Project-Based Learning (PBL)

How to Breathe Life into History

Get the subject out of the textbook and into your students’ world.

August 11, 2005

This how-to article accompanies the feature "This Old School: Students Reenact History."

Many students, particularly young ones, have an abstract view of history. Putting artifacts in their hands and giving them characters, chores, language, and events to reenact adds a three-dimensional aspect to the textbook page, injecting knowledge with empathy and understanding.

Make the local historical society your home away from home.

Organizations that preserve and interpret local lore can be a rich source of historical data and news on upcoming museum exhibits and educational programs. Type "historical society" into your search engine to score a list of appropriate state organizations. The Ohio Historical Society, for instance, is the nucleus for that state's archives -- collections of manuscripts, photos, and videos -- and the place to snoop for information to fill empty branches on a family tree. Military, marriage, and birth records, plus genealogy workshops for teachers, are located there.

Many historical societies have kids-only spinoffs, such as Ohio Kids, that feature educational cartoon characters, like archaeologist Ohio Jones or history wizard TellZall. Also, The Library of Congress offers The Learning Page, which provides teaching plans online.

Ask for a private tour.

The Virginia Historical Society, in Richmond, holds private tours that can accommodate thirty to seventy-five students, depending on your lesson, whether it is Virginia's African-American history or the Civil War. Students in grades K-5 can get their hands on reproductions of artifacts from Pocahontas's tribe, the Powhatan, while Civil War exhibits give kids an idea of what soldiers wore, ate, and wrote.

The Delaware History Museum, in Wilmington, is home to Grandma's Attic, an area where kids can play dress-up, tinker with historical toys, and flip through old periodicals. The museum hosts "history parties," with themes such as prehistoric Delaware or the Under-ground Railroad. Kids can also play with peers while reliving a former era in the 1940s kitchen and old-fashioned market.

Ditch the stereotypical bio.

How much will your students retain from a biographical report on the woman who sewed the American flag or the dude on horseback who warned that the British were coming? Though it's vital for students to understand why historical events are important and which figures were instrumental, try tossing the common biography assignment for something new that may also be more relevant. Assign a report on an elder family member, encouraging students to ask about where the subject lived in the past, what types of jobs the person has had, and how society was different when the relative was younger. Or, have students trace their family history.

Use the tube as your tool.

Kids are visual learners; if Mom has the remote and they're stuck watching an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, they'll at least, by the end of the movie, be able to describe the high waistlines, wide-brimmed bonnets, and pastel parasols of the period. Have your students combine book and online research of clothing and accessories with critical screen watching. When did women wear corsets? What weapons were used during the American Revolution? Watching period films gives kids an idea of a historical setting: Think ancient Rome in Gladiator or China during the Qing Dynasty in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. After they take notes, allow them to design their own variations on the settings they are studying, from a layout of their period bedroom with furniture and artwork to a colorful sketch of an outfit they'd wear on a typical day.

Look for vintage props and outfits.

Your class will need its own closet of costumes to get into character. Though garb improvisation or sifting through vintage or thrift shops may work, many Web sites sell inexpensive props and costume basics, while others offer full historical outfits for all time periods starting at $50. It's also possible your local theater troupe or high school drama club will lend costumes to your students, too.

Watch for local reenactments.

Historical reenactments are an easy way to network with like-minded educators, students, and community enthusiasts. For example, "We Make History" presents the American Heritage Festival, in Queen Creek, Arizona, on November 11 and 12. School Day, held on November 10, invites students to discover history from the colonial period to World War II, live-action style.

The largest living-history event in the western United States, The Civil War Revisited, brings the battles of Manassas to life on October 8 and 9 in Fresno, California. The Fresno Historical Society hosts the extravaganza, where visitors can witness a battle, chat with Harriet Tubman or Abraham Lincoln, and get versed in nineteenth-century women's couture at a fashion show.

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