Social Sundays: Bringing History Alive

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Recently I wrote about the stories of history. Another key aspect of history is the experience.  The reality is that replicating the experience of working in the factories during the industrial revolution or negotiating the treaty of Versailles is a lot of work. And sometimes it seems as if there is no time for these deep explorations. But when there is, the power of a simulation of events is remarkable.

I'll give you an example. I was teaching U.S. history, and as many of my regular readers have probably discerned, I really start getting interested in U.S. History about the time of Teddy Roosevelt. But we don't always get to choose what we teach, and I was teaching westward expansion.  I'll be honest in saying that this part of U.S. History makes me yawn.  To keep my students from yawning, too, I needed to get inspired.



 I read a lot, in particular about Lewis and Clark.  What struck me most was that the expedition was:

  • A gathering of scientific data 
  • Exploring an unknown territory 
  • Survival.

I didn't have great ideas for survival, but I thought we could do something with data gathering and exploration.

First we created paper bag journals. We could have used our own journals, but I saw this post awhile ago online and thought it could be fun to stretch a little authenticity into it (so incredibly easy, by the way, and built in pockets for gathering samples). Journals in hand I was able to facilitate our own expedition outside. We talked about how the expedition was both a scientific travel as well as an exploratory expedition. Lewis and Clark were tasked with observing, journaling and sending samples back. 



I asked the students to imagine that they are experiencing the area for the first time. They used their journals to diagram, take notes, write observations about sounds, etc. I encouraged them to classify and name what they saw rather than just use the known names. I was super impressed with how students got into it (one year when we couldn't go out, so we had an indoor expedition using pictures of exotic animals, which worked remarkably well).

We followed this inquiry activity with formal readings and a set of station activities for students to explore individual aspects more deeply. But what everyone talked about long after was the expedition.

To put together a simulation, I take this approach:



  1. Identify the big concepts related to the event or experience
  2. Decide whether this is an introductory event where students may have little or no knowledge afraid of time or do students need background information. For example when we did a Galileo trial, students prepared their parts by reading informational text on the person they were playing.
  3. Determine what if any written directions are needed.
  4. Set the tone - when we are muckrakers from the progressive era, I take on the role of newspaper editor and students be one the investigative reporters.
  5. Be open - put out some guidelines but then let the students go with it.  The point is experiencing the idea of an event.
  6. Reflect - what worked, what didn't. Make notes now for next time.

What are some of your favorite ways to bring social studies alive?  Share them in the comments section.


Social Sundays is a weekly post sharing tips, ideas, resources, and products for teaching social studies.  If you have questions or think there is something I should share, you can leave me a message on Facebook or at the store in the question and answer section.  



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