So You Want Your Students to Love History

Witness of my Ignited Love for History

Spring Semester of my last year of college, I had completed my student teaching and was preparing to graduate when my professors invited me to present to a crop of aspiring teachers in their 3rd year.

  "What topic do you want me to present on?"  I asked, feeling flattered.
  "We want you to share ideas about how you create lesson plans.  How you come up with your lessons.  We know you love history..."

I did, indeed.  Science was fun, Math and English were par for the course, but creating History units excited me to no end. 

Hadn't I talked a fellow student-teacher into dressing up as Cleopatra for her Egypt Unit?  And hand-painted her Egyptian necklace?   Hadn't I fried up bannocks in front of my class during a review presentation for Native Americans? 

 As I stood in front of that class of my own peers, I began sharing about lessons that thrilled the senses.  I went through the five senses one by one and talked about how to write a lesson that excited each one.  Pencils scratched all over the room as my fellow students began taking notes on how I came up with lessons I cared about. 

My temperament and personality are unique in the teaching profession.   I'm aware of this, because in a group of about 50 teachers that all took a personality test, I ended up in the minuscule group of 4,   labeled the "Artistic ones".    What's that mean when I stand up in front of a class? 

 I know what you're thinking:  "I bet she had one of those sorta disruptive, crazy, artistic classrooms, where everyone's doing their own thing, and it's crazy...some teachers can do that, I could not..." 

Haha, actually, I couldn't do those kind of classrooms either.  More power to them.  Nope, my classroom was quiet, well-managed and we usually did whole group activities.  I was jealous of my students' attention and insisted on a well-behaved class.  I required their interest and engagement.  Sometimes I had to work for it...but I needed them to not be a student like me.  

 Confession:  I was an indifferent student.  I was that kid, the one with glazed eyes.

Blessed to be a quick study, I did not put out extra effort and was satisfied with a few B's and mostly C's.  I did not have an innate drive to thrive in academics.  High grades and teacher praises were shrug-worthy matters.  At home, my older sister already fulfilled my parents' expectations with A's on every report card, and I was content to find another way to shine: usually doing something artsy.  The few teachers who found a way to light the fire of my interest were the ones who discovered that, if allowed, I would blaze trails with creativity. 

When I began teaching, it was the kids with the glazed over eyes, who I saw as my personal challenge.  What was required to light those fires?  That's what I asked myself.  The answer was most often, lessons outside of the "Read and Answer Questions" box. 

 Time for a Mountain Man unit?  I threw my hair in a braid and tucked it under a coonskin cap, changed into jeans and knee-length leather moccasins, and drew "stitches" around my ear with an eyebrow pencil.  Then, when my kids entered the class, I sat with my legs all man-spreaded and tried an "Old West" accent while I told the story of my (Jedidiah Smith's) battle with a bear.  There were no eye-glazes that day. 

Confession:  I still try for this approach in the lessons I create with my students today:  Which of the five senses can I light up today?  I do not practically succeed each time. 
Life interrupts and the best creative lessons often take the most effort and time to pull off.
But...when I can, I do. 

Because...why only read about Egypt's hieroglyphs when you can try to make them yourself? 

 Wouldn't it be easier for students to learn the agricultural crops of a country if they sample them in a meal first?

If you have an ancient tale kids need to remember, how about letting them turn it into a graphic novel?  The artistic ones might even be up for lengthening the tale, if allowed to.  

 If teaching Black History Month, play a version of the old hymn "Go Down, Moses" before explaining how Harriet Tubman alerted plantation slaves to her presence and willingness to lead them to freedom.  If the students read the lyrics themselves, all five verses, ask them why the song was relevant to Harriet and her people. 

This works for other subjects, too, by the way, even if my love doesn't shine as brightly in those areas.  You can always call in outside experts if you can't do it well, yourself.  For instance, science...When studying about the human body and digestion, I thought it would be cool if we got a local vet to share about the digestion system. 

I called one up and got even more than I had hoped for.  He offered to do a dissection and show the digestion organs inside a mouse.  I said, "Sure!" and let him take over my class as I opted out because of a weak stomach. 

My students had the option to leave if they couldn't handle it anymore.  About five of them ended up joining me in an outside room, but the veterinarian and any potential doctors in my class had a fabulous time together. 

One more confession, before I sign off: 

Confession:  With all of my own innate creativity, I did not find my love for history on my own.  Like every other subject area, I was indifferent to history all through elementary and high school.  It took a teacher, a college professor in my case, to ignite my love for it. 

He'd been teaching for years and like me, was indifferent to tests and grades.  Tests, schmests: Use the cheat sheet he provided.  All he asked was that we show up for his class and take notes on what he shared.  And did he share.  He brought history to life for me, in a way no one ever had.  He turned history into a story of humanity that was real and important and relevant.  I never missed a class.

But what he did and how he taught, ignited a love that not only sent me all around my continent to see historical sights.  It started off a chain reaction to inspire that same love in others. 

Take a moment.  Think over a stale lesson.  Which one of the five senses can you use to ignite a child's world?  To make that lesson alive and relevant?  There's always a way to turn an eye-glazed and indifferent student into a trail-blazer.  And as teachers, you already know how much fun it is to succeed at that. 


Unknown said...

Your kids must have a great time in class - what a fun way to learn! And as an English teacher, I loved the idea of the graphic novels!

Amanda said...

I *LOVE* this approach to teaching. Even though I am in kindergarten, and we only do a bit of history, this was extremely relevant! This is how I try to teach anything, if we are learning about dinosaur fossils- let's make our own, life cycle of a pumpkin? Bring some in and plant the seeds. Students stay so much more engaged in their learning and remember so much more when you are able to teach to their 5 senses! Thank you for another great post (I wish I had you as a history teacher- mine were all very dull!)

Christina Morrison said...

Thanks, Sharon: It is really good to hear an English teacher's perspective. It fires me up to finish off another graphic novel I have about 60% complete. So, thank you!

Haha, Amanda. That's exactly what I think when I read on your blog about your Kindergarten class. Only since I have kids of my own, I want you as *their* teacher. :) Love your amazing blog posts--keep up that creativity: it is SUCH a gift!

LearningWithMrsKirk said...

Great ideas for teaching history! I love that you try to hook your students by engaging their 5 senses. I bet they loved seeing you dressed up!

Christina Morrison said...

It's true! Every time they came into class and saw that I had a new costume on, they'd be so excited about the new topic and couldn't wait to hear what we were going to learn about that day. :) Besides, who doesn't want to dress up as Jedidiah Smith or Pocahontas?