Lesson Plans: Grades K-2

What is History? Timelines and Oral Histories

Created October 5, 2010

Tools

The Lesson

Introduction

What is History? Timelines and Oral Histories

Natural History Museum, perspective drawing, New York, NY From the American Memory Collection

Credit: Courtesy of the Frances Loeb Library, Graduate School of Design, Harvard University

In this lesson, young students will gain a frame of reference for understanding history and for recognizing that the past is different depending on who is remembering and retelling it. They will construct a timeline based on events from their own lives and family histories. This will give them a visual representation of the continuity of time. They will also be able to see that their own personal past is different in scope from their family's past, or their country's past.

Once they understand that history is made up of many people's stories of the past, students will explore how we know about events that occurred prior to our own births. Each student will interview two family members about the same event, compare the two versions, and write or dictate their own version of the story, which becomes the "official" account. In this way, they will experience the power of both first-hand accounts and historical documentation.

Guiding Questions

What is the past, and why is it important? How do we learn about events in the past? How are historical accounts influenced by the biases of eyewitnesses?

Learning Objectives

  • understand that their lifetime represents a small piece of history
  • make connections between important events in the histories of their families and larger historical events
  • take an oral history
  • compare and contrast two or more accounts of the same event
  • write an account of an event which synthesizes eyewitness testimony from two or more sources

Preparation Instructions

Review the suggested activities, then download and duplicate any online materials you will need. If desired, you can bookmark specific web pages so that students can access relevant online materials directly; print out required pages and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing.

You might want to review the following EDSITEment-reviewed resources for use in this lesson plan:

  • Great Chicago Fire and the Web of Memory—This site provides several eyewitness accounts of the same event - the great Chicago fire. The three perspectives on the O'Leary legend provide a great opportunity to explore the similarities and differences between two accounts as well as the written report, which became the official historical account.
  • Internet Public Library
    • Kidspace
    • This Day in History—This site can be used by students or by the teacher to add events to the class timeline.Digital Classroom—This site has a special section for children that includes primary sources and a particularly good timeline, which spans the length of Herbert Hoover's life, but also includes interesting events from the time period.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. What is History?

Listening to the contributions of several students and writing things in chronological order during this lesson will help students to build a foundation for later activities. Explain that the past means things that have already happened. Ask someone to tell an event from yesterday's history. Next, ask students to relate events from last year. Once all students seem to understand the meaning of "the past," ask for a few students to tell an event from when they were babies. Do they remember these events? If not, how do they know about them?

Refer back to the events from yesterday that have been listed. Just as the class has a history, each family also has an important history made up of events from the past. Have students brainstorm some events in their families’ histories. Examples might include births, deaths, marriages, immigrations, graduations, vacations, bar/bat mitzvahs, adoptions, moves, opening of a family business, etc. Be sure to reinforce that every family is different, and therefore, every family will have different events in its past that make up its history.

Demonstrate a timeline using events from your own family history. Write the events and the dates and have the students help you put them in chronological order. You might also want to show the children timelines available through The Internet Public Library. The timelines are divided into several time periods in history and include mostly political events such as presidential inaugurations, beginnings and ends of wars, and states joining the Union. Working in conjunction with someone at home, each child should create a family timeline that contains 5-7 events from his/her own family history. Young students can have an adult scribe for them, but they should be familiar with the events that are included on their timeline.

Activity 2. Class Timeline

Prior to this lesson, you will need to collect all of the family timelines to determine the oldest event and prepare your class timeline. On a roll of butcher paper, create the timeline by marking the years at uniform intervals 8-12 inches apart, depending on how many events you have and how many years you need to include. A physically long timeline will help students to understand the distant events, but it still needs to be manageable.

Have each student briefly share his/her timeline with the class. Point out the differences between families and the events that they chose to include. Ask questions that will help the children put time in perspective such as "Who has an event that happened this year? Who has an event that happened before they were born? I was born in ____; who has an event that happened before I was born?" You might also have the children line up in chronological order based on the oldest event on their timelines.

Show the children the timeline you have prepared. Depending on the size, it may be necessary to take it into the hallway or gymnasium to roll it out. Explain that while one important event is happening for one family, a different event may be happening at the same time to another family. We will put all of our events on this one timeline so that we can see how they are all related. One at a time, have students stand on a year that is on their timelines. With a marker, add each event to the timeline.

In order to add a wider perspective, you might want to include events from the larger world on your timeline. The EDSITEment-reviewed resource Internet Public Library has a link to This Day in History. You can find events for any day and search under categories such as entertainment, crime, or general interest, or by time periods such as Civil War and Cold War. Students might enjoy finding an event that occurred on their birthday or other important date from their timeline.

Once all the events are on the timeline, help students make visual comparisons of events as follows. Have a student walk the timeline to look for patterns, then have a student stand at the "present" end of the timeline and make an observation. For example, "We were all born pretty close together, but our parents were born at many different times." Students can visually "see" the past on this timeline. If they stand at the end of the timeline—the present—they can see that all the events in their lifetime are close to where they stand, but events such as the birth of a parent, or the year a grandparent immigrated to this country, are far away.

Activity 3. Oral Histories

In this lesson, students will explore how the stories that comprise our history are developed. They will learn about primary documents through interviews of family members about an historical event. To prepare students for taking oral histories, you might want to visit the EDSITEment-reviewed resource Do History, which includes guidelines for taking oral histories.

Students will be asked to interview two family members about the same event. Some examples include:

  • Ask two family members who were present about the day you were born or adopted;
  • Interview both your father and your grandmother about their memories of your father's bar mitzvah or confirmation;
  • Ask your mother and your aunt to describe their first day of school.

Think about the events that students included on their timelines to develop more examples. Keep in mind that events from diverse cultures will help students broaden their understanding of the scope of history. Students may want to tape record their interviews if possible, though distance may require them to conduct such interviews over the phone or email. Students should then fill out the following Versions of History chart, provided in pdf format (younger students may need help writing).

With worksheets in front of them, students will be ready to take part in a class discussion about what they learned. Begin by asking if anyone was surprised by the differences in the two stories that they heard. Why might the stories be different? Some possibilities are that each person remembers different details, or that certain parts of the story were more important to one person than to the other.

Also discuss stories that are very similar. Why aren't there many differences in the two accounts? Perhaps it is a recent event and the two people have not forgotten many details. Perhaps one person's memory is affected by hearing the story from the other person. (For example, if a student were to interview her brother and her mother about her brother's first day of school. Are her brother's memories genuine, or are they formed by hearing the story from her mother?) What does this tell us about history? How do history books get written? The work of an historian is to gather information from many places, including primary sources, and to create an official written account.

Activity 4. I'm an Historian

In the previous lesson, students learned how "official" historical accounts are written. In this lesson, they will write or dictate the official account of the events from their interviews. Students will be required to synthesize information from multiple sources in this lesson. If this is a new skill, it may be necessary to pre-teach it. This can be done as a class by comparing two different versions of a familiar story such as "Little Red Riding Hood" and completing a Venn diagram (you can use the downloadable Venn diagram provided in pdf format) to find the overlapping and disparate elements of the two accounts. Finally, as a class you can write an "official" account using elements from the two versions.

Use the EDSITEment-reviewed resource The Great Chicago Fire and the Web of Memory to explore first-hand accounts and official written history. Under "Web of Memory" and "O'Leary Legend," you will find three documents: a transcript from the inquiry into the fire, the official report on the fire, and a poem written about the fire. Read the transcript to the students first. Then read the official account.

Discuss details in the official account that did not appear in the transcript. Have students complete the Transcript and Report Venn diagram, as a class or in small groups. Help the children to understand that many people were interviewed about the incident, and that the information from all of these accounts was written into an official report. Using this as an example, students should synthesize the two accounts they have of their historical events to dictate or write the "official" account. You may also want to read stories of America's children from America's beginnings to 1860, and after 1860, available through the EDSITEment-reviewed resource Digital History, or "Eyewitness—History through the eyes of those who lived it," available through the EDSITEment-reviewed resource Internet Public Library in the Kidspace section.

The Basics

Time Required

4-6 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Biography
  • History and Social Studies > U.S.
  • History and Social Studies > People > Other
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. History
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Immigration/Migration
  • Literature and Language Arts
Skills
  • Analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Historical analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Interview/survey skills
  • Literary analysis
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Synthesis
Authors
  • Amanda Coffman

Resources

Activity Worksheets
Media