I’ve always found that the key to teaching history to elementary students is to tell it less like a textbook and more like a story. Put faces to names. Paint mental pictures to accompany those long-lost times and places. Don’t just ask your kids to memorize—encourage them to imagine.
Better yet, encourage them to tell their own versions of the stories you share. Writing about history gives them a chance not only to repeat and absorb specific facts, but to consider what they’ve learned more carefully and reflect more fully on their thoughts and opinions regarding the subject they’re tackling. Of course, they won’t notice any of this—they’ll be too busy enjoying playing historical pretend! Here are a few fantastic historical story starters to get the ball rolling.
Story Starter #1: “If I were someone from the past transported to today’s world, I would…”
This prompt is very flexible. You can leave it vague and open to allow your students to choose from a variety of personas or time periods they’ve learned about in class, or you can fine-tune it to focus on a specific person or place. It’s also a great way to push the limits of their imaginations while putting what they’ve learned into a more modern, more relatable context. What would Alexander Graham Bell, for instance, think about smartphones? How would the Plymouth pilgrims react to today’s transportation options? The possibilities are endless!
Story Starter #2: “I’m going to travel back in time to spend one day with a past US President. I’ve decided to meet…”
Rather than bringing the past into the present, this story starter takes your elementary students back into the past. When assigning this prompt, be sure to ask your students to include descriptions of who they chose, why they chose them, and how they’re planning to use their limited time in the past. Maybe they have questions they’d love to ask in person. Perhaps they’d like to tour the White House with the man in charge. Or maybe there’s a future president in your classroom looking for a few tips for their own future political campaign!
Story Starter #3: “It’s the morning of April 14, 1912, and I’m headed to America on the Titanic…”
This story starter seems pretty focused and straightforward, but it can be taken two ways. The first option involves using it as an opportunity to get your elementary students to step into the shoes of an actual passenger or crewmember on the ship to think and write as they would. The second option involves bringing the present into the past—asking your students to imagine themselves, as they are now, being transported back to the Titanic’s last day afloat. What would they do if they could go back? Would they try to change history? How? What would happen if they did?
Story Starter #4: “I am a member of the Corps of Discovery. Today on our expedition we…”
Turn your elementary students into intrepid explorers by asking them to take on the personas of Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, Sacagawea or an imaginary version of themselves as a participant in the Lewis and Clark Expedition. This story starter weaves a little geography into your social studies lesson, as it asks your students to consider how the environment impacted the expedition. What was the weather like where they were? What was the terrain like? What kind of animals might they have encountered?
Story Starter #5: “If I lived in England during the Victorian Era, I would be…”
A bit broader than choosing a specific date or persona, this story starter instead focuses more on providing your students with a firmer grasp of a particular historical era, anchoring it in the context of a concrete location. Here, I’ve chosen the Victorian Era in England, but you could just as easily swap the time and place out for another if you’re currently studying a different time period, such as the Edo Period in Japan or the French Revolution. The point is to bring the time and place to life by asking your students to imagine what their daily life might have been like if they had been born back then instead of in the world of today.
Story Starter #6: “I am a Founding Father writing a letter to the future. My name is…”
Alexander Hamilton. John Adams. Thomas Jefferson. Ben Franklin. John Jay. James Madison. George Washington. Seven very different men with very different principles, but all with one thing in common: they all cared deeply about the future of America. This story starter invites your students to use writing to better understand both what their country’s Founding Fathers stood for and, perhaps even more importantly, why. What was their legacy? What would they want us to remember about them and their beliefs? It’s also a great opportunity to explore concepts like collaboration and compromise as a class and discuss how even people with directly opposing viewpoints can still work together to achieve a shared goal.
Exploring History Through Telling Stories
Keeping the past alive through storytelling is nothing new; people have been telling stories about each other and where they came from for as long as there have been other people to tell. It’s how cavemen began to build language as we know it today, and it’s the reason we still know ancient stories like The Odyssey and The Iliad. With these story starters, your elementary students can practice both remembering the past and telling their own stories—and learn how to publish and share those stories with others.
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