Textbooks primarily have main events and boring dates, and occasionally a short biography of a person you already know. Dates alone are nothing more than numbers. Reading boring facts like “America invaded France in June 1944.” is nothing compared to reading a journal entry by a paratrooper who experienced the beaches of Normandy during that turning point during WWII.
All resources require going in-depth into a time period – so you may want to take a week or longer for each period. When going in-depth and looking beyond facts, boring names become faces and those faces become real people you begin to imagine in your head. Plus, the more in-depth you go with the more resources you use, the less biased it becomes and the more interesting it is!
History Without a Textbook
1. Read memoirs/journals.
2. Read biographies.
3. Read historical fiction.
4. Read fictional books based on real people.
It’s hard to pick out a good, rich biography. A great alternative is fictional books based on real people. These will be labeled as fiction in your library. For the most part, they don’t “stir up drama” like Hollywood, but they do have fictional details that “most likely happened” or thoughts that the person “must have thought.” This way, the story reads like a fiction story, therefore being more interesting. An example of this is Holocaust novel Prisoner B-3087 by Alan Gratz, one of my favorite books for middle-schoolers. Although it labeled as fiction, about 90% of the characters and events are true.
I have a list of 100+ Historical Novels for grades 1-8, all reviewed and listed by time period, and with a free printable so you can mark your favorites.
People are attracted to stories; we love to remember stories, hear stories, tell stories. Historical fiction brings the story to life – with characters, plot, dialogue. Remembering real life history through a story, even if that story is fiction-based-on-fact, is so much easier to remember long-term. Plus, it is more interesting than memorizing dates and names. If the historical fiction is interesting, it provokes the reader to go more in-depth into the time period and then read the “real stuff” that once seemed boring – biographies, memoirs. Those random dates and names come to life. After reading a fictional book, it is always good to look up dates, locations, and other things to weed out the “truth” from the fiction.
Some people ask me why would I do this, especially because it may confuse children. I have never ran into this problem, nor do I know any people with that problem. As long as your child is understanding the difference between fiction and nonfiction, I see no problem with a fun mnemonic. I want kids to love history, and just devour it, and I believe fiction is the best introduction to this. Historical fiction, specifically I Am David by Anne Holm, introduced me to Europe, World War II, and it made me love history. I became so interested in the time period, and wanted to know more. Since then, I have read over 50 non-fiction WWII books, countless articles on the subject and have met a Holocaust survivor. I could sit down and talk about WWII for hours. All from one completely fictional book.
A few of my favorite non-fiction, fun stories filled with little-known history:
Greatest Stories Never Told (book)
5. Watch documentaries. (Hello, History channel.)
6. Watch historical movies. Check out my list for Historical Movies For Kids.
7. Watch docudramas.
8. Check out the PBS “House” series.
9. Listen to podcasts, or other historical testimonies.
I love watching “based on a true story” movies because although this-and-that might have been exaggerated, we always love to look up more about the person/event. Docudramas are pretty close to life, but are re-enacted to be more interesting.
PBS had a “House” series where modern-day people re-enact certain events for a few months, like the new West, the 1940s, the Colonial period, etc. A great series!
Seeing games, toys, clothing, art, or music from the time really gives you an understanding of the time period and researching these is a great alternative to textbooks. Study these things and how they affected everyday life and culture. It will also help you remember things better chronologically!
10. Go to a landmark or other historical-filled place.
11. Go to a museum.
12. Have a play – re-enact a historical event. (Paul Revere’s ride, etc.)
13. Meet someone who lived it. (this is obviously impossible for your Colonial study.)
14. Try to “go back in time” – eat 40s rations, recreate a Victorian-era tea party, host a roaring ’20s costume party – have fun!
15. Listen to music from the time.
16. Research and make food from the time. (American Girl has cookbooks for each of their American girls)
17. Read magazines or newspaper articles from the time.
18. Look at advertisements from the time period.
19. Look at fashion from the time period. You can tell a lot about the time period by the way the women dressed! (Pinterest is a great resource!)
20. Look at toys and games from the time. Try to play some!
21. Stir up your visual memory by looking at photographs from the time. (Pinterest is a great resource)
22. Look at art/drawings from the time. This can provide a great insight on how people thought/felt at the time.
23. Try to find some radio broadcasts from the time.
For #15, check out Cole Porter’s song Anything Goes. The song is full of humorous “scandals” of the 1920s, and honestly sums up the Depression era. Research each of the song’s historical references – the song is even better if you get each reference!
24. Create a timeline of notable events for a certain period.
25. Create a timeline for a person.
26. Create a timeline for a certain event. (i.e. the attack on Pearl Harbor, or the 12 plagues of Egypt) (Be sure to include little-known facts!)
27. Write a short story/poem about a notable event from the point of view of a notable person. (Fictional biography, as mentioned above.) (Try to describe what the person might have said, felt, heard, etc.)
28. Write a fictional short story/poem about a notable time in history.
29. For older students, create an argument for the opposite side that you are on. (For example, look into pro-slavery arguments.) Then, instead of saying “I do not support slavery because it is wrong,” you can support your argument better and debate why your current side is morally/scientifically right.)
30. Do a craft relating to the time period. (I’ve read Story of the World and A Book In Time are great resources)
31. Create a movie trailer for a person in history.
32. Check out Horrible Histories, which will show the most “horrible” parts of history. (their main target is boys who don’t really like history)
33. Try Mission Us – an interactive and historical online “video game” focused on American history. It’s aimed at grades 5-8, although I have not tried it yet.
I find it easiest (specifically for WWII) to focus on a specific event, or family/person and researching all you can about that event/person. Whether it be a slave family during the American Civil War, or Belgian Resistance Fighters during WWII. Research about that small thing. To fully appreciate that person, you must fully understand the bigger events around that person like D-Day or the Emancipation Proclamation. Seeing how these seemingly boring (sometimes political) things affected people like you and me really brings history to life. So with this, you learn about the big events everyone else learns about, plus a real family/person/smaller event!
MIDDLE SCHOOL (May be used with high school)
PBS House Series: A Trip Back In Time (a review)
11 Books About Little-Known Events (with reviews)
11 American Civil War Novels (with reviews)
The Men Who Built America Series (late 1800s to mid 1900s)
11 WWI and Great Depression Novels (with reviews)
11 WWII Fiction Novels (with reviews)
Historical Unit Studies for Kids
1840-1855 Fashion (Early Victorian)
Vintage Ads from 1800+
101 Games from the 1940s
Library of Congress
Little-Known Events For Research: (middle school and up)
Need topics for little-known event reports? As you can see, the majority of my knowledge is set during WWII.
- The states that never were (i.e. ex-states in America)
- The presidents before George Washington
- 1777 – Sybil Ludington’s Famous Midnight Ride
- 1786-1787 – Shay’s Rebellion
- 1791 – Haitian Revolution
- 1800s – Ireland Potato Famine
- 1862 – General Order #11 (Anti-Semitism in America)
- 1899 – Newsie strike
- 1890s-1920s – Jewish persecution in Russia
- 1915 – Armenian Genocide
- WWI – Hello Girls
- 1936-1939 – Spanish Civil War
- 1939 – MS St. Louis Voyage
- WWII – Kindertransport
- WWII – Tuskegee Airmen (America’s first black military airmen)
- WWII – 168 Allied Airmen in Buchenwald Concentration camp
- April 1945 – Biggest medical relief in history, Belsen concentration camp (very interesting – upper grades only)
- WWII – The Minnesota Starvation Experiment
- 1954 – Brown v. Board of Education
- 1975 – Cambodian Genocide
- 1994 – Rwandan Genocide
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