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5 ways to make history “fun”

grizzley in the mail

It was several years ago that I first heard Sam Wineburg. He was speaking at a combined Kansas / Missouri Council for History Education conference almost six years ago. I had read his stuff, agreeing with his ideas about how we needed to re-think our approach to teaching history.

And his presentation didn’t disappoint.

I’ve been in love ever since.

Much of our work on the recently approved Kansas state standards revolved around the sorts of things that Wineburg is pushing and the websites he’s created – thinking historically, using evidence, communicating solutions. But something he said back in 2008 has stuck with me:

 I don’t think that a history class should be about things such as History Alive or about making cute posters, or about making history “engaging.” It’s about getting students to thinking rigorously about the evidence. Fun is okay, but I would rather have them hate the class and come out of the class having the skills needed to be good citizens than having them enjoy themselves.

I used to do a lot of “project-based” learning back in the day. It was fun and kids were engaged but I know now that not much high-level thinking was going on. You know the kinds of stuff I’m talking about – three fold brochures highlighting Civil War battles, oral presentations that required historical costumes, and lots of coloring.

Nothing wrong with fun projects . . . unless kids can do all of it without actually doing some sort of historical thinking.

But I recently ran across a cool article that reminded me that it is possible to teach high-quality social studies while still having fun. Written by Tim Grove, Chief of Museum Learning at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. and author of A Grizzly in the Mail and Other Adventures in American History, suggests five concepts that we should incorporate into our instructional designs.

Head over to get all of Tim’s goodness but here’s the short version:

1. Share your sources. Ask your audience questions and get them looking at the evidence.

What we do should never be about is just giving kids the answers. It needs to be more about giving kids problems to solve, helping them gather and organize evidence, and then let them struggle a bit. So . . . give your kids more data, more evidence, more primary and secondary sources, more ambiguity.

2. Make a personal connection.
I wrote about personal primary sources a bit ago. That can look like this and this. History has to be relevant to our students. Too often kids don’t see the connection between then and now, them and us.

3. Introduce the unexpected.

There is power in the unexpected. Different is good. Weird is better. Kids love the DEI. Need a place to find weird history stuff? Cracked. Yup. Cracked. The old Mad Magazine wannabe now online. Edit what you find cause it’s sometimes NSFW but you’re gonna love the history oddness.

4. Never forget people stories.

History is about stories and emotion. The stuff has to be real. So connect kids to actual people and the decisions that they had to make. I love Twitter to help tell stories – cause it can look like and this.

5. Find ways to convey your joy

If you’re a historian, you no doubt love the detective work of research ―analyzing sources and putting the pieces of the puzzle together, forming interpretations and drawing conclusions. We need to find ways to convey this enjoyment to our kids. It’s okay to be passionate about what we do!

And a bonus idea? It’s the 21st century. It’s okay to step into the video game world to help do all of this.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. I agree that history education needs a change. I remember sitting in my high school history courses and it was a continuous blur of name, date, event. Memorize, repeat on exam day. Very boring and i forgot everything the second after the exam. Everyone is different but I think what clicked with me was #3&#4.

    I was fascinated by the realities of life. Okay so that’s great that Athens had a giant fleet during the Peloponnese war, but what was amazing was the realities of maintaining those ships, how costly it was for rowers, how often they had to moor on shore to get materials (no food preservation!), and how much it sucked to be on the bottom of the boat. I could picture the misery, and I think that’s what history is about. Stepping away from dates and famous people, and moving more toward personable experiences. Just my take, enjoyed this post =)

    June 25, 2014
    • glennw #

      Thanks for the comment! We’re both on the same page – it is so much about emotion and stories and connections. We all need to do a better job of this.

      Have a great week!


      June 30, 2014

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