Ideas for Teachers
to teach history in
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
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.
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.
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
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
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).
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.
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.
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.”
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
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.
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.)
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.
are some examples of thrift store clothing that can serve as costuming:
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
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.
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
are a few ideas for student participation:
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
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
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 (50states.com 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.
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.
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
- 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
candy is a simple old-fashioned hard candy that was popular with pioneers.
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.
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.
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.
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
This is the website of Melissa Neely.
Revised March 2011.
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