Using Historic Places to Teach
Beacon Hill Historic District,
Historic places have powerful and provocative stories to tell. As witnesses
to the past, they recall the events that shaped history and the people
who faced those situations and issues. Places make connections across
time that give them a special ability to create an empathetic understanding
of what happened and why. As historian David McCullough explains in Brave Companions, experiencing places "helps in making contact
with those who were there before in other days. It's a way to find them
as fellow human beings, as necessary as the digging you do in libraries."1
It is not necessary, though, to visit a place to feel its connections
to history. Through a variety of materials and activities, Teaching
with Historic Places (TwHP) enables teachers and students to learn from
places without leaving the classroom. By examining and questioning readings,
documents, maps, photographs, and by engaging in activities, students
connect these locations to the broad themes of American history.
TwHP has posted on the Web a number of resources for using historic places to teach, either during a field trip or in the classroom. They include:
• Classroom-ready TwHP lesson plans free for downloading;
• Instructions on how to use
a TwHP lesson plan;
• Reaction from teachers who have already
used TwHP materials;
• An Author's Packet with guidance on how
to create a lesson plan;
• A guide to selecting historic places for classroom use;
A worksheet on how to learn from historic
• A worksheet on how to analyze
photographs of historic places;
• A series of articles on ways in which others have used historic places in education;
• Information on using the National Register to identify and obtain information on historic places.
Places can help students connect the history all around them with national
events and themes. A TwHP lesson based on the courthouse in St. Louis,
for example, shows how people there debated a railroad route that would
have national impact and how the Dred Scott Supreme Court decision started
with a local case. Studying this building will help students understand
the importance of their local and state courthouses, as well helping
them grasp the significance of historic places generally. Local sites
often make a stronger impression on students than those more famous
but farther away, thereby sparking their desire to learn more.
Places help students develop skills as well as knowledge. Students learn to observe, gather facts, compare and contrast, synthesize and analyze, evaluate sources of evidence, develop and test hypotheses, and draw conclusions. Places are therefore well-suited to help teachers meet both state and national curriculum standards in social studies, history, geography, and other subjects. One of the ten themes in the Curriculum Standards for Social Studies, for example, is "People, Places, and Environments." The National Geography Standards use an understanding of the characteristics of and relationships among people, places, and environments as one of the marks of student achievement.
Ultimately, teaching with and about historic places benefits everyone. Educators have one more means with which to engage and excite students, students acquire knowledge from and an appreciation for cultural resources, and society gains a better-educated citizenry.
¹Brave Companions (New York: Prentice Hall, 1992), 2.