40+ Ways to Teach History Without a Textbook

History is my biggest passion; I love history! I am a firm believer teaching history should never be boring. And yet, I really don’t like textbooks. More often than not, they’re boring, and they make it hard to retain information in the long run. (Thus, you’re not really learning.) As an alternative, here are 30+ ways to teach history without a textbook, from books to cooking, and more!
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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!

History Without a Textbook

1. Read memoirs or journals.

Memoirs are one the best ways to gain firsthand knowledge of historical events.

2. Read biographies.

Biographies are an engaging way to hear the stories of people from history. A few of my favorite books are:

3. Read historical fiction.
People are attracted to stories; we love to remember stories, hear stories, and tell stories. Here are my top 100 favorite historical books for kids.

Historical fiction brings the story to life – with characters, plot, and dialogue. Remembering real-life history through a story, even if the story is fiction-based-on-fact, it is much easier to remember long-term. One common criticism is it may confuse kids. 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.

Historical fiction, specifically I Am David by Anne Holm, introduced me to Europe, and World War II. It made me fall in love with history and became a large reason I started this blog, which turned into my career.

4. Read fictional books based on real people.

It can be hard to pick out a rich biography. One 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 the 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, Discovery, 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 with movies. Check out my list for Historical Movies For Kids and Historical Movies for Middle and High School.

Add a movie guide for engaged watching. (You can also find them on Teachers Pay Teachers.)

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 lookup 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.

Picture books are a way of introducing history to young learner and to visually help reinforce history for older learners.

9. Listen to podcasts or history videos on YouTube.

10. Visit historical landmarks.

On vacations or trips, study the local history. Historical landmarks provide real-life perspectives.

11. Go to a museum.

From famous national museums to virtual tours, museums are a unique way to see history up close.

12. Visit a historical reenactment.

The East Coast in the United States is especially known for having rich historical reenactments that can further bring history to life.

13. Meet someone who lived during that time.

This may be 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 food inspired by America’s rations during World War II, recreate a Victorian-era tea party, host a roaring ’20s costume party – have fun!

15. Listen to music from the time.

From classical music to the 1940s big bang music, the music of a time period can tell you a lot about it.

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.

Advertising during World War II tells you a lot about the priorities and goals of the time period.

19. Look at fashion from the time period.

You can tell a lot about the time period by the way people dressed. Pinterest is a great resource.

Here are some Pinterest boards perfect for this:

20. Look at toys and games from the time period.

What did kids do without electronics or modern conveniences? Discover vintage games that kids from the past did.

21. Stir up your visual memory by looking at photographs from the time.

A search for photographs of the time can bring a unique perspective to a time period. 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 great insight into 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:

31. Create a movie trailer for a person in history.

32. Do the 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. From the Great Depression to the Civil Rights Movement, these interactive lessons put the student in the center of 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 (especially for WWII) to focus on a specific event, or family/person and researching all you can about that event/person. Whether it be a top-secret mission or Belgian Resistance Fighters during WWII, research the lesser-known events in history.

35. Use unit studies.

Unit studies are a way to focus deeply on 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.)

Check out this list of history games.

40. Learn history through trivia.

Whether it with flashcards or Jeopardy, use these resources to spark conversations about history.

41. Memorize the Presidents with the Memory Palace system.

I memorized the periodic table with a method called the Memory Palace. Use the same principle to memorize our presidents – using your house! (Animaniacs also has a great song to use with it.)

Extra Historical Resources

Historical Movies for Kids– Find movie guides at my store and Teachers Pay Teachers.

100 Historical Movies for Middle and High School (under R)

Teach History with Musicals

For more history resources, visit learnincolor.com/history.

More Ways to Teach Without a Textbook

30+ Ways to Teach Math Without a Textbook
30+ Ways to Teach Art Without a Textbook
30+ Ways to Teach Science Without a Textbook
30+ Ways to Teach Geography Without a Textbook

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