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How 3 educators use tech to teach history

5 min read


In honor of Black History Month and Presidents Day, we’ve asked three history teachers to share how they are using technology to engage students in history lessons. These teachers are contributors to the Smarter Schools Project, a site designed to highlight the exciting ways schools and families are using technology to support great teaching and learning.

Face to face with Black History Month

Kerry Gallagher is a middle- and high-school history teacher in Massachusetts. Kerry blogs at Teaching History Tech.

As we celebrate Black History Month this month, my 10th-graders are studying antebellum American history, the era of the slavery debate. Helping them make real emotional connections with the debate over abolition in our time is a challenge. They have no personal experience with such a violation of human dignity. The words of the movement’s most famous activist, Frederick Douglass, are powerful, but what about getting face time with the man himself? By using technology in my classroom, I’m able to provide such an experience.

First, my students researched  Douglass’s biographical information specifically focused on his experience with slavery, opinion on abolition and actions related to the slavery debate. They shared information from websites like and to draft their custom biography. Of course, as part of this stage, they looked for portraits of Douglass so that they could get to know him even better.

Next they read Douglass’s most famous speech “The Meaning of the Fourth of July for the Negro.”  They dissected it, looking up unfamiliar words and phrases, identifying the thesis statement, putting parts of it into their own words to show understanding.

Finally, I asked them to identify key words and phrases from the speech that capture the mood, intent, and message of the document. The students then used Skitch, a visual annotation tool, to strategically place Douglass’s words around his face. His portrait was transformed. One student remarked that it no longer looked like a mere portrait, but like a man accusing his audience of being hypocrites.

I would say they are starting to see Black History Month come alive.

Using multimedia to engage in civil rights and liberties

Ken Halla is a high-school history teacher in Virginia, and author of the new book Deeper Learning Through Technology.

In three of my four content preps, I have cut out all but occasional uses of our textbooks replacing them with a myriad of multimedia presentations. The sole exception is Advanced Placement U.S. Government.  But last month I tossed caution aside, threw out the book for our Courts/Civil Liberties/Civil Rights unit and then waited anxiously for the test results which ended up being the best we have had in years. Here’s how I used technology to help my students learn:

How do I know the students watched the videos? Well you can put questions on a Google Form. Here is a video  explaining how to do this. Or use it to have students ask questions to begin the class, or finally, give students a quiz and let them use their notes on it in class. Want to create your own flip videos? Use this video where I explain how.

Mapping civil rights

Kevin Zahner is a high-school social studies teacher in Texas.

In celebration of Black History Month, my 11th-graders made an interactive map of 10 events from the Civil Rights Movement. We had just finished reconstruction, so it seemed fitting to continue tracing the issues to when society was ready for big change.

When students write about historical events on Google My Maps, they can immediately become online contributors and makers of a resource with a worldwide audience.

Here’s how we did it:

  1. List events and assign them to learning groups.
  1. Assign group members research roles based on themes, like legal, religious, education, etc.
  1. Research and combine notes to write a summary with one main idea.
  1. Submit the group summary with Google Forms. This provides a Google Sheet of responses for the next step.
  1. Import the sheet to My Map and provide students a link with editing permission.
  1. Finish by changing the color and shape of the map points according to categories of events.
  1. Add images and resource links to make the map more useful.
  1. Embed the map on a website or blog to publish.
  1. Share the link via social media, QR codes and e-mail. Sometimes we print one with a QR code for the hallway.

Let students play with what they made. Then, have them reflect on what they learned in a reply to the blog post where the map is embedded. Focusing on an event and connecting it to the greater significance is more powerful than having them remember a host of facts.

If it’s remembering facts that you’re concerned about, I have my students submit quiz questions to go with their map points. You can tell a lot about what students know and can do by their questions.  Remember, technology is just a tool, but it can be a powerful one to help students connect with our country’s past.