Teaching Historical Interpretation: Interpreting Student Life Events

“Who even knows if this really happened,” one of my students declared this year. “How do you think? How does one find out about anything?” I responded wanting to discuss how history is formed – the need to find artifacts from the past, find corroboration between various sources, hypothesize what happened and why things happened, publish the results, and have other historians look at the same event to build on or refute a claim. Sadly, the Friday afternoon bell rang and the conversation was not had.

Looking back at this brief exchange, I feel a bit uneasy, as perhaps I do not do a good enough job teaching how history is formed and that history is actually studying interpretations of the past* – a past that historians often view differently.

With this exchange in mind, I have decided to play around with her statement during the first week of school. The first lesson, posted below, deals with how history is formed and the second, highlighted in Next Steps, will deal with how history is not static, but an argument built on evidence.

 Student Life Events “Histories”

Set up:

Students bring in three or more items related to a single event in their lives. The artifacts could be pictures, a Facebook post, a trophy, a ribbon, a newspaper clipping, etc…

Initial Writing Prompt:

When class begins, have students write the story of the event and why it was so important to them. This will be revisited later.


Students swap their artifacts with a classmate to examine. Ideally, with someone they do not know well.

Writing Prompt:

With only the artifacts of their classmate (no discussing!), students write the history of the event and why it was so important to their classmate.


Since I wrote this, I have updated the lesson. While it begins the same, students will then complete the following form doing the following

  1. Describing the artifacts and finding connections between them
  2. Developing a narrative of the event and its importance based upon the artifacts
  3. Identifying lingering questions they have about the event
  4. Identifying potential resources that would help them answer the questions they developed
  5. Listening to the first hand account from the person who brought the artifacts
  6. Reflecting on the experience and how history is made

Here is a link to the form a made!



Other Suggested Questions:

  • Who’s “history” was closest to the actual event?
  • What was similar what was different?
  • For those creating the histories, what other artifacts would have been helpful?
  • What makes a good source? What makes a weak source?
  • After hearing the history of the event from the person involved, would your story change?
  • Are there opposing viewpoints on the event? Who else could you talk with?
  • What other sources could you seek out?
  • How do you think historians put together what happened in the past?
  • What types of sources would historians find helpful?
  • Is it possible for historians looking at the same event to find different interpretations of history? How?

Next Steps: The following day, students will be given articles discussing the origin of World War I from different perspectives

  • Europe “slither[ed]” into World War I as David Lloyd George argued.
  • The Kaiser and his military officers began an arms race after a war meeting in 1912 which led to them provoking war as Fritz Fischer argued.
  • The blame lies squarely on the soldiers of Russia for their partial mobilization as Germany argued in September 1914.
  • The war was caused by the imperialist quest for raw materials and new markets as socialists argued.

As this is a hotbed of historical argument, the discussion fueled by these will demonstrate that history is not a list of immutable facts but rather an interpretation of the past in which various schools of thought have competing views.

Let’s Try It!

As I have not done this, I thought I’d test it out here…with you! Below are three artifacts from one of my proudest moments. In the comments, write a story of the event. In a week, I’ll add what actually happened.

Facebook Post Trophy The Segals

Suggested Link:

Joe Tarraborelli and Lisa Kapp wrote another great lesson on how history is written by having students research their own history using both themselves as a source but also other sources. Check it out!

*Quick exercise to demonstrate interpretations of history changing over time. Think about your first or second romantic relationship. Why did it end? Would your answer today be the same as it was right after it happened? If your life were a history book, would that relationship get the same amount of ink space today as it would back then?


About Michael K. Milton

I teach students Social Studies at Burlington High School. When I became a teacher, I believed that students would frequently give me apples. This has not happened (not even a Red Delicious ~ a name which is a misnomer). However, my school has given me a MacBook Pro and an iPad in an effort to right this wrong (I assume). I'm very lucky to work in a 1:1 school.
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3 Responses to Teaching Historical Interpretation: Interpreting Student Life Events

  1. Pingback: Tip of the Week: 5 ways to start the year | History Tech

  2. Pingback: 5 ways to start the year | Doing Social Studies

  3. Pingback: Episode 19: Panel Discussion on the First Five Days of School – Visions of Education

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