Creating Historians: Send Them Out

Get teenagers out of the classroom in the pursuit of history; part three of a series on approaching social studies as a group of historians.

By Mollie Moore

old fashioned wagon wheel

Do you remember the first time you experienced something first-hand that you'd only previously read or heard about in school? If so, you'll likely recall the energy it evoked inside of you. I can clearly remember seeing the Statue of Liberty for the first time. I was 12 years old, and had previously spent hours learning about it in class. My adrenaline rose as the ferry got closer and closer to Lady Liberty. There is just nothing quite like seeing the grandiosity in-person. I walked the perimeter of its base, while sweating in the New York's June humidity. A surprise rainstorm on Ellis Island was icing on the cake! 

Okay, that was a bit of a high-standard example for the purpose of this article, but the point is, we all know from experience how powerful out-of-classroom learning can be, and it doesn’t have to involve an elaborate field trip. This article will provide some things to consider as you prepare to venture off campus.

What’s Around the Corner?

You may not teach in Washington DC or Jamestown, but your hometown has historic value that will add depth to scholars’ studies. Do some research utilizing the tools at your fingertips:

  • Your town’s historic society
  • Local clubs, such as Elks, Rotary, and Veterans associations
  • History museums
  • Online archives
  • A reputable resident who may have historic gems/anecdotes to share
  • Established organizations and monuments often have education programs designed for school groups, so make sure to ask 

Discovering your town can be an extraordinary adventure for you, too, as you find out more about where you live and anticipate sharing local treasures with your young historians.

Assign Adventures in Town

If it’s difficult to get an entire class off campus, try to assign something that requires a bit of travel outside of school hours. It doesn’t need to be far, just enough to make your students more of an active participant in their own learning. For my high school freshmen, I gave them a Hometown Travel Magazine assignment a la John Steinbeck in Travels with Charley—albeit a much watered-down version. They were each assigned a “beat”, and had two weeks to explore it, research it, talk to local residents (safety measures enforced), and uncover the real story behind the area. To make extra-credit assignments easier, I always had the same assignment available all year, to any grade level or class, worth the same amount of points. It included going somewhere with historic significance, conducting a scholarly investigation, photographing themselves there, and writing and/or presenting their findings. I got few takers, but it served several purposes:

  • For those who did do it, they were able to experience something unique and memorable.
  • Because learners usually shared their findings with the class, it opened up curiosity for others to possibly visit the location.
  • I never had to deal with learners asking about extra credit- they knew what it was, where the forms were, and how to do it.

Invite Someone to Your Classroom

I’m convinced the most impressionable lesson I ever taught was in a United States History class during which I said almost nothing at all. I had invited a Vietnam Veteran to speak to my juniors, who had been studying the war for about two weeks. They were an opinionated bunch, making this unit both heated and incredibly fun. However, I had my reservations about my lack of structure for the period. Each student wrote down one question before he arrived, and we had no agenda other than to listen to his stories for 90 minutes. They were totally silent as he spoke, and the weight of their respect and intrigue was palpable when he lifted his pant leg to show them severe scars he had collected in battle. I don’t think anyone used their pre-written questions, and as the end of our time closed in, a few students asked if they could get his information to hear more from him later. This had been his first time sharing with a class, and he was incredibly honored and moved.

If you haven’t already, look to your community to find figures who can add context and personal stories to your studies. Doing a unit on the 1950s? Perhaps you could find someone who was a teenager during that decade. Museums will sometimes send out an expert with artifacts to share on campuses. Very often there are resources at our fingertips, which if we don’t ask, won’t be of use to our kids.

Stepping outside the classroom (or bringing the outside in) is invigorating for all ages, and unfortunately often stops after elementary school. Encourage this type of investment in learning, and check out these resources to help you do it.

Related Lessons:

Virtual Field Trips

We live in the age of unlimited technology, so why not use it to travel the world? These virtual tours offer an unprecedented look at fascinating places, and would be a great tool in the classroom or as an assignment.

Field Trip to a Historic House

Middle School or high school learners explore historic homes in their town, complete a group research project, and write a letter to the director or curator of the house. After they have completed the project, the entire class visits one or two of the historic homes.

History Comes Alive in the Graveyard

Although often deemed spooky, cemeteries can be treasure troves of historical significance. Find a complete guide to conducting a field trip to a local cemetery where pupils will organize and categorize gravestone information and apply prior learning to further understand what they are reading.