A History Teacher’s Top 4 Techniques

Recently, in a discussion with a teaching colleague, the question came up, “How do you make history class interesting?” To me, the history nerd, it seemed like a silly question. As a student I was interested in almost everything I did or learned in history class, however, as a teacher I am learning that not all students value history in the same way that I did.

In response to my colleague’s questions I have decided to compile a list of some of my favorite techniques in teaching history. I must say that one way I keep my class interesting is that I never use the same technique more than once in a week. I have a large array of class activities and I try to make sure that the students are engaged in classroom activity and discussion everyday. I am a ninth grade Honors World History teacher and engaging students can become quite a struggle with that age level. From my long list of teaching techniques here are my top four history techniques and activities:

  1. Political Cartoons: Political cartoons are one way to measure student understanding in an out-of-the-box thinking activity. I present the cartoon at the beginning of the class period for bell-work. The cartoon is projected on the Smartboard and students have to explain what they see and the historical significance in one paragraph. This paragraph has to include answers to Who? What? When? Where? Why? as they apply to the cartoon. I also like to use cartoons to connect ideas. I use a cartoon that touches on some of the ideas from the previous class period, but which also presents a bigger picture that causes the students to draw some of their own conclusions.                               18th century --- A satirical criticism of the crushing burden imposed by the nobility and the clergy on the Tiers Etat (Third Estate), the third of the three orders of society in the Ancien Regime. --- Image by © The Gallery Collection/Corbis

2. History Notebooks: The first week of school I take one day to teach students how to organize their History Notebook for the year. Students purchase a 100 page spiral notebook. We number each page front and back. Then, we divide the notebook into sections and label them: Vocabulary, Notes, Reflections, Projects. We cut post-it notes in half to create tabs for each of the sections.

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In the Vocabulary section students list the terms and definitions from each section we cover in class. In the Notes section students take notes during lectures and readings. In the Reflections section students answer questions based on the information they have learned and apply those ideas to life or other ideas. In the Projects section students record topics for Current Event projects, draft essays, and complete some of the planning necessary throughout the year for various projects.

3. Jigsaw Learning: Whenever it becomes necessary to read a large portion of text or a chapter from a textbook what I like to do is section the reading off into smaller portions and assign each small group a portion. Each group is to take notes and become the experts on the content they read in order to present that information to the rest of the class.

We present that information in one of two ways. The first presentation method is having each group present their section to the entire class. The second presentation method is to assign new groups that contains one member from each of the originals so that every portion of the entire reading is represented in each group. Within their new groups, each member teaches the rest of the group about the information that they read in their assigned reading. This method may seem a little confusing, but it is a lifesaver and the students are far less likely to grumble if you shorten their assigned reading from a whole chapter to two to three paragraphs.

4. Visual Timelines: This teaching strategy can be used to either introduce a new unit or to review one that has been completed. In this method, I take ten important events from that unit and type them out and glue them onto colored paper. I ask for ten volunteers to hold up each of the events in the front of the classroom. Students have three minutes to try to sort the events in order on their own paper. Then, as a class we go over the events and ensure that everyone was able to put the events in order.

An example of a unit where I have used this strategy is the French Revolution. After we studied the revolution students reviewed the unit by organizing the events into order.


I’m always looking for new and innovative strategies for teaching so if you would like to offer some new ideas feel free to do so in comments. I hope that these four ideas help to provide a glimpse into how I make history class interesting and defeat the monotony that can so easily creep into my lesson plans.

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