Revamp Your Homeschool History Curriculum
By now, we know history is more than just memorizing facts, dates, and the presidents (thank gosh!). The study of history is so much richer and more interesting than that. It's the exploration of how humans went hammering rocks together for stone tools and making cave art to 3-D printing cars and reading blog posts about history homeschool curriculum. As the study of history evolved beyond memorization of facts into something much more dynamic and engaging, teaching history has become much more challenging, and in our current world, much more important as well.
From an award winning history teacher with twelve years of teaching experience to a diverse range of students, these are six foundations for your Homeschool History curriculum that are essential for a 21-century history class.
1. An Emphasis on Why History Matters
The single most important foundation for your homeschool history curriculum are lessons on why history matters. Students, whether they are eight or eighteen, are right to ask, “Why should I care about the past? How is this going to help me today?” By my third year teaching history, I realized I needed to address this important question and concern head on. My first lesson always is, “Why Should We Study History?” Students then dive into six major reasons why history matters for their lives and are challenged to come up with their own.
Most students know the cliche, “We study history so we don’t repeat the same mistakes.” But there's many more reasons to study history than just that! Other reasons from the lesson include; “It helps us understand the present and our own lives” “It helps us solve future problems,” “It inspires us to make a difference in the world,” and “It connects us to people across space and time.” After explaining these, discussing them, and ranking them in order of importance, students walk away with several powerful reasons why history is so important! To keep history relevant throughout the year, at the end of every unit, your homeschool student should reflect and explain why they think that topic (the Holocaust, the Black Death, the Revolutionary War) is so important for students and future citizens to learn. Rather than you trying to explain why it matters, have them do it. Simply put, if you want your child to genuinely engage with history, you must get them to understand the relevance and importance of it.
2. Historical Problem Solving & Decision Making
This is not just super fun and engaging, but vitally important for twenty-first century citizens. Some unit should have lessons and activities where students are placed in the driver seat of history, with real life scenarios, and challenged to make decisions. In US history, homeschool students could be asked if they were President Wilson, would they have entered World War I? If you were Martin Luther King would you have tried to work with Malcolm X or distance your movement from his? If you were a colonist in New England in 1776, would you have supported independence?
But to make it realistic, you need to give students essential details, the context, the pressures that people or the president faced in that situation, and the limitations they had in actually addressing the situation! And they also need the right resources to problem solve and think critically about the dilemma. Simply asking students, "What would you do if you were X in Y situation" can lead to rather surface level thinking and miss the real struggle involved with thinking through the historical event.
For instance, it's so very easy for us today to say President Lincoln should have emancipated the enslaved people of the South right at the start of the Civil War, but analyzing the realities of the time, the complexity of the realities at the time makes that decision much more challenging. This makes it more challenging but also so much more interesting and while make your history homeschool curriculum so much more engaging.
This type of real-life history gets students to realize history is not predetermined, but is shaped by the decisions of real-life and sometimes ordinary folks like them! Allowing students the opportunity to “play-history” forces them to grapple more deeply with the past. The Choices Program has very in depth lessons on a range of American and World History topics that are excellently made. The only problem is they are very advanced, even for high schoolers. I also created "Presidential Decisions" activities that are much more approachable for middle and high school age students that will really engage students in historical problem solving and decision making!
3. The Study of Historical Heroes
It's easy to study history and walk away cynical and just plain horrified. While students absolutely must face the darkness of history- the wars, slavery, genocide, and the many flavors of human oppression that characterized much of history, it is really important for their to be hero-stories in your homeschool history curriculum. The darkest stories generally necessitate the grandest heroes and so should history. When studying the Holocaust, for example, after ensuring you covered the absolute tragedy of the genocide of 6 million Jews and 5 million others, students must also learn the story of the Warsaw Uprising, the rescue of Jews in Denmark, or even the story of the White Rose- the German student group led by a bother and sister who gave their lives working to sabotage the Nazi war machine.
Studying the stories of heroes like John Lewis or Rosa Parks helps students realize they too can fight for justice in the face of oppression. Learning how with the power of the pen, Harriet Beecher Stowe helped to turn the hearts of millions of indifferent Americans against slavery, demonstrates that even seemingly, powerless people can make historical changes. Studying John Muir and how his love of nature that helped to save Yosemite can show students that through dedication, determination, and perseverance they too can make a difference in the world, regardless of the odds. History is dark- make sure to include some light.
Any homeschool history curriculum must include ample space for the hero archetype.
4. Historical Empathy: Understanding & Appreciating Change Over Time
It's frustrating for history teachers to see the public fail so miserably at having historical empathy. They fail to realize that historical figures existed in realities far different from modern America and were shaped by the circumstances of their time. And this, of course, comes down to a failure in history education. We got work to do!
The study of history must include the development of historical empathy- or the understanding of the realities of people in their times, their circumstances, and the realities of the world they lived in. This is needed for students to effectively engage with history and gain better insight into the behaviors and actions of the figures they study. Without this, students cannot really understand their accomplishments and failures. Without historical empathy, it's impossible to genuinely wrestle with the major complexities of the past. Context is absolutely everything.
Why did millions of ordinary Germans support Hitler or why would a poor white farmer fight in the Civil War, and why did Malcom X believe in the principles of “Black Nationalism” more than non-violent protest? These big questions cannot be understood without historical empathy and understanding context. That is why Thematic Based History is so troublesome as the context of events is much harder to understand and appreciate. SHEG has amazing and free lessons focused on contextualization and historical thinking skills in general.
Historical empathy also must be a foundation in your homeschool history lessons because it enables them to have greater empathy in their daily lives and to better understand people around the world or even right across the street.
5. The Rights and Responsibilities of Citizenship
Any history curriculum that does not help prepare students for the responsibilities of citizenship is failing one of its most important responsibilities. Homeschool history curriculum must prioritize lessons and activities that fosters students’ democratic values, understanding of our republican institutions, and how citizens and ordinary Americans have contributed to the problems and progress of our republic. While you definitely do not need to make them into activists, students definitely need to understand how citizens participate in democracy and effective means of advocating for change, even if they are not yet ready to. Studying the Boston Tea Party should lead to a debate on whether civil disobedience and the destruction of property is ever justified. Lessons on the Constitution should absolutely ensure students understand the major principles of the document and our governmental structure, but also on the importance of limited government, minority rights, and individual freedoms. Have your child read or research the story of how George Washington refused to be made king and put the country before power and self-interest. It's an inspiring story that reveals the fragility of a republic, the role of the citizen, and serving the community over your own desires.
A proper civics education simply must be interwoven into history curriculum- for the student’s and country’s sake.
6. Appreciation for What We Have Today
I was recently re-reading The Grapes of Wrath and like always, I was left with the gut-wrenching realization of just how lucky I am. The struggles and hardships that the Joad family faced on every page of that book were felt by millions of Americans less than a hundred years ago. And for most of human history, life was a lot worse than that- that didn’t even have a jalopy to carry-on in! Even though millions of us today still face serious hardships, studying history can always leave you feeling grateful for many things you take for granted.
Learning about bloggers being arrested in China, makes students appreciate their freedom of speech. Studying the Middle Passage and plantation slavery, makes us appreciate the great strides the world has made in the cause of human freedom. One thing I always remind my students when studying world history is that the most powerful kings just a couple hundred years ago would have sent whole armies to their deaths to have access for one day to what they hold in their pockets. But even smaller things can lead to historical gratitude.
When studying the 1920s, students may learn how household plumbing was becoming more available in America. I love sharing the story of city kids sneaking into bathrooms, flushing the toilets to watch the water drain, and being absolutely amazed. What an opportunity for gratitude. It really seems, none of them considered the fact that toilets didn’t just always exist! Shoot, I then remind them that even the most powerful emperors centuries back just pooped in what was essentially a bucket!
When doing reflections at the end of lessons or a unit, make room occasionally for this simple but powerful question, “After studying ______, what are you more grateful for?”
In that small way, history can help us appreciate more of what we have and the pleasure it is to study it!
Best of luck exploring history with your children!
PS - And if you're looking for homeschool history videos with full lesson plans so that teach the most important events in US history from the colonies to the Civil Rights movement, I'm sure you will love my US history video curriculum for homeschool!