Sarah is a Social Studies teachers with a focus on European History. She first traveled with EF Tours to Italy in 2008, and now leads two tours every summer. Her favorite part of student travel is seeing the look of amazement on her students’ faces when they witness something they’ve only seen in books.
As teachers, we know that the best way for students to learn something is by doing it. But what if you teach European History? How can you take your students back in time? When I began my teaching career, this was my challenge. Since I couldn’t take all my students on trips to Europe or take ANYONE back in time, I decided to bring “history” to them. It all started with costumes, and eventually I became obsessed with finding costumes for each period of history.
My first unit was Ancient Greece. I quickly researched all the Gods and Goddesses and made outfits that incorporated their symbols. The kids loved it! Then I bought a Gladiator costume for my Ancient Rome unit. Soon I had a queen’s outfit for the Renaissance. My closet quickly became filled with costumes for a Black Plague Doctor, Mona Lisa, Rosie the Riveter, a Middle Ages monk, and more. It brought a new dynamic to the classroom and students were increasingly more excited and engaged each time I entered in costume. My next challenge was to create lessons in which the students could also “experience” what it might have been like to live during the time of our unit. My first lesson was being a monk in the Middle Ages. I had taught the students about their vows of silence, lack of food, illuminating manuscripts, etc. So on this day, I greeted them at the door dressed as a monk and instructed them not to speak. They sat down and in front of them was a letter to illuminate. I played Gregorian Chants in the background and had them maintain their silence for 45 minutes. During the lesson, I served one meal. It was a pretzel and they each got one. Pretzels were first created by monks in the Middle Ages. They would use leftover dough and shape them to represent a child’s arms folded in prayer. They called them pretiola, which means “little reward” in Latin.
You’ve taught your students about the world—now make the world their classroom. Take your students abroad and you can travel free!
Towards the end of the class, they were finally able to speak, and we then reflected on the lesson. The students loved it! Year after year, as students would come back to visit, they would talk about how much they enjoyed “Monk Day.” I knew that I would have to create more back-in-time days!After teaching students about Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel, a student asked me, “How did he DO that?” Ah ha! I knew that would be my next back-in-time lesson. I had one group of students mix egg yolks and with powdered color to create tempera paint while others cartooned (poked holes along the lines) drawings that would be charcoaled and taped to the bottom of their desks. There would be a painter (Michelangelo) and an assistant to hand them brushes with colors. The Michelangelo’s had to paint inside the lines while lying on their backs underneath the desks. This is a very difficult task and the students got a sense of how painful this four-year task would have been.
Teaching in this “experiential” way was now becoming a passion of mine.
I would go on to create experiential learning activities for all my units. Encountering the black plague while being a plague doctor, paying money (M&Ms) to the king when he collected taxes, and the very strange practice of Trials by Ordeals in the Middle Ages. My most recent lesson was helping my students get a sense of the struggles Anne Frank faced everyday while she was in hiding. I have a set of activities they must complete at each table and they are penalized for making any noise. At first the tasks seem easy, but my students soon realize they are not. Although this can only be a slight comparison to the reality she faced, the impact it has on my students motivates me each year to continue to create more experiential learning activities.
Recently, I was given a national award because one of my students wrote an essay about how I teach. The student said that “[Ms. Morris] is a time-travel machine and we are her time-travelers.” It was an incredible honor to win the award, but the true gift was knowing that my students viewed me and my lessons in this way. My efforts to bring history to life had worked!
When students come back to visit me, they never tell me how much they loved the worksheet on the hierarchy of feudalism. In fact, they probably don’t remember that. What they do talk about is what we DID. Those lessons and activities stay with them because they became history. And as a teacher, I couldn’t be happier.