30+ Ways to Teach History Without a Textbook

History is my biggest passion; I love history! I am a firm believer teaching history should never be boring. And yet, I really don’t like textbooks. More often than not, they’re boring, and they make it hard to retain information in the long run. (Thus, you’re not really learning.) As an alternative, here are 30+ ways to teach history without a textbook, from books to cooking, and more!

Ways to Teach History Without a Textbook

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)

Greatest War Stories Never Told (book)

Greatest Presidential 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!

Experience It

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!

Early Native American Craft Book
Pilgrim Craft Book
Colonial America Craft Book
American Girl Cookbook: 1854, 1904, 1944
11 WWII Picture Books (with reviews)
Holocaust Butterfly Project

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

List of Historical Movies and Documentaries on YouTube
Killing Lincoln
Band of Brothers – mature audience only
WWII Pictures (nothing graphic)

1840-1855 Fashion (Early Victorian)
1860s Fashion
1869-1876 Fashion
1910s Fashion
1920s Fashion
1930s Fashion
1940s Fashion
1950s Fashion
Vintage Ads from 1800+
1860s Games
Victorian Games
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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Any more ideas? I’d love to hear your thoughts!
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Samantha is a teen entrepreneur and a former unsocialized homeschooler from Indiana, USA. Samantha is interested in WWII history, Israel, and politics. Her specialities are words, frugality, homeschooling, and procrastination. When not blogging, Samantha spends her time reading, trying to speak Hebrew, and wasting time on Pinterest.
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  1. says

    For those who are concerned about their children confusing truth for fiction in historical fiction — that’s an excellent way to practice! Have them look up and figure out which details are historical record and which are added by the author. (In general. Obviously it could get a bit overwhelming to try to look up every single detail in a novel like this.)

    Thanks to the Gods and Kings series I can finally remember what happened during Hezekiah’s time, in the Bible. (This is not for younger readers, though; there are some adult themes.) And really, it brought to life things I’d never thought about before, regarding how the Law affected their everyday lives.
    Rachel R. recently posted…The Old Fashioned Way {review} {giveaway}My Profile

  2. Elizabeth says

    This is such a wonderful list of resources, thank you very much! You mentioned listening to history podcasts and I was wondering if you knew of any specific ones geared towards children? Or maybe any history apps? I’ve been trying to find a “this day in history app” for kids. Would you know of any?

    Thank you again for this wonderful list!

  3. Jana says

    I know this is an old post but I just found it on pinterest. Your talk about the PBS “House” series, which I loved all but Colonial House, is nothing compared to the BBC “Farm” series. Oh so awesome. Watch Tudor Monestary Farm on youtube. All 6 episodes are there. The same historian and architects have done several of these series. I’m currently watching Secrets of the Castle. Eventually I will get to the others. I have 45 episodes to watch at an hour each. Watch. You will love.

  4. Jennifer says

    When I was younger, one series of fiction books that I loved was the “Dear America” series. They were set during different events, like the Civil War, and they were written like a child’s diary. It was so interesting to read!!

  5. Rene says

    Thanks for the great reminder about making history fun! We are just about to start a new school year here in Australia and I needed to remember how much fun History was when my kids were little. I totally agree with your points. We visited Normandy last September so my sons could stand on the D day beaches….it was an unforgettable experience for our 15 yr old WWII obsessed son as was sitting in foxholes in the Ardenne forest in Belgium where the Battle of the Bulge took place. As a once in a lifetime trip it was so so worth the money and time.

  6. Heidi Z. says

    Wow, how fun and inspiring to read!! Just wanted to recommend another option for an outline in studying History. Veritas Press has been a wonderful resource for us as we have studied history chronologically. One of my sons would’ve been happy to study Egypt/ Greece/ Roman history only, but Veritas Press helped us keep moving. It has wonderful songs for each era that really stick with you to help remember those pesky dates and cards that give basic information on major happenings within the given time period. These cards list resources to use to go as wide and deep as you want on any topic.
    Keep up the great blog Samantha!!

  7. Chana says

    so as a fellow history lover (and in fact a former history teacher)–for homeschooling moms–Use the library of congress website!! http://www.loc.gov. It has a lot of really neat printable primary resources that will interest kids from 3rd or 4th grade and up-seriously, there’s a whole section of historical baseball card images and posters. I think a lot of baseball playing younger kids would be hooked. There are also a lot of old photos-some of kids dressed in very strange outfits!

    I also have to say that I love memoirs (although I don’t think kids younger than 14 or so will find them interesting, unless they’re particularly bookish) it’s the same kind of amazing “here’s how people really lived” stuff you get from historical fiction, but a lot of the time the truth is crazier than fiction. If you’re into the holocaust, Primo Levi is amazing to read. There’s another interesting one I read recently I think called “resistance” that’s the journal of a member of the French resistance. On another topic, ” life and death in Shanghai” is by a woman who was held in prison by the communist regime in China for essentially no reason for years. It’s actually one of my favorite books- highly recommend it.

      • Anonymous says

        Awesome:) One more good-for-homeschooling series I just remembered- the “If you lived at x time” series.I have a homeschooling friend whose 8 year old son only likes to read nonfiction. I bought him a bunch of these and we didn’t see him for hours:) the authors do a great job of thinking about what interests kids in history- lots of details about, like, what toys were like during the American Revolution. They can work as read alouds for kids younger than 2nd grade, or for independent readers.

  8. Amanda says

    This is fantastic. Thank you for sharing!! I will definitely be using these ideas with my kids in our homeschool!

  9. says

    That is a great tip particularly to those new to the blogosphere.
    Simple but very precise info… Thanks for sharing this one.
    A must read article!
    Breanna recently posted…BreannaMy Profile

  10. says

    I did buy a guide book for history History Odyssey but I love your resources, I supplement a lot with documentaries. BBC’s Tales From the Green Valley was good.
    The website Independent Lens has lots of watch it now videos. This is my Pinterest documentary board (not all of them are for history lol) http://www.pinterest.com/biggirlblogger/documentary/
    Thanks for the help!
    April recently posted…7th Grade Homeschool (Finally! And subject to revision.)My Profile

  11. Amy says

    I ditched the history textbook this year and I am replacing it with various historical fiction and nonfiction books for my sons (10 and 8). You have some great ideas listed. Thanks!

  12. says

    I’m new to homeschooling and trying to find a history lesson plan for my 4th grader but I don’t want to teach her the same untruths I learned as a child nor do I want us both stuck with another boring textbook. I am excited to try this approach. I just now have to decide if it’s best to start with early world history or early American history. Any thoughts?
    Jeniffer recently posted…We Learn Something New EverydayMy Profile

    • says

      Thanks Jeniffer!
      I would highly recommend using Sonlight.com (a curriculum, but you can easily use their website for resources to make your own) as a guide/textbook spine. Sonlight is a Christian book-only curriculum that has a very high-quality but interesting reading list. I highly applaud their mission statements and book qualifications. For fourth grade, Sonlight has American History 2/2. Hope this helps!
      Samantha recently posted…Left Behind: The Kids {The Vanishings} Book 1 – A ReviewMy Profile

  13. Jeri says

    Killing Lincoln is full of errors. Chasing Lincoln’s Killer by James Swanson is a much better choice.

  14. says

    I wouldn’t have even known that there were ANY good Germans in the nazi era if I had not researched it. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the White Rose group, Helmuth Hubener…I mean why not teach about them? Their stories are amazing!


  15. says

    Love where you wrote: “History is my thing.. I practically breathe history”. So I’m not the only one! I don’t like history text books either. Sure they will say oh yeah theres this thing called WW2 where a lot of Jews were killed and America was bombed without warning and oh yes, be sure to read Anne Frank.
    I mean come on there is so much more to history than that!!!

    Oh and here is the link to the blog I was telling you about:http://i-rememberww2.blogspot.com

    THis post was awesome!


  1. […] Textbooks often only have main events and boring dates, occasionally a short biography of a person you already know. In my opinion, dates are nothing more than numbers. Numbers are math and math is boring. Reading boring facts like “America invaded France in June 1944.” ohhh, now THAT makes me want to study it more! is nothing compared to reading a journal entry by someone who has lived it!  Come see how this homeschooled teen  has learned to love history without a textbooks at Le  Chaim on the Right.  […]

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