a character and place him or her into an event or circumstance in history. This is what “historical fiction” is. But your character should be either very likable and relatable or very despicable.  You should, however, be  accurate with the facts. Remember that people are basically the same today as in the past – we eat, laugh, sing, love, cry, hurt, bleed, die.

It is risky, but possible, to use a character in history that is despicable. The danger is that the students will relate too well to someone with serious character defects.  Be careful not to glorify them unduly, yet make them human. You may need to preface your program with a disclaimer that this person is a “bad guy.”

Following is a list of events in American history that can be readily taught by portraying a character. I’ve indicated a possible book where I know about one.

  • Westward Expansion and Exploration –use “I, Matthew Henson” by Carole Boston Weatherford or “Nine for California” by Sonia Levitin.

  • The Revolutionary War or George Washington (Pres. Day) – use “Farmer George Plants a Nation” by Peggy Thomas.

  • Slavery and pre-Civil War – use John Honey by Melissa Neely, or Christmas in the Big House, Christmas in the Quarters by Patricia and Fredrick McKissack.

  • Andersonville Prison - use “John Honey in Andersonville” by Melissa Neely.

  • Immigration into the United States - use “When Jessie Came Across the Sea” by Amy Hest.

  • Oklahoma land run – use “John Honey, a Sooner!” by Melissa Neely or “The Oklahoma Land Run” by Una Belle Townsend.

  • World War I – use “Christmas in the Trenches” by John McCutcheon.

  • The Great Depression- use “Where’s Daddy” by Jo and Josephine Harper.

  • Women during World War II  - use “Peggy to the Defense” by Melissa Neely.


Costuming is an important part of helping children accept you as that character. You may even consider asking a parent to assist you by becoming another character to help you with the illusion.

Costumes do not need to be elaborate – the students will quickly apply their imaginations. As you develop your characters you can watch for costume props to make your costuming more authentic. Thrift stores are a great resource for both costumes and props. The minimum costume could be just a hat. (Remember when you portrayed a Pilgrim or an Indian at school at Thanksgiving? You probably made a costume or at least a headdress out of paper sacks.)

If you portray a certain character yearly, you might want to invest in an authentic costume that you sew yourself. You can find books illustrating period clothing by going online or at history museum bookstores (e.g., Territorial History Museum in Guthrie, Oklahoma). There are amazing costumes to sew if you or someone you know is able. Patterns that run between $16.99 and $24.99 sometimes go on sale for as low as 99 cents. You might even find underwear patterns on sale. Displaying underwear of the period, such as corsets and pantaloons and hooped slips, can be fun. You might even have a student try on the corset or slip and try to move around in it. Yikes! Harder than it looks.

 Following are some examples of thrift store clothing that can serve as costuming:

A Civil war bugler might wear jeans, a plain, white, over-sized dress shirt and a straw hat. He could carry a bugle  made out of paper mache or a Christmas trumpet as a  prop.

A woman from World War II might dress as Rosie the Riveter with wide-legged pants, a blue man’s dress shirt (sleeves rolled up), and a red bandana around the head. A heavy riveter or drill would make an excellent prop.

Student Participation

The ideal way to present living history in the classroom is to do it early in the year and continue throughout the year. There are two reasons for doing this – 1) Students learn better the senses that are used. They will remember what they heard as they associate it with what they saw.  2) You are modeling what you expect them to do later in the year for their projects.

Following are a few ideas for student participation:

While you are presenting a character, have various students come up and play a role with you your character. Ask them to be your mother or father, a sibling, a friend, a spouse, a minister, or an enemy. You can have an impromptu conversation.

Or perhaps while you are in character have one or more students interview you for the school paper or “60 minutes.” You could assign them to write a newspaper article or journal entry.

Other Student Project Ideas

50 States” – Have each student pick a famous person from a state (everybody picks a different state). The only rule I would make is no athletes and no movie stars. Have them research the state and their “famous” person. This should take some time to do ( is a great resource). Have each student make a display poster of their state and then come dressed in the character they chose.  Have a special parents’ night where the students can perform next to their posters as parents walk around.  I have seen this activity performed well by Fourth Graders; attendance by parents was strong.

Penny Arcade”-  Have each student pick a famous American (they may not be well known and it would be fun to stump and inform parents). You will want to set parameters for historical time so the students don’t become overwhelmed. For example, Fifth Graders might do Explorers through the Civil War. High Schoolers might do World War I through the Viet Nam War. Have the students research that person and prepare a 2-minite personal speech. For example, “My name is Abraham Lincoln, people often called me Honest Abe. But don’t call me Abe to my face; I like Abraham...”  The students could decorate small boxes or containers for parents to put a penny in to begin the individual programs. This is particularly good for Fifth Graders and has had great parental attendance.  Most importantly, the kids learn a lot about their character, and as they practice on each other they incidentally learn about everybody else’s character, too.

Trials” - For Middle School students and older, you might have a trial. Everyone could participate as an attorney, judge (you may want to be that yourself to keep it on track), witness, or juror. You might “try” the South for treason for secession or  you might try a civil rights leader or labor leader as an anarchist.

Appendix I - Recipes

Vinegar Candy

Vinegar candy is a simple old-fashioned hard candy that was popular with pioneers.

2 cups of sugar
¼ cup water
2-3 tablespoons of vinegar

Mix contents in a sauce pan and stir constantly over medium to high heat. Stop stirring when the mixture starts to boil: wash sides of pan with water by brushing it on with a pastry brush or soaked cloth all around the inside of the pan above the boil mixture to keep it from crystallizing on the edges of the pan. Boil until a candy thermometer reaches the “hard Crack” stage or when a small dollop of the mixture dripped from a spoon into cold water readily cracks into hard pieces. Pour into a 9 inch pie tin in a thin layer and cool (in freezer). Flavoring and coloring may be added after the candy has reached the hard crack stage, just prior to pouring into the pie tin.


Hardtack is an old-fashion flat bread or sea biscuit that was popular with pioneers and sailors because it was lightweight, compact, tasty and stored well. It is just as delicious today and handy, too,  for hiking, backpacking or snacking.

4 cups of flour (white, wheat, graham, rye, barley or combination)
1 cup of rolled oats
½ cup of shortening
2 cups of buttermilk, yogurt, cream, or sweet milk
1 teaspoon of salt
1 teaspoon of baking soda

Preheat oven to 400. Mix all ingredients in a large bowl. Mix well and form dough into a ball, then divide dough and roll out a small portion (about the size of a tennis ball) at a time. Roll dough on lightly floured surface as thin as you can. The thin you roll it. The better the hardtack will taste, Sprinkle rolled-out dough lightly with salt. If you wish, you can cut to any shape desired and place pieces close together on a greased cookie sheet. Bake until edges begin to brown. Remove cookie sheet from oven, turn hardtack over and bake until it is crisp and dry and lightly browned. As soon as it is baked, put on a cooling rack. Store in an air-tight container, and it will stay fresh as long as it is kept dry. This pioneer Hardtack is delicious served plain or with jam, peanut butter, cheese, meat, or whatever you like. Try seasoning it with onion powder, cheese, herbs and spices to the dough.


 You will need:

Cream in any amount – 1 cup of cream makes ½ cup of butter)
A small glass container with a tight lid (baby food jars work great)
Tiny pinch of salt (optional)
A small marble (this helps churn the butter – you might find something plastic so they can’t break the baby food jar)

Pour some cream into the container. Add a tiny pinch of salt and your marble. Put the lid on good. Now comes the hard part – shake and shake and shake! It takes anywhere from 10-20 min to churn the cream to butter.  Refrigerate (or ice) the butter immediately.  Yum!

Appendix II – Props

Props for Showing

butter churns

dipped candles

tea sets

dolls and other period toys

old quilts - they don’t have to be nice or pretty or even complete.

Wood bowls with vegetables in them - perhaps sweet potatoes and herbs

Trunk –large or small. I bought a small wood trunk (about 12”x 18”x 12”) at hobby Lobby. I use it as a display and to store and protect smaller items when not in use.

Large Cast Iron pot – for doing laundry

Large metal bucket for taking your weekly bath


Print pictures off the internet or out of a book - remember, black and white! Color did not exist until the late 1860's.

Props for Eating

Hardtack  (see recipe)

Homemade bread (go to a bakery) and butter (see recipe)

Vinegar candy (see recipe)

Props for Touching

Old irons- let the kids feel how heavy they are. Talk about washing laundry all day and then spending the next day ironing everything. Hot heavy work.

sickles and other tools



underwear - corsets, long-johns, pantaloons and hoop slips – have students try these on. Make the corset snug, but not as tight as it would have been worn (make sure they know it would be a lot tighter in real life). have someone wear the hoop slip and try to sit dawn - it will be very entertaining when the slip flips up and over their head. (express your displeasure in their very unlady-like behavior- be sure to use your snootiest voice!)

Props for Activities

Make butter and then serve homemade bread and their butter!

Corn husk dolls

Hankie dolls

Whittle soap – this is done with ivory soap (it is soft) and a plastic knife


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Revised March 2011.
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