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Historical dates come alive with interactive timelines

By Melissa Nuyda
April 13, 2016
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I have always loved telling the story of the Civil War by tracing the paths of the troops. When students do this, they concretely visualize where battles took place, where important people in the war were located and the dates that are so crucial to understanding cause and effect. 

The problem that arises when relying on traditional methods for learning this material (such as students hand drawing a map on a poster board) is that the path and the order of events are only readily apparent during the map’s creation.

This is where the benefits of MyHistro are most prominent. MyHistro is a free interactive map-making and timeline tool that is presented in a social media format. Many people use it to tell personal stories, such as pinning major life events to a map in a modern, shareable slideshow.

But like many popular sites and apps, it has educational applications that go beyond its original intended use. For example, it has emerged as an effective history education tool because it’s simple to create a profile and browse hundreds of interactive maps created by other users.

How MyHistro works

Students can easily set up an account and create a profile like they’d do for any social media account. Once they’ve done so, they can search for their friends by name or by linking MyHistro to their Facebook profiles. Each event and story they publish has the ability to accept comments from friends, and the privacy settings for each story can be adjusted to one of three levels: private (for the creator’s eyes only), friends (those who they’ve friended on the site), and public (available both inside and outside of MyHistro). People can share their creations directly to Facebook, Twitter and other sites. For those who have no social media accounts, creators have the option of sharing these stories via email.

The final product — a slideshow of mapped events — is powered by Google Maps. Its default is modern political borders, but students have the ability to select a satellite/terrain map or hybrid of the two.

Creating a timeline

Students begin by creating an event. They label the event, choose the date (or even date range), add an event description, highlight bullet points, include as many references as you require and attach photos or embed videos that correspond with the event. This is where the bulk of the work will come in, and as the teacher, you can dictate how much or how little information you need. Students can tag classmates, either as participants in the event or as coauthors.

Once saved, all events appear under the “My Events” tab, where they are easy to find.

Creating histories

Once students have created their relevant events, they place them into a story. As events are added, they automatically align chronologically within the story according to the date.

Deciding which events to include allows students to demonstrate proficiency in a necessary historical skill: distinguishing between relevant and irrelevant information within a particular context.

To make a Civil War map, for example, you might ask students to create an event for each pinnacle person, innovation or occurrence covered in the Civil War unit. They could then use their maps to make and support a claim about which events are most important.

Alternatively, they could choose to highlight a theme, such as “Women in the Civil War,” or “Photography and Communication,” and select events that are relevant to their theme. In each of these examples, students must build a firm understanding of the war as a whole to highlight a more focused claim, trend or theme.


Once completed, the viewer can let the story play out as an automated slideshow or navigate back and forth on the map itself. The timeline scrolls across the top of the map as the events go by on the map below.

One of the newer features of MyHistro is the ability to draw a line or a region on a map, rather than just a single point. While this feature has tremendous potential for single events, it’s worth noting that it does not extend past a single slide.

Unfortunately, the wonderful Indiana Jones map that illustrates a path from one point to another is not possible with this program. The maps for each event, too, are almost like snapshots (mapshots?) of each region and don’t fuse together or adjust to one another when the viewer navigates through the event. Each time the viewer moves to a new event in the story, the map resets to center on that region, and frequently, the viewer has to zoom in or out to put the event in perspective. But the easy functionality far outweighs the minor drawbacks.

Motivational imperative

I began my first teacher education program as an art educator. As a sufferer of ADHD and, consequently, a historically sub-par student, I fell in love with the challenge and creativity involved in the projects in my art classes. As I grew older, I became more capable of managing my learning disability, but I reflected on how my education may have been different if more of my classes had used a project-based format to teach instead of relying primarily on lectures, note-taking and tests.

I began teaching history because I realized that many students may have felt more passionate about learning subjects if they’d had the challenge and creativity of projects.

Visualization is crucial to history education. Learning about names, dates and events through charts and text may provide students with information and facts, but only the most motivated will develop a full and rich understanding of these facts through reading alone. Timelines and maps are frequently used in teaching and learning history, though both have tedious elements that can disengage students. MyHistro provides students with a way to create visualizations of historical events and trends in a relevant, engaging and streamlined manner.

Melissa Nuyda is a teacher candidate enrolled in the University of Michigan’s Masters and Certification Program.

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