because history just ain't what it used to be

Teaching History in the Classroom: a view from 9th grade

In Opinion on March 18, 2010 at 12:08

by Emily Etkins and Jen Kreis

History can be taught in many different ways, and different learners adapt to different methods of teaching. The ways that history is taught have differed and changed throughout the years. Some ways work best in a classroom, while others do not; teaching methods and available resources can make learning history a great experience… or not.

When I walk into Western Civilization class, I know it will never be boring. We are always doing different activities like watching gory war videos on YouTube or playing cool Egyptian games. Last year, my eighth grade year, was all text book work. It was so boring that I could barely keep myself awake. No one wants to go to class, open the history book, and listen to the teacher lecture.

I believe that teachers are often taught a way to teach children, but then don’t develop their own way of teaching; which leads to either forgetting the more effective way of teaching, or not caring about teaching methods.

Instead of lecturing for an hour, the teacher should try to make it fun by sharing different resources about the topic. Here’s an example: Maybe you are learning about Julius Caesar, the conspiracy, and the assassination. There are many wonderful sites and videos online. For example, the BBC Ancient History site and their various video series like Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar which is an animated tale of Caesar’s assassination and the events that occurred after as well as the exciting Rise and Fall of an Empire series. Instead of the boring old text book, these resources are a great way to show students what happened to Julius Caesar.

BBC History also has many free online interactive games about many different topics. One of the topics is Egyptian pyramid making. It explains the right places and tools to use to build a pyramid. Even if you just have a small game of Jeopardy, a lot more information will be absorbed than you think. They might even remember certain moment in class that makes them recall the answer later. And what kid doesn’t love a little competitive game that involves a treat for the winner?

Fifteen percent of the population are kinesthetic learners (“Kinesthetic”). This means they don’t learn well from listening or reading; but rather learn from doing stuff, using their hands, and moving around. Reading the text book in class isn’t going to help these learners. It is very hard to concentrate on a text book for about an hour without taking a break. To help these kinesthetic learners, you should try hands-on activities, such as group projects and interactive activities like acting out parts of history, such as wars. The teacher could set up the students in battle formation and ask them questions about what the general might do next.

The main focus for a teacher in teaching students should be to get them involved in what they are learning about.

History is one of the best subjects to teach students interactively to help them see what they are learning about in a better way. But teachers need to remember not to just lecture out of a book.

When talking to adults about what it was like to be taught history when they were growing up in the 1960s to 1970s, I received a few different answers. Mary Anne said that when she was in high school, the teacher would lecture to the class, and she would take notes and make an outline. She stated, “I felt like I never really learned the history, I memorized my notes and was able to answer essay questions on tests by regurgitating my memorized notes on to the test paper.”

Today, there are still teachers who share information with the class in this way, but there are others who use the advancement in technology that we have by showing historically accurate videos or taking the class on the path of an historical campaign using Google Earth. In my opinion, what we are being taught is absorbed better if we are interactively learning it.

When talking to Phil, a man who always loved history class, he shared a story about a teacher he remembered well from 3rd grade. He recalled, “One of my favorite history teachers was a teacher by the name of Mrs. Burnell in 3rd grade.” He went on to explain a memorable experience he had in her class. “She actually took us on a trip to the Appalachian Mountains. We took food and different supplies and toys to the poor people there. We gave them a party, we had a party. She made learning very interesting with the way she taught. She was an African-American teacher in an all white school in Baltimore City. She really had a way with the students and made learning really fun.”

When I asked what exactly she did that made learning so fun, he said, “I just remember that she made class very interesting and maybe that it was because for the first time I was being taught by a black person. I didn’t know what to expect, but as it turned out I really enjoyed being in her class. I remember her being very friendly, approachable, and she welcomed questions.”

Phil also had another story that he vividly remembered about acting out a play about the American Revolution in the 7th grade. Remembering the play, he said, “I was George Washington. One of my classmates had a coat from his mother that was blue that looked like a colonial coat, and I wore that. To make the learning interesting, we played the parts of different people. We had lines and acted them out.”

Learning had become interesting, just by making it interactive. Instead of sitting in a chair and copying down notes being said, you could actually learn in a more productive way.

History can be taught in a variety of different ways, but some ways are more effective than others. In Phil’s years of being taught history, he found them enjoyable, because he always had an interest in learning about the past. Even without technology available, he was able to really learn and enjoy learning through interesting teachers and real experiences. Mary Anne, on the other hand, did not experience those methods of teaching and did not feel like she really knew or learned the information.

History is a wonderful and interesting topic to study, but lecturing is the wrong way to go when teaching kids because they will not stay attentive and alert. Interactive games and technology are great ways to teach students any topic that you would like them to learn because they are having fun, but at the same time they are learning. But even without those resources, history can be a fun topic to study — if time is put in to how to teach it.

Works Cited

“BBC – History – Ancient History in Depth: Pyramid Challenge.” BBC – Homepage. Web. 11 Mar. 2010. <>.

“Kinesthetic Learning . “Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 11 Mar. 2010. <>.

“History Class.” Flickr. Web. 12 Mar. 2010. <>.

  1. Nice article! As a history teacher myself, I work hard to create interactive lessons for my students. In fact, I almost never lecture! I would be interested to know if you have found in your research that kids enjoy/learn/retain more when teachers connect what they are learning in the past with current issues? This is something I try to do and I would love to hear the perspective of your class.

  2. When I was in sixth grade, back in 1962, I was lucky enough to have a teacher who used projects for many subjects. We studied plants by raising orchids in our classroom, and when a holiday break came, we were given plants to take home and care for! We combined writing, music, and art together by writing our own version of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta and then putting the show on for the school and our parents. It was the most inspiring year of my formative education and influenced my own teaching career from which I am now retired. Alas, because my sixth grade teacher was so forward thinking, he was let go after only one year. I feel very fortunate to have been in his class.

  3. I thoroughly enjoyed your article. It made me reflect on my own career as a second language teacher. Although teachers in other fields have often relied on lecturing, most second (ESL)or foreign language teachers learned early on that students needed to be actively using the language in meaningful ways in order to retain it. Next week I am going to start to learn Chinese and I’m hoping that the teacher will make the class as interactive as possible. Perhaps I should have her read your article!

  4. Emily and Jen,

    I really like this article. I think it’s a good thing that students are saying what they think, and giving teachers some good and well-supported feedback. I also found it awesome that you went and took the time to talk to adults about their own school experiences, and how well you used what they said to back up your points and make the article more personal, giving opinions from not only yourselves, but also from other people as well.

    I was just wondering what you thought of students who do learn better with a teacher speaking at the front of the class. Do you think that there are people who learn better this way, or that everyone can learn better with more hands-on learning? And if teachers have to teach to all these different kinds of learners, how should they go about doing this?


  5. Very interesting article and suggestions. As a teacher myself, I am constantly asking myself, “Why do I love this subject/topic/book so much?” and trying to relate that to my students. However, student apathy is very real. What would you say to teachers who feel that many students “don’t ever really give it a chance”?

  6. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I’m going to make sure that the teachers in my school, (in Montreal, Quebec, Canada) read this. Maybe that will encourage some of them to listen to what their students would like to see, hear and do in the classroom.

  7. What a great project you have going here! Very interesting to read. As a first year teacher, in Saskatchewan, Canada, I try to engage my students as much as possible. Something that I have noticed recently is that my students have trouble expressing how they learn best, what will help them understand the content. I think that it is very valuable that you both understand how you learn best. Thank you for the article and thought provoking words!

    Keep up the great work!

  8. What a great article. Thanks for reminding us teachers how we should be doing what we do, whether it’s history or something else. We should all allow students to teach us how they learn.

  9. Spot on! I wish more educators saw the necessity in talking to students. Consider yourself lucky that you have a teacher who is hands on and willing to listen to the students.

  10. I really enjoyed your blog and found it quite insightful. It has been many years since I taught social studies, but I have often wondered how I would teach a particular concept. For example, would I teach in linear framework, or would I group concepts (treatment of Native Americans as opposed to Japanese-Americans during WWII. One thing is certain: I would not use the textbook except as one of many resources. Thanks so much for sharing your work, and good luck on upcoming projects

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