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You need to be using the Smithsonian History Explorer. Seriously.

I thought I knew the Smithsonian History Explorer. I’ve been using it and recommending it for years. But I was wrong. I don’t know the Smithsonian History Explorer.

Not like I should know it. Cause they’ve changed and updated it.

So if you teach US history (or even world), you seriously need to head over and do some poking around. The staff from the Smithsonian  Museum of American History has added so many new resources, lessons, activities, and themes, I guarantee you’ll walk away with all sorts of stuff you can incorporate into your instruction tomorrow.

Start by using the search tool on the home page. Insert key words, select your resource type, grade level, era, and potential cross curricular connection. Hit return. You’ll get results from a couple thousand ready to use lesson plans and activities.

Continue exploring by clicking the tabs across the top. You’ll find a variety of specific tools that you can integrate into your instructional designs. They’re all good, especially the Books tab. But I think the Themes tab is probably going to be the most useful. Museum education staff have created 19 broad topics such as Westward Expansion, Women’s Suffrage, or Civic Action.

Each broad theme is basically a text set of tools and resources. So you’ll find a variety of different artifacts, activities, and lessons all targeting that particular topic. For example, the American Experiments theme has seven different activities that focus on the question of what ” a more perfect union” really means.

I especially like the Head to Head activity that invites students to think deeply about how American history has been shaped by people in different eras and from diverse backgrounds.

The activity begins with the guiding question:

“Who changed America more?” 

This simple question has no one right answer and can open up new ways of understanding how the nation was shaped into what it is today. Using a March Madness tournament style bracket, students make their case for the person they believe has had the biggest impact on America. They debate matchups and ultimately choose who they think shaped America the most.

All of the lessons and activities link to an interactive website or a PDF download making it super simple to get your hands on the stuff you need.

You’ll also want to poke around in the Teacher Resources tab. I especially love the guides to teaching with primary sources:

Engaging Students with Primary Sources, a guide for teachers, includes brief introductions to using documents, photographs, oral histories, and objects for classroom learning. The guide includes student handouts, sample lessons, recommendations for finding primary sources by type, and more support materials for teachers.Shoe Poster

If You Walked in My Shoes, a teaching poster introducing students to the who, what, where, when, why, and how of object investigation and the personal stories in history through six pairs of shoes in the Museum’s collection.

Looking at Artifacts, Thinking About History was written by Museum curators and introduces teachers to the variety of stories objects can tell. The site includes links to other resources for interpreting primary sources.

And be sure to scroll down a bit further for links to the Museum’s archived webinars highlighting key resources from the its online materials. These are perfect for some just in time personal professional learning. And with substitute teachers at a premium in our current state of affairs, having access to these kinds of learning opportunities are just what we all need:

  • Podcasts
    Hear ideas for using the History Explorer podcast series in your secondary classroom. The series is designed for students in grades 6 and up and provides 10-20 minute interviews with museum experts and first person perspectives on important events in American history, as well as behind the scenes views of artifacts in the collection. Visit the Museum’s podcast page to preview materials.
  • Civil War 
    Join Museum staff for an overview of the best of their Civil War online materials and a preview of resources in development. Designed for teachers of grades 5-8.
  • OurStory and Summer Learning
    Explore resources to support children’s learning through the summer. Designed for elementary teachers and parents of children in grades K-4.
  • Star-Spangled 200
    Museum staff highlight resources for teaching about the Star-Spangled Banner and learn how to participate in the Raise it Up! Anthem for America project, the largest simultaneous singing of a national anthem in history. Designed for teachers of grades 3-8.
  • C3 Framework
    Lead inquiry-based education throughout the school year using the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework. This webinar examines the Museum’s best resources for teaching the NCSS Inquiry Arc in the C3. Designed for secondary teachers.
  • Research for National History Day
    Are you and your students gearing up for this year’s National History Day competition? Find tips on searching for primary materials from the Smithsonian, podcasts, blog posts, and other resources that students can use to learn about the historian’s craft.


If you thought you knew the History Explorer, you may want to head and dig in a bit. It probably doesn’t look anything like you thought it did. And if you never been, well . . . what are you waiting for?

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Glenn is a curriculum and tech integration specialist, speaker, and blogger with a passion for technology and social studies. He delivers engaging professional learning across the country with a focus on consulting, presentations, and keynotes. Find out more about Glenn and how you might learn together by going to his Speaking and Consulting page.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Tim #

    I am so happy I came across this post. I don’t think I would ever have looked at the Smithsonian for resources in my (virtual) classroom. I am excited to use some of things I have found on The History Explorer with my class later this year. I am especially looking forward to using the Head to Head activity with my students, as well as some of the podcasts to give my students a break from having to look at a screen. Thanks so much for posting this!

    November 18, 2020
  2. Dan #

    Wow. This seems like a really useful tool. I think this just goes to show that when it comes to tech tools you need to keep checking in every once in awhile to see if they’ve been updated. Technology always changing is usually viewed as a challenge when trying to integrate it into the classroom, but here the changes have been positive and seem to have made the History Explorer into a great classroom tool. I also love how many tools are contained within this one tool. It seems like the Smithsonian has put in the work to compile a plethora of resources to help history teachers out.

    November 18, 2020
    • glennw #


      Thanks for dropping by! I really love the work of the Smithsonian – lots of great resources you can use right away.


      November 24, 2020

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