Making history class interesting: A lesson plan

Getting kids to dive into history can be a chore — but a chore well worth the effort.

Here’s what it might look like, if the kids dive in:

ON the kind of humid summer day that sends visitors to Washington running for cool cover, not even free air-conditioning could lure more than a trickle of tourists into the art museums lining the National Mall.

But 35 miles south at the National Museum of the Marine Corps near Quantico, Va., visitors in a virtual boot camp tested their mettle against drill instructors and their marksmanship on an M-16 laser-rifle range.

Up the Potomac at Mount Vernon, crowds spilled onto a four-acre replica of George Washington’s working farm, while inside the Revolutionary War Theater the rumble of cannons and the cold prick of snow falling overhead lent verisimilitude to the re-enactment of his troops crossing the Delaware River.

And at the International Spy Museum in downtown Washington, visitors with $16 advance tickets snaked out the door as they waited their turn to practice fantasy espionage, complete with assumed identities, pen cameras, shoe phones and the kind of super-spy cars Q might have dreamed up for 007.

Admit it. Learning about history has rarely been so much fun.

You’re not close to Quantico, nor to Washington, D.C.?  How about you get your kids to invent a museum.

The New York Times collaborates with Columbia University’s Bank Street College of Education to produce lesson plans based on stories from the Times, every week day.

You may subscribe to get a lesson plan to your e-mail box every dayOr you can track them down at the Times’ website.

Below the fold, without editing, I list the lesson plan sent out September 10, as an example.  Sounds like a good day in class, to me.

This lesson plan is presented exactly as it comes in e-mail:


Developed in Partnership with
The Bank Street College of Education in New York City

IT’S ALIVE!: Bringing History to Life by Creating Hands-On Museum Exhibits

History’s Real Stuff (Sorry, Miss Grundy), By KATHRYN SHATTUCK,

September 10,

Yasmin Chin Eisenhauer, Bank Street College of Education in New York
Sarah Kavanagh, The New York Times Learning Network


American History
Global History
Language Arts

In this lesson, students will create proposals for hands-on, interactive and/or multimedia museum exhibits that bring different historical figures, eras, events, groups, or movements to life.

1 hour

Students will:

1. Create quizzes for their classmates to complete and discuss why they learn and remember some material easily while other material is difficult to absorb and retain.

2. Discover how new museums have been bringing history to life through interactive exhibits.

3. Create their own hands-on museum exhibit proposals and pitch their ideas to their classmates.

4. Write letters to the teacher listing ways that history classes can be made more fun and engaging, or write reflection papers about a visit to a museum.



-classroom board

-butcher paper or posterboard


-copies of the article “History’s Real Stuff (Sorry, Miss Grundy),” found online at

(one per student)

1. Students respond to the following prompt (written on the board prior to class): “Compose a five question true or false quiz on a topic in history of your choice. You should know the answers to each of your questions.” When students have finished composing their quizzes, have them swap with the people sitting next to them. Each student should take the quiz and then have it graded by his or her partner. Once all pairs have finished grading, tally the results on the board. As a class, discuss which topics were most popularly used for the quizzes. Which subjects seem to produce the most number of correct answers? Why do they think these subjects were more memorable? Were they taught these subjects a certain way in class or were other learning resources employed that enhanced their learning?

2. As a class, read and discuss the article “History’s Real Stuff (Sorry, Miss Grundy)” (
As students read, instruct them to underline information offered by historians and museum learning specialists about the exhibits that seem to teach young people most successfully. Focus on the following questions:

a. Why did more visitors go to the National Museum of the Marine Corps, Mount Vernon and the International Spy Museum than attended the art museums on the National Mall?

b. How does Kathryn Shattuck, the article’s author, use the “stale soda cracker”?

c. What does Shattuck mean when she says that “museum directors… sense opportunity – and profitability – in the low [history] test scores” of American youth?

d. What word do you associate with high school history class?

e. Can you think of an example of how you might “find [yourself] – spiritually, socially and intellectually” in the material presented in a history museum?

f. What source of historical information do you find the most trustworthy: your teacher, your older relatives, your textbook, museums, or other sources?

g. What do the statistics on the Smithsonian’s Web site say about how the popularity of history museums compares to the popularity of art museums?

h. What are some examples of interactive exhibits mentioned in this article? Do you know of interactive exhibits not mentioned in the article?

i. Do you think that history museums should “stop at nothing to attract a crowd”? Can the “bells and whistles” go too far? Why or why not?

j. Why are museums looking for ways to attract people of younger generations?

k. Colonel David Fabian says “the museum is not the artifacts. It’s stories.” How does this approach manifest itself in the exhibits mentioned in this article?

l. How is “hands-on” or “interactive” learning different from “regular” learning? Do you think young people learn more when they engage in interactive learning? Why or why not?

3. As a class, discuss the sentences and phrases that students underlined while reading. What was discussed in the article that conveyed the kinds of exhibits that teach young people successfully? Write students’ answers on the board. This list should include that: viewers needs to find themselves in history, viewers need contact with real historical artifacts, viewers need sensory connections to the subject matter and viewers need to be told a story. Have students add to this list with other criteria they gathered from their discussion during the warm-up activity. Keep this list on the board for future reference.

Inform students that they will be creating a proposal for an interactive, hands-on history museum exhibit focusing on an era, event, movement, group or person. Have students brainstorm a list of possible subjects based on their studies.
Which subjects seem to be most popular? Why? What makes a subject interesting? What makes it less interesting? Have the class as a whole select the subject they like the least and discuss ways they can make learning interesting, engaging
and fun.

As a class, create a list of subtopics for the subject agreed upon for the exhibit proposal. For example, if your class’s exhibit proposal will focus on America in the 1920’s, your subtopics might be “styles and trends,” “music and entertainment,” “art and architecture,” “technology and inventions,” and “books and literature.”

Next, split the class into small groups and assign each one of the subtopics. Tell groups that they will create proposals for the design of interactive, multimedia and/or hands-on exhibits to teach museum goers about their respective subtopics. Each group’s proposal should include: a diagram, map or drawing of the entire exhibit along with a written description of what will happen at the group’s individual station, and a description of what museum goers will learn from the exhibit as a whole. Students should be given butcher paper, or poster board and markers to create their diagrams, maps or drawings. Have students review the article they just read for examples of interactive exhibits. Remind them that successful interactive exhibits have included sensory experiences, multimedia presentations, re-enactments, role-playing and hands-on activities. Have students look through their class notes, handouts and textbooks for relevant
historical content.

Once groups have finished both the drawn and written components of the proposals, inform them that they will now pitch their respective ideas to a museum board. The objective of their presentations is to sell their ideas to the museum
board by highlighting how their proposals will hold the attention of young museum goers while simultaneously educating them.

Call one group to the head of the classroom to present first. Then choose one representative from each of the remaining groups to sit in a semi-circle facing the presenters to play the role of the museum board. The rest of the class should sit behind the students who are playing the board. After the first group presents, have the students who are playing board members ask clarifying questions of the presenters. Remind students that the goal of the board is to find an exhibit that educates as well as entertains.

Repeat this process to make sure that every student has a turn.

Once each group has pitched a proposal to the class, reconvene. Remind students of the activity they did at the beginning of class. Ask them again if they can think of ways to make learning history interesting. How can the techniques
used in museums be used in schools?

4. WRAP-UP/HOMEWORK: If you are teaching this lesson in tandem with a trip to a museum, have students write reflection papers about their visit. What was the most memorable exhibit or learning center? Why? What did they like least and most? Did the museum meet the criteria for interactive exhibits that the class discussed? Why or why not?

If you are not teaching this lesson in tandem with a trip to a museum, have students write letters to history teachers listing ways that history classes can treat stories as “the heart” of history in order to make learning more interesting to young people. Outline specific strategies history teachers can use to make the classroom and the subject matter more interactive and hands-on. Can teachers use different technologies? Can they teach different content? Can they engage students in specific types of activities? What can students do to support teachers in this endeavor?

-Do you have a favorite museum? Why is it your favorite?

-What projects have you done in history classes that have inspired you and/or piqued your interest?

-What projects have bored you?

-What eras, events, movements, or people in history do you think are the most interesting to learn about? Why?

-What eras, events, movements, or people in history do you think are the least interesting to learn about? Why?

Students will be evaluated based on completion of the quiz activity, participation in class and group discussions, creative execution of exhibit proposals and presentations, thoughtful composition of letters or reflection papers.

mettle, marksmanship, verisimilitude, re-enactment, espionage, artifacts, evocative, curators, expansive, catering, diaspora, multimedia, interactive, exhibitions, fuselage, ricocheting, crusader, inaugural, subtle, melding, poignant, flamboyant, bolstered, quintessentially, effusively

1. Create an evaluation form for a museum that you will visit as a class. What criteria should an educational museum geared towards young people meet? While on the museum visit fill out the evaluation form and discuss your findings when you return to class.

2. Write a letter to a museum that you have visited with suggestions about how it can gear exhibits towards young people while maintaining educational integrity.

3. Visit a local museum and pick one gallery to modify in order to make it more interactive and hands-on. Determine what the gallery is trying to teach and find new ways to teach the same material. Submit your suggestions to the museum

4. What do curators do? What are their job responsibilities? What education and experience did they need before becoming curators? What do they like most about their profession? What do they like least? Interview a curator at a local
museum or historical society for answers and submit an article for the features section of your school newspaper.

Economics – Research how museums are financed. Look at the differences between public and private museums. What roles to government funding and philanthropy play? Create chart that compares several different museums along these

Fine Arts – Create a proposal for an interactive art museum exhibit for a specific movement like cubism or impressionism.

Science – Science museums have been very successful at creating interactive exhibits geared towards young people. Create your own version of a hands-on science museum for elementary students. Act as a tour guide for students when they visit your museum.

Technology – Visit the Web site of one of the museums mentioned in the article and explore the exhibits. Write a review and include suggestions for how the museum can make better use of the Internet to extend and enhance the experience.

Teaching with The Times – Visit the online audio slide-show that accompanies the article you read in class. (Found online at
Pick another article from the print edition of the Times and write a proposal for how the paper could use the Internet to enhance this article and attract younger readers. To order The New York Times for your classroom, click here.


Grades 6-8

Historical Understanding Standard 2: Understands the historical perspective.
Benchmarks: Understands that specific individuals and the values those individuals held had an impact on history; Analyzes the influence specific ideas and beliefs had on a period of history; Analyzes the effect that specific “chance
events” had on history; Analyzes the effects specific decisions had on history;
Understands that historical accounts are subject to change based on newly uncovered records and interpretations; Knows different types of primary and secondary sources and the motives, interests and bias expressed in them (e.g., eyewitness accounts, letters, diaries, artifacts, photos; magazine articles, newspaper accounts, hearsay)

Language Arts Standard 1: Uses the general skills and strategies of the writing process. Benchmark: Uses content, style, and structure (e.g., formal or informal language, genre, organization) appropriate for specific audiences (e.g., public, private) and purposes (e.g., to entertain, to influence, to inform)

Grades 9-12

Historical Understanding Standard 2: Understands the historical perspective.
Benchmarks: Analyzes the values held by specific people who influenced history and the role their values played in influencing history; Analyzes the influences specific ideas and beliefs had on a period of history and specifies how events
might have been different in the absence of those ideas and beliefs; Analyzes the effects that specific “chance events” had on history and specifies how things might have been different in the absence of those events

Language Arts Standard 1: Uses the general skills and strategies of the writing process. Benchmark: Uses strategies to address writing to different audiences (e.g., includes explanations and definitions according to the audience’s background, age, or knowledge of the topic, adjusts formality of style, considers interests of potential readers)

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company (fair use here)


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