The Engaging Historian: Making History Anything but Boring


"What's your favorite subject in school?"


When I'm around children, this is always one of the first "getting-to-know-you" questions I ask.


"Math."

"Science."

"Spelling."

"Lunch!"


These are just some of the replies I receive from school-age youth. Unfortunately, history isn't usually listed as one of their most-loved classes. Even when I talk to adults, many relay how much they used to hate history while in school.


I once wondered why. But when I entered college as a history major (and took many history classes that were taught, well, in a dull manner), I finally understood--it's us, the historians who teach and promote history, that have made it "boring." In reality, history is the only subject that focuses on real-life people, the great saga that is the history of the world. So instead of monotonously spouting off facts, dates, and names, we should take a different approach, one that engages individuals of all ages into the historical realm. Are you ready to find out some tips on how to do so? If so, keep scrolling!




The old adage goes "pictures are worth a thousand words." In many cases, this claim is quite true! While words can paint a mental image of an individual or occurrence, a photo allows one to visually discover more about past eras. How can you make using photos in presentations or school classes even more engaging? Consider sharing photos that are relevant to your audience. For example, if you're teaching a course about Nashville in the Civil War, consider finding historical photos of the city of Nashville, combatants from Nashville, etc. When you're trying to show that history is fascinating, you may also incorporate photos that seem similar to pictures captured today. While historical photos rarely depict people smiling, a candid shot of a group of Civil War soldiers will sometimes reveal a smile or two. By showing photos of soldiers engaging in the same activities, pastimes, or even using the same facial expressions we have today, you'll effectively demonstrate that people of past eras aren't that different from those in the 21st century.



Primary documents--in the form of books, letters, diary entries, and more--provide a true glimpse into past eras. Oftentimes, soldiers who wrote letters and journaled in diaries would share details that, while not altering historians' perceptions of battles won or lost, are still important and interesting. For example, through primary documents you may learn what some Civil War soldiers truly thought about the war, like soldier Sewall Adams (127th NY Infantry) who wanted peace. Or perhaps you'll discover that some combatants' diets over 150 years ago weren't entirely different from foods we still enjoy today, like dried fruit, ham, and fried potatoes according to Captain Albert Jenkins Barnard (116th NY Infantry). Whether you're speaking with young or older individuals, sharing primary documents can be a great resource to help folks understand the "realness" of historical figures; contrary to what some may believe, they had emotions and feelings just like ours. Additionally, consider sharing letters that best match your audience. If you're presenting to high schoolers, discuss primary documents written by teenage soldiers. When sharing a presentation with people from a specific state--like Kentucky--consider sharing primary documents that were written in Kentucky or by Kentucky soldiers.



When you're trying to show that history is engaging, it's important to share information that can be relevant to your audience. You can do this by utilizing an array of resources, including pictures and primary documents. How can you be relevant? Well, first you have to consider who you're teaching/presenting to. If you're teaching youth, consider discussing the role of children in the war, like drummer boys or children who, alongside their mother, lived in camp. Considering most children enjoy the company of animals, you may also consider talking about animals during the Civil War, from loyal dogs to brave equines. A female audience may enjoy learning more about the role of women in the Civil War, from those who acted as spies and washerwomen to females who served and supported the war effort from afar. If you're teaching an audience with varying ages, genders, or home states, you may consider touching on multiple points. Images, like the one pictured left, incorporate many aspects of the Civil War, from the soldiers themselves to the women, children, and even pets that influenced the conflict.



There's nothing like visiting a historic site, having the ability to view and stand on the same land as individuals from past eras. If you're not able to take the individuals you're sharing information with to a historic site, you can do the next best thing--when you're at the historic site, take a video! If you're presenting at a location that has the technological capabilities to share the video, the audience will probably be excited to view the historic location, even if only virtually. To enhance your video, you can share information while videoing. For example, if you were at the site of the Battle of Shiloh, you can share details about the battles (i.e., "Here is the site of the Hornet's Nest." Or "This is the location where General Johnston was killed."). While you may choose to expound on the historic site after the video, it would be interesting for the audience to hear a bit about the site as they see it on screen.



According to Merriam-Webster, immersive means "providing, involving, or characterized by deep absorption or immersion in something..." As historians, we should work to ensure that we teach the subject in such a way that allows people to be immersed in it, to absorb the information we provide. There are countless ways you can make history immersive, like through American Battlefield Trust's Virtual Reality Experience. Other, more non-technological ways to make history immersive is by having your audience think like a Civil War soldier. How is this possible? One way is to have individuals study a Civil War soldier's letter home, then create their own mock letter. They could write this letter by taking on the persona of a Civil War soldier that actually existed, or they could create their own soldier. The basic idea is to allow students a glimpse into the thoughts and feelings of Civil War soldiers, then allow them to put such feelings to paper by imitating the style of writing that was prevalent in 1860's America. Another way to make history immersive is by creating a list of Civil War soldier's names and then having individuals you're teaching pick a soldier's name. The student's task would then be to research the soldier they selected. What regiment was the soldier in? Where did they fight? And what happened to them after the war? These might be good research starting points. By seeing the Civil War through the eyes of individuals who lived through the tumultuous times--like Darius Skipworth of the 11th Kentucky Infantry (pictured at left)--you can bring the Civil War to life for your audience or students.



Too often in the historical realm, history classes and presentations consist of watching and listening to the instructor. While this is vital to an understanding of history, it's also important to allow a time in your class or presentation for a Question and Answer session or a break for discussion. Giving individuals the time to ask questions can help broaden their historical knowledge. It's important to remember, though, that no question should be treated as "stupid" or "ridiculous." Everyone is at a different place in their learning experience--some may have a vast historical knowledge while others may be just beginning their historical studies. If you belittle someone because of their question, you may be a stumbling block, even causing them to stop studying the subject. Instead, if someone makes a false historical claim or asks a question that seems obvious, act with grace while gently correcting the information they provided or answering their question. In the historical realm, discussion and respect are key!



Some questions may have no right or wrong answer, simply because they have no answer at all. To promote critical thinking within your class or presentation, consider asking "What if?" questions. The beauty of a "What if?" question when you're having a group discussion is that everyone may have a different opinion. For example, when you ask, "What if the South won the war?" you'll probably receive a slew of answers and ideas--and that's alright! The critical thinking possibilities are vast, but some good questions might be:

  • If the Civil War hadn't been fought, how might American history have been changed?

  • What if the Civil War had ended a year earlier?

  • Some soldiers discarded supplies as they marched miles a day. Was tossing supplies on the roadside a good or a bad decision?

  • If a civil war was fought today, do you think the sides would stay the same, with a visible North and South?

Because there are often "What if?" scenarios in history, it's important to allow a space and time to evaluate questions and ideas. To enhance critical thinking, you can also have your audience evaluate the thoughts/emotions of Civil War soldiers. This could help them craft responses that are through an 1860's lens, since thoughts from over 150 years ago were somewhat different from ideas of today. As a historian, you can also chime in with your own thoughts, while not belittling anyone who has an idea you may disagree with. Thinking critically in the historical realm is important, since there can be numerous ideas about eras, topics, and historical figures. By fostering an appreciation of critical thinking in a young audience, you may also prepare them for college and work later in life, when critical thinking and formulating one's own opinion on a topic is valued and vital.



Life is full of decisions--from easier ones, like what to eat for lunch, to harder ones, like what new home best fits your needs. During the Civil War, life became riddled with decisions, many of which, if you chose wrong, could lead to death. In order to share with your audience the cruciality that decision making played during the Civil War, both in camp and in battle, consider creating a You Choose activity. You can either select a You Choose book that's already been written (like The Civil War: An Interactive History), or create your own. While creating your own You Choose activity could seem a bit daunting, it doesn't have to be! If you're in a classroom setting and plan on using this activity often, you may consider using a website generator to craft an interactive activity, since this activity could also be done virtually. You could also opt to create such an activity in a Word Document. Perhaps the most easy do-it-yourself You Choose activity would be one that was class-wide. Then, you could draw the You Choose activity out over multiple days. Here's an example of how you could run such an activity:

  • Toward the end of your class period, commence the activity. For the first day, you would have students vote (by show of hands) on which scenario they would like to select. You could have just two options, or you could create more. Here's four that I came up with, and you'll notice that they may span over different regions or even multiple years of the war (You could expand on the information if you so desired, since I kept my examples quite brief.):

  1. You're a teenager from a rather poor family living in western Tennessee. In early 1862, Union troops have already invaded your state, taking over Confederate forts. You'd waited to enlist, but now you just can't wait any longer. You've decided to join the Confederate Army.

  2. You're a twenty-one year old from Kentucky when the Civil War begins. Even though you're of the age to enlist, you've decided to wait...you think the war will be over soon. When you hear about the Battle of Bull Run in a newspaper, you realize that the war won't end quickly. You've decided to join the Union Army.

  3. You're an African American living in northern Ohio. You'd escaped from bondage as a twelve-year-old just over a decade ago. When you learn that African American troops are now being accepted into the Union Army, you decide you're ready to enlist and serve your country.

  4. You're a young woman fr0m Missouri, where loyalties are split. You're not sure what side you're for until Confederate soldiers raid your family's home in the winter, stealing your measly supplies. You decide you're not content to wait on the homefront for the war to end. You're going to the Union Army camp nearby to offer your services as a spy.

  • After the class has chosen from the list, you can share some more information about the scenario. Let's say they choose number 2. Have them decide whether to join the Army of the Tennessee or Army of the Ohio. Then have them decide whether they're sick or well in early 1862. If they're well, they'll fight in the Battle of Shiloh (which would open up many new scenarios). If they're sick, have the class decide what ailment the soldier suffers. The possibilities for this activity are truly endless! The main idea is to show students that the decisions Civil War soldiers made--or choices their superiors made--could affect the lives of combatants...or even the outcome of the war. To keep the classroom adhering to a democratic process, you should continue choosing scenarios by vote, like via show of hands. I think you'll also find that, by drawing the activity out, they'll be more excited to come to class each day to find out what happens to "them" in the You Choose activity.

  • If you'd like to continue the activity over a span of multiple days, only allow the class to select a couple of different scenarios each day. This will also give you time to formulate more scenarios for subsequent days based on the classroom's choices and responses.

  • On the last day of the activity, the class will make their final decisions--the ones that determine whether they live, perish, or become wounded. After the class learns their outcome, open the classroom up for discussion and critical thinking. Some good starting questions might consist of:

  1. If you could change your decision, what would it be and why?

  2. Would you have kept your decisions the same?

  3. If Civil War soldiers could see into the future, knowing the war's outcome, do you think they still would have fought? Would this vary based on which side they fought for?

You can also point out that, just like in the 1860s, the choices we make now affect our lives, either immediately or in the future.



Everyone's family tree has an interesting story to tell. Many native-born American citizens are also the descendants of Civil War veterans. Considering that many people feel a stronger connection to those they descend from--after all, they are a part of their ancestor--you may choose to have a heritage assignment for your classroom! You can have your class utilize Ancestry, FamilySearch, Fold3, or other sources to research more about their family. Even if they don't descend from a Civil War soldier, a student could select a combatant--even if it is a well-known officer--and share their findings. Students who do have a Civil War soldier ancestor can research their family, discovering more about their soldier, like what regiment they were in, where they fought, and more. After initially finding a Civil War family member's name, one can discover lots of interesting information. For example, I found ancestors who were listed in their military records as an "excellent soldier," a "patriotic Kentuckian," and more. Discovering one's heritage can foster a greater love--and appreciation--for history.



Living history is perhaps one of the best ways to bring history to life, because an audience actually sees those of the past brought to the present thanks to reenactors. I enjoy hosting a cemetery tour at various cemeteries in my community each fall. At the event, I'll ask individuals to don historical garb and share information about the person they're portraying, using first person speech (instead of, "General Grant was later president," it would become, "I was later president"). At the event, individuals of all ages enjoy the opportunity to interact with those portraying historical figures, all while learning more about early members of their community. Plus, my reenactors love to connect with the crowd. In a field of study that often involves long hours of research behind a computer, in a library, or lost in a book, sharing history via living history is a great way to take history to your community while interacting with and teaching others. Ready to plan your own cemetery tour? You may find some helpful tips on another blog post I wrote, How to Plan and Host a Historic Cemetery Tour.



In the historical realm, with so many informational, scholarly texts on the subject, it may be tempting to use jargon when teaching or presenting to an audience. However, while you may sound extra "smart," your audience may walk away from your presentation with no new-found information, simply because they didn't understand what you were talking about. Instead, present history to audiences--especially those who aren't necessarily historians--in a conversational manner. It's also important to remember that Civil War soldiers and other historical figures had fun on a routine basis--which means you can too! It is vital that we are serious while honoring their memory, but their memory was not entirely riddled with sadness, even when the Civil War took place. Combatants enjoyed playing games and joking with each other. Captain Albert Jenkins Barnard, when referencing a comrade, even said, "He is in good spirits and is as full of fun as normal." So when you're giving a history presentation, do it in a way that honors those of the past, teaches those of the present, and promotes history for future generation to enjoy--but find a way to do so while still being "as full of fun as normal"