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Learning Library Blog 4 Ways to Bring History and Civics to Life
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4 Ways to Bring History and Civics to Life

By Paul Wurster
July 19, 2022
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With 50 years of teaching between them, Laurel Aguilar-Kirchhoff and Karalee Wong Nakatsuka admit that they have a lot to say about history, civics and how educational technology can transform learning into something that feels meaningful to students.

There are so many online resources available to teachers that it can feel overwhelming to even the most tech savvy. Their mantra is to “start from where you are and go from there.” The goal is to help students learn to be informed, critically thinking and engaged citizens who care to make a difference in the world.

The following resources provide students with opportunities to connect with history and develop a deeper understanding of what it means to be a citizen on a local, national and global level.

National History Day

NHD is an education nonprofit that aims to improve history education by engaging students in the art of historical inquiry. National History Day is actually a year-long program that allows students to conduct original research, demonstrate their understanding in a variety of ways and share it with a wider audience. The program culminates in a series of contests at the local, affiliate and national levels.

Each year, NHD provides a historical theme to frame students’ research. The theme is intentionally broad so that students can take a deep dive into global, national and local history. The 2022-23 theme is Frontiers in History: People, Places, Ideas. In the past, Aguilar-Kirchhoff has adopted NHD themes as an “essential question” in her classes, as a way to guide student thinking throughout the year.

“Using the theme as my essential question not only helped my students view history through different lenses, but also helped them form an inquiry mindset as to how we can question, research and make our own personal connections to history,” says Aguilar-Kirchhoff, who now serves as a digital learning specialist and professional development coordinator in California.

NHD offers students a variety of resources to help in the creation of their projects, including digital archives and collections curated by the NHD organization and its partners. Students have a lot of flexibility when choosing a format. Winning entries have included papers, exhibits, performances, websites and video documentaries.

Bringing History and Civics to Life

iCivics Educator Network

There are many resources available to teachers that provide meaningful ways to expand student understanding of the challenges and opportunities of both civics and citizenship. iCivics Inc. is a education nonprofit founded by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Its aim is to promote equitable, nonpartisan civic education. The site provides quality and engaging civics resources in addition to a variety of 15-30 minute educational games, such as Do I Have a Right?, Immigration Nation, and Convene the Council.

The games give students an opportunity to test their knowledge of constitutional rights, role-play as the president and guide newcomers through the path to citizenship, among many other scenarios.

“My kids would try to beat each other by scoring the most points as they ran their own presidential campaign in Win the White House,” says Wong Nakatsuka, who was recently named California Teacher of the Year following three decades of middle school U.S. history teaching. “This is student engagement at its best!”

Flipgrid GridPals

Many teachers and students may be familiar with Flipgrid (also known as Flip), a tool from Microsoft that allows students to video record (and re-record) short responses to classroom discussion questions without the stress of responding in a classroom of onlookers. GridPals is a network for Flipgrid users who collaboration with other classrooms. Both Wong Nakatsuka and Aguilar-Kirchhoff like the tool because it helps students connect and learn together. Flipgrid includes diverse communities from 190 countries.

“Building community both in and outside the classroom helps students see themselves as part of a network of global learners,” says Aguilar-Kirchhoff. “It encourages multiple perspectives, as well as an expansion of the student’s place in the world as a global citizen, by providing them the opportunity to meet and learn from other students from all over the world.”

U.S. National Archives

The National Archives has many educator resources, including an education initiative that promotes civic literacy and engagement called We Rule: Civics for All of Us. It provides teachers with programs, curricula and online field trip experiences. The initiative is built around a set of key questions that highlight the benefits of civic engagement, tools for engaging in democracy and how these tools have been used in the past. The We Rule initiative includes a variety of live and interactive distance learning programs for K-12 that are free to groups of 10 or more students Tuesdays through Fridays.

The National Archives also houses a vast collection of primary sources, including photos, videos, letters and maps that span the course of American history. There are hundreds of learning activities created by the National Archive and by teachers from around the world. Teachers can copy and modify the activities as needed for their students. Creating, saving and sharing activities is also possible after setting up a free account.

“Not only is the online portal user friendly for students to search for primary source materials, but there are also curated collections that are available as well,” Wong Nakatsuka says. “For teachers, there are also many curated and vetted resources to help work with students in research with primary sources, as well as free materials to bring archival research to life for students.”

Wong Nakatsuka and Aguilar-Kirchhoff have many other favorite tech tools for teaching history and civics. Their new ISTE book Bring History and Civics to Life: Lessons & Strategies to Cultivate Informed, Empathetic Citizensprovides a wide selection, as well as lessons and strategies educators can apply to all content areas in the social sciences.

Bringing History and Civics to Life

Paul Wurster is an education writer and editor based in Oregon.