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Textbooks primarily have main events and boring dates, and occasionally a short biography of a person you already know. Dates alone are nothing more than numbers. Reading boring facts like “America invaded France in June 1944.” is nothing compared to reading a journal entry by a paratrooper who experienced the beaches of Normandy during that turning point during WWII.
All resources require going in-depth into a time period – so you may want to take a week or longer for each period. When going in-depth and looking beyond facts, boring names become faces and those faces become real people you begin to imagine in your head. Plus, the more in-depth you go with the more resources you use, the less biased it becomes and the more interesting it is!
30+ Ways to Teach History Without a Textbook
1. Read memoirs/journals.
Memoirs are probably the best way to gain firsthand knowledge of historical events.
2. Read biographies.
A few of my favorite non-fiction, fun short stories filled with little-known history:
- Greatest Stories Never Told
- Greatest War Stories Never Told
- Greatest Presidential Stories Never Told
3. Read historical fiction.
Here are my top 100 favorite historical books for kids.
People are attracted to stories; we love to remember stories, hear stories, tell stories. Historical fiction brings the story to life – with characters, plot, and dialogue. Remembering real life history through a story, even if that story is fiction-based-on-fact, is so much easier to remember long-term. After reading a fictional book, it is always good to look up dates, locations, and other things to weed out the “truth” from the fiction.
Some people ask me why would I do this, especially because it may confuse kids. As long as your child is understanding the difference between fiction and nonfiction, I see no problem with a fun mnemonic.
Historical fiction, specifically I Am David by Anne Holm, introduced me to Europe, World War II, and it made me love history. I became so interested in the time period, and wanted to know more. It inspired this blog, and resulted in hundreds (or thousands maybe?) of hours of WWII research! All from one completely fictional book.
4. Read fictional books based on real people.
It can be hard to pick out a rich biography. A great alternative is fictional books based on real people. These will be labeled as fiction in your library. For the most part, they don’t “stir up drama” like Hollywood, but they do have fictional details that “most likely happened” or thoughts that the person “must have thought.”
This way, the story reads like a fiction story, therefore being more interesting. An example of this is Holocaust novel Prisoner B-3087 by Alan Gratz, one of my favorite books for middle-schoolers. Although it is labeled as fiction, about 90% of the characters and events are true.
5. Watch documentaries.
There are many great documentaries out there, especially from PBS and the History Channel!
6. Watch historical movies.
They may not be 100% accurate, but historical movies work as a springboard for diving deeper into a topic! (read more about why I love history movies) Check out my list for Historical Movies For Kids and Historical Movies for Middle and High School.
7. Watch docudramas.
I love watching “based on a true story” movies because although this-and-that might have been exaggerated, we always love to look up more about the person/event. Docudramas are pretty close to life, but are re-enacted to be more interesting. History vs. Hollywood is my go-to site after I watch a “true story” movie.
8. Read historical picture books.
Like fiction for older readers, picture books are a solid way of introducing history to young learners, or to visually help reinforce history for older learners! Ask your librarian for the non-fiction historical picture books.
9. Listen to podcasts, or other historical testimonies.
10. Visit historical landmarks.
11. Go to a museum.
From famous national museums to virtual tours, museums are a unique way to see history up close!
12. Have a play and re-enact a historical event.
13. Meet someone who lived during that time.
This is obviously impossible for your Colonial study, but can be done for many of the recent events in the 20th century from 9/11 to JFK’s assassination.
14. Try to recreate the time period and really “go back in time.”
Eat 40s rations, recreate a Victorian-era tea party, host a roaring ’20s costume party – have fun!
15. Listen to music from the time.
Check out Cole Porter’s song Anything Goes. The song is full of humorous “scandals” of the 1920s, and honestly sums up the Depression era. Research each of the song’s historical references – the song is even better if you get each reference!
16. Research and make food from the time.
American Girl has cookbooks for each of their American girls, with authentic recipes from the time period!
17. Read magazines or newspaper articles from the time.
18. Look at advertisements from the time period.
19. Look at fashion from the time period.
You can tell a lot about the time period by the way the women dressed! (Pinterest is a great resource!)
Here are some Pinterest boards perfect for this:
- 1840-1855 Fashion (Early Victorian)
- 1860s Fashion
- 1869-1876 Fashion
- 1910s Fashion
- 1920s Fashion
- 1930s Fashion
- 1940s Fashion
- 1950s Fashion
20. Look at toys and games from the time period.
What did kids do without electronics or modern conveniences?
21. Stir up your visual memory by looking at photographs from the time.
Pinterest is a great resource! (Pulitzer winning prizes are true historical gems, although some may not be appropriate for younger children because of violence.)
22. Look at art/drawings from the time.
Art can provide a great insight on how people thought and felt at the time.
I Never Saw Another Butterfly is a collection of children’s drawings and poems while in the Terezin concentration camp.
Anholt’s picture book series involve kids meeting famous artists such as Degas, van Gogh, and Picasso.
23. Try to find some radio broadcasts from the time.
24. Create a timeline of notable events for a certain period.
25. Create a timeline for a person.
26. Create a timeline for a certain event.
Create timelines for events such as the attack on Pearl Harbor, or the 12 plagues of Egypt. Be sure to include little-known facts!
27. Write a short story/poem about a notable event from the point of view of a notable person.
Try to describe what the person might have said, felt, heard, etc.
28. Write a fictional short story/poem about a notable time in history.
29. For older students, create an argument for the opposite side that you are on.
For example, look into pro-slavery arguments. Then, instead of saying “I do not support slavery because it is wrong,” you can support your argument better and debate why your current side is morally/scientifically right.
30. Do a craft relating to the time period.
I’ve heard Story of the World and A Book In Time are great resources. Other great resources include:
- Holocaust Butterfly Project
- Early Native American Craft Book
- Pilgrim Craft Book
- Colonial America Craft Book
- Epic list of Ancient Egypt crafts with Story of the World
31. Create a movie trailer for a person in history.
32. Kids think history is boring? Try Horrible Histories.
The book series will show the most “horrible” parts of history. (their main target is boys who don’t really like history)
33. Try Mission Us.
Mission Us is an interactive and historical online “video game” focused on American history. It’s aimed at grades 5-8, although I have not tried it yet.
34. Focus on little known events.
I find it easiest (specifically for WWII) to focus on a specific event, or family/person and researching all you can about that event/person. Whether it be a slave family during the American Civil War, or Belgian Resistance Fighters during WWII. Research about that small thing.
35. Use unit studies.
Unit studies are a way to focus deeply into one event, instead of briefly scrolling through it in a textbook. Here are some of my favorite historical unit studies.
With this, you learn about the big events everyone else learns about, plus a real family/person/smaller event!
36. Play an Oregon Trail simulation.
Remember the old computer game Oregon Trail? Use it to learn more about the Oregon trail, and to grow critical thinking skills!
37. Check out the PBS “House” series.
PBS had a “House” series where modern-day people get to go back in time for certain events for a few months, like the new West, the 1940s, the Colonial period, etc.
My favorite was 1940s House, since the family really made an effort to get a feel for WWII life. (The Colonial one was probably the worst, considering no one made an effort to get into the time period.)
38. Combine history and geography.
To better understand world history, combine it with geography!
39. Learn history through board games.
Constitution Quest is a board game that can be used in a classroom, or in place of history lessons for the day! (Here are some free printable board games.)
40. Memorize the Presidents with the Memory Palace system.
I memorized the periodic table with a method called the Memory Palace. Use the same principal to memorize our presidents – using your house! (Animaniacs also has a great song to use with it.)
Extra Historical Resources
MIDDLE SCHOOL (May be used with high school)
11 Books About Little-Known Events (with reviews)
11 American Civil War Novels (with reviews)
The Men Who Built America Series (late 1800s to mid 1900s)
11 WWI and Great Depression Novels (with reviews)
11 WWII Fiction Novels (with reviews)
Band of Brothers – mature audience only
WWII Pictures (nothing graphic)
Little-Known Events For Research: (middle school and up)
Need topics for little-known event reports? As you can see, the majority of my knowledge is set during WWII.
- The states that never were (i.e. ex-states in America)
- The presidents before George Washington
- 1777 – Sybil Ludington’s Famous Midnight Ride
- 1786-1787 – Shay’s Rebellion
- 1791 – Haitian Revolution
- 1800s – Ireland Potato Famine
- 1862 – General Order #11 (Anti-Semitism in America)
- 1899 – Newsie strike
- 1890s-1920s – Jewish persecution in Russia
- 1915 – Armenian Genocide
- WWI – Hello Girls
- 1936-1939 – Spanish Civil War
- 1939 – MS St. Louis Voyage
- WWII – Kindertransport
- WWII – Tuskegee Airmen (America’s first black military airmen)
- WWII – The Minnesota Starvation Experiment
- 1954 – Brown v. Board of Education
- 1975 – Cambodian Genocide
- 1994 – Rwandan Genocide