Curriculum Planning

Teaching the Complexities of History

Simple steps for teaching history in ways that are relevant and age-appropriate for students in elementary and middle school.

June 3, 2019
©Alamy Stock Photo/AB Forces News Collection

When teaching history to elementary students, it can be hard to strike the right balance between teaching facts and keeping the content age-appropriate. Our teaching can sometimes end up consisting of childish drawings of Columbus’s ship or kids wearing costumes. But there are some easy steps to make real history relevant and age-appropriate for young students.

Finding the Facts

Find a refresher on the facts. Sticking with the example of Columbus, Teaching Tolerance has excellent resources, and Plymouth Plantation and Scholastic have free websites with reenactment photos and primary source information on the historic meeting between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag. Supplement textbooks with photographs, primary sources, read-aloud books, and online reference sites such as

More generally, the Library of Congress has a wide array of online primary sources available without charge. Your local library may have a partnership with your school to share materials. If your class has access to technology, Epic is a free online resource with a wide assortment of both fiction and nonfiction books, searchable by grade level and subject.

Considering Perspectives

Think about whose history you’re teaching. Help students analyze sources and authors for point of view and perspective. Teach not only the victors’ version, but that of marginalized and disenfranchised groups, both then and now. While first graders may be too young to hear about the cruelty of Columbus’s crew toward native peoples, they can easily understand the message of the song “1492” by Nancy Schimmel: “Someone was already here.”

Last year I asked my third graders, “Was Columbus a hero?” Using a collection of books at different levels, my class read, took notes, and collected evidence to prove their point. When they finished, they asked me for a definitive answer. Instead, we discussed the European view versus the perspective of the Native Americans.

Setting Aside Time for Social Studies

One of the biggest challenges at the elementary level can be finding the time to teach social studies in an already busy day. Evaluate your current schedule and think about ways to enhance activities like history craft projects and to integrate history into nonfiction reading comprehension and writing skills.

My colleague, sixth-grade teacher Summer Geist, wove history through her English language arts (ELA) instruction this year with a study of the novel Refugee by Alan Gratz. The study allowed students to understand the Holocaust, the Cuban refugee crisis, and the beginning of the Syrian War through the characters of Joseph, Isabel, and Mahmoud. Summer supported and supplemented their learning with background information about the historical periods. After analyzing the book for tone, mood, figurative language, and other sixth-grade ELA standards, students researched outside sources.

Offering Choice

Choice is a powerful incentive for learning. When possible, give kids the opportunity to select further research on topics of interest, whether to work alone or in a group, which project or product they will complete, or how they will teach others what they have learned.

After the sixth graders finished reading Refugee, they chose research projects, featuring historical figures, famous refugees, and current events, which became a Human Rights Symposium displayed at Open House. Some chose posters, slide shows, scrapbooks, even a rap song about Einstein. Two girls portrayed Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and demonstrated for women’s rights throughout the evening. Students built a replica of a raft from the Cuban refugee crisis. One created a map of displaced people. Another surveyed staff and students on what they know about the humanitarian crisis in Syria and then analyzed what that might mean for the American response to the war. A frightening reminder of what is at stake was the replica of the Drowning Hands exhibit, a protest for the refugees who have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea.

Teaching history isn’t always easy. We often need to research our own materials and relearn what we were taught. But it’s worth the time to follow a few steps to rethink old practices.

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Filed Under

  • Curriculum Planning
  • Social Studies/History
  • Pre-K
  • K-2 Primary
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary
  • 6-8 Middle School

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