If you're exploring how to get students interested in history and to get them excited to learn every time they step into your class, you're in the right place. If you find your students disengaged, or just going through the motions, and you're looking for ways to spark their interest in history, I've got 11 tips to help make history come alive in your lessons!
1. Hook Them With Bellwork
The first three minutes of class are the most important. They're your chance to captivate students' minds right from the get-go! My objective with bellwork is to have students eagerly leaning into the lesson. I often start with a fascinating image—a photograph, artwork, or political cartoon—and let them delve into the story it's telling. Make sure your bellwork ignites curiosity and interest in the topic so they want to learn the rest of the class!
2. Solve Real Historical Crises
My favorite strategy is 'History Decisions Simulations.' Here, students step into the shoes of historical figures facing real crises that changed the world. They work in groups, using role cards and scenario rundowns, and using this problem-solving worksheet they have to carefully navigate the crisis and come up with a solution for it. This approach not only makes learning fun but also ensures a deeper, emotional connection to the content. Put students in the driver’s seat of history more often!
3. Become a Storyteller, Not a Lecturer
Stories are how we make sense of the world. Lectures can impart knowledge, but without the grounding in narrative, content loses context and meaning. A lecture might seem an efficient way to get content across quickly to students, but if its not grounded in story, it won’t stick long term. Integrating stories—whether personal anecdotes that relate to concepts being taught or gripping historical events—helps students find relevance and form lasting connections.
4. CSI Investigations
I always tell my students that 'history is not what happened, but what we believe happened based on evidence.' Thus, history is like detective work! Setting up your class as a crime scene, complete with police tape, body chalk outlines, and artifacts will surely grab students' imaginations! Whether it's for Joan of Arc, The Boston Massacre, the Triangle Factory Fire, or the Execution of Queen Marie Antionette, these activities will get even your most reluctant learners engaged! Then using primary sources as clues and evidence, student-detectives need to work together to solve the case! This turns history into an engaging mystery for students to unravel.
5. Incorporate Food: Get Hungry for History!
Leveraging students' love for food is a fantastic way to teach history. Whether it's brewing Earl Gray tea for a lesson on the Boston Massacre or bringing in spices for a Silk Road lesson, sharing dark chocolate your Aztec lesson- integrating culinary elements helps bring historical events and cultures to life. Food is an essential aspect of culture and history and we’d be foolish to not integrate it into our lessons!
6. History Scavenger Hunts
I love doing ‘historical connection scavenger hunts’ with my students on campus, looking for things that connect to our units of study. Working in groups, students take pictures of things that they can connect to concepts we studied. For example, after studying the Progressive Era, they might photograph fire extinguishers for government regulation, our school garden for conservation, or anti-drunk driving signs for the temperance movement. Back in class, they create a one-slide presentation on their favorite photo-connection and explain how it connects to what we studied in our unit. It's a simple, engaging way to show how history influences our world today.
In my course, “Make History Engaging, Exciting, and Empowering,” there is a whole module that gets students seeing the relevance of history and how it impacts the world today!
7. Historical Trials
Trials are another strategy that squeezes out the juicy drama of history and then give students an opportunity to take on the role of different characters from history. You could reenact real trials like those of Socrates, Galileo, Salem Witch Trials, or fictional ones for Andrew Jackson or Genghis Khan. Either way, you get students taking on historical personas, reading primary or secondary sources to gather evidence for their testimonies or to prepare questions for the students tasked with being the lawyers, while jury members take notes during the trial and get to decide the fate of the defendant but must back it with evidence! This helps teach historical thinking skills in a fun way!
8. Wonder Day Projects
To truly engage students, it's vital to pique their curiosity and give them some control over their learning. 'Wonder Day Projects' allow students to research aspects of a topic they're curious about and present their findings in a creative way, thus fostering both engagement and empowerment. If you’re studying the Civil War for instance, students might choose to research if women were soldiers during the war, what medicine or health care was like for soldiers, what the most powerful weapons were, or how spies were involved. After spending the period researching, they might show what they learned by recording a two minute podcast, a brief google slides presentation, or by writing a fictional biography from the perspective of someone they learned about. When we give students more choice and harness their curiosity, they are more likely to be excited to learn history.
9. Meme it Mondays
If we can get students laughing about history, we’re a step closer to getting them to love history. And memes are a great way for students to be silly while also thinking critically about content. A fun way to do this is with Meme it Mondays. Create a slideshow with a bunch of different images from the last few lessons and give students time to create memes for some of them. Then you can share them with the class and get a good laugh while still reviewing the material. Nothing builds culture in the classroom like having fun learning together. :)
10. History Labs
History Labs, like CSI activities, are investigative but without the need for crime scene setups that are not always focused on crimes. They also resemble DBQs, beginning with an inquiry question and offering conflicting sources (primary and/or secondary) to provoke diverse perspectives and to pull students in different directions- making the investigation a puzzle of sorts. Students must engage in detective work- critically analyzing and questioning the evidence and the reliability of each source. This approach encourages them to problem-solve and scrutinize information, making learning more interactive and interesting than traditional methods that just tells students the answers and tasks them with memorizing it.
11. Celebrate Music
Music is a fundamental part of human culture and a brilliant (and simple) tool for making history engaging. Playing traditional or period-specific music as students enter the class sets the tone and deepens the learning experience by making learning more ‘experiential.’ You could also go further and task students with analyzing lyrics or musical styles which is sure to pique students’ interests and maybe even get them dancing a little!
True Engagement Starts When...
If we want to really get students excited about history we need to bring the past to life and give students meaningful work to engage with! By integrating fun and interactive activities, you can help students see history as a dynamic and relevant subject- not just as facts, names, and dates to memorize. Activities that build skills while still being fun and that gets students seeing the relevance of history will help them learn the content but helps spark a love of learning!
If you want to learn more about implementing strategies like these and how to get even your most reluctant learners engaged and interested in class, check out my course, “Make History Engaging, Exciting, & Empowering.”