George Lucas Educational Foundation

Making US History more.... relevent

Making US History more.... relevent

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I've been teaching Social Studies and US History for 4 years, and I can honestly say that I'd be bored out of my mind in my class. I don't like to teach this way, but I struggle. My love is science. This year, I will have my teammates helping me plan and implement lessons, however, I need to make it more interesting, relevant, and real-world. I would LOVE to do project based learning, but I'm clueless about where to begin. I love technology and using it with students, but my teammates are far from stellar students when it comes to computers. So, if anyone has any ideas, resources, lesson plans, etc that might lead me on a path of more excitement within my social studies units, I would greatly appreciate it! Jess Henze Sherman Middle School Madison, WI

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Rachel Pickett's picture
Rachel Pickett
10th grade Social Studies

Nice to meet you Jess! Right now I'm working to design units around case-studies and moral debates. I'm teaching World History, but I think it could be applied to US History. Case-studies and philosophical/moral debates could be another way, along with all of the above ideas, to make US history interesting.

Here's a Harvard professor I'm listening to a lot at the moment (Michael Sandel). He teaches political philosophy, and I think a lot of his material and ways of teaching could be accessible for high school.

geoDenise's picture
High School history, AP Geography, sociology and psychology teacher from VA

To engage my students I try to make the subject relevant to them regardless of the activities we are doing. I make sure they know that the basic topics of US History (immigration, big or small government, tax issues, agricultural or industrial economies, human rights) are still a part of our lives and that they are impacted by those topics. For example, when we cover the Progressive era I find current articles about labor disputes and employee benefits so they can compare past and present labor issues.

Brian Thomas's picture
Brian Thomas
A Passion for Teaching!

You definitely came to the right place here with the social studies teachers offering their support! I am a former social studies teacher now working for a social studies publisher called TCI. We make materials more popularly known as History Alive. All of our materials are built around a hands-on pedagogy that honors multiple intelligences and spiraled learning. Our programs can be delivered in 1:1 settings as well. I would invite you to try TCI by signing up for a trial at: I would also invite you to check out our blog: where we post free lessons and resources that can help you along the way. If there is anything I can do to support you further, please don't hesitate to contact me at or @Brian_ThomasTCI (on Twitter).

Best Wishes on a successful year!

Judy Yero's picture
Judy Yero
teacher, curriculum writer, author of Teaching in Mind

Hi Jesse-
Teachers often feel that they have to provide all the "information" themselves, but you can both enrich your content and pique student interest by giving them more responsibility for their own learning. For example, let's say you're teaching a unit on the Civil War. Provide students with a list of the major content items that you want ALL students to know, focusing on meaningful in-depth concepts rather than the factoids found in so many SS benchmarks. Explain that all students must know and understand this material by the end of the (week, two weeks, whatever time you have to spend on the topic.) Begin by spending one or two class periods viewing a quality documentary or movie on the Civil War. Then turn students loose! Have individual students select any aspect of the Civil War that interests them beyond the material for which they are all responsible, research the topic, and figure out how to present it to the class in an interesting and engaging way. (NO REPORTS!!!) Provide students with research materials and/or suggestions and act as a mentor/resource for individual projects...the guide on the side rather than the TEACHER.

For example, a student might take the class outside and reenact an important battle. Another might tape an "interview" with Lincoln, a general, soldiers, family members, etc. Other students may focus on everyday life (food, clothing, etc), political figures, family'd be amazed at what they come up with and the unique ways they think of to "teach" what they've learned. Set a date and time limit to fit in all student presentations (you may wish to have students work in teams if your time is very limited).

Be sure to test students on the required content as part of the wrap-up. However, in addition to the key concepts, you have also provided them with a rich background on the topic that you would never have had time for teaching the "traditional" way. This is project-based, but using projects chosen by the students and then shared with the entire class.

This works for many of the larger topics in History and once the kids realize that you are serious about giving them the responsibility, the content and presentations just keep getting better and better!

Kirsta Wierda's picture

Hi Jesse!

There are so many resources out there for teachers and their students. As Ron mentioned, www.sshcat.ning is a great place! StrataLogica, a revolutionary web-based program from Herff Jones | Nystrom, is reinventing social studies! It's a great hands on program for students as they can collaborate with each other on a smartboard and/or on a laptop. It helps social studies come alive for students and is perfect for project-based learning! Check out the official Google YouTube video and go to for a free trial! With the new community space, teachers can share and collaborate with each other-opening the opportunity for a lot more learning and sharing of ideas!

Sarah Minnick's picture
Sarah Minnick
8-12 Social Studies teacher, Pennsylvania

Last school year we tried a thematic approach to our SS curriculum. I was able to take an era and do many comparisons to more recent events and themes. Your initial post mentioned about bringing in your love of science into history. This can easily be done, especially when studying war, is to introduce the science of warfare, putting the power in the students' hands. As you move through the decades, you can start doing comparisons, again, in the students' hands, to make those connections and see the evolution of technology and science, in warfare for example. We used Glogster a lot to make these connections and the use of rubrics in any project will make it clear what you are looking for. Expectations must be clear, but most important, be there to facilitate the process. Use their questions or patterns as a teaching moment to take the reigns to clarify or expand further on a concept. Also, simple and FREE sites like Voki or Blabberize can give the student power(and fun) to learn about a topic, theme, or event in any area that you would want them to, all the while, learning the material that they need.

Sarah Minnick's picture
Sarah Minnick
8-12 Social Studies teacher, Pennsylvania

One more post and then I will be done...
One unit that I did during this thematic year was using the space program as a backdrop for the Cold War and relations between the U.S. and Russia(Soviet Union). Quite fitting for recent events and the end of the U.S. shuttle program. Used Google docs to have my students collaborate and work on their writing skills using the AREA writing model.

Shelley Stout's picture
Shelley Stout
Author of historical fiction, for use in Social Studies and U.S. History.

I am embarking on a new project, and I would love to get feedback from teachers of Social Studies and U.S. History. Have you used historical fiction in your classes? Did you use a book which each student purchased? Did the school system purchase a book for each student? Did you have a bookshelf with one copy of each of several choices of novels? I am interested in how you used historical fiction and how the students reacted. Thank you in advance!

Edo Forsythe's picture
Edo Forsythe
English Professor in Northern Japan

I agree with Judy here. In my 20th Century American History class, I've broken the class down into decades and I teach the highlights of 2 decades and then turn the 3rd week over to the students. Each student must select a topic relavent to that time period and do a presentation for the class on their topic. Judy's right that at first, the presentations are basic but as students get used to it, they get elaborate! In the latter weeks, I've had to cut my students off because they were taking too much time and posting too many items on the board! Loosen the reigns and let the students run with your curriculum and you'll be amazed at their ability. If you want to add a tech aspect, let the students pick which tech they want to use - they're probably better at it anyways. - Good luck!

Megara_B's picture

I am looking for some ideas that focus on a "new" way to teach US History... I've got one class (11th grade) that no matter what I do they fight me (today was a movie and the talked through the whole thing). Their grades don't matter, there is limited parental involvement.
I have what is usually a very interactive classroom, we play games, we have fun, we move around, we do projects, we talk, but we learn. I'm not a fan of worksheets and book work, so before I resort to that does anyone have any suggestions?

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