Skybridge Academy

Using art to teach history

One of my biggest concerns as a history teacher is that my lessons are going to be boring. I am always working to use humor, academic controversy, or anything else that may seem remotely interesting so that students feel fully engaged—and so that I don’t feel like the economics teacher from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

Most students are not exactly thrilled by the prospect of writing research-based papers. So how can we help prepare them for research-intensive college courses while at the same time keeping lessons fun and engaging?

One answer can be art.

For example, I’m currently teaching a class called Civilizations, which explores various aspects of many of the major societies of Earth’s history, starting with precivilized humanity and ending with the Mongols. Currently we’re learning about ancient Egypt. For the first few classes I used a short lecture along with an informative YouTube video and student-led research about Egyptian culture. Over the next few days, students wrote a historical fiction piece based on this prompt:

Imagine you are someone alive at the time of the construction of the Great Pyramid of Giza. Write a two-page story about a day in your life. You can be the Pharaoh, you can be a pyramid builder, a merchant, or any other entity relevant to that time. The goal is to research about the time and write a short story that could have actually happened.

(These assignments can also require students to cite their sources, giving them a taste of what the academic research process is like.)

The results were fascinating. The stories’ narrators included a woman who is questioning the applied gender roles of the time, a pyramid builder planning a workers’ revolt, a Pharaoh who has become consumed by materialism and is refusing to escape his burning town in fear of abandoning his possessions, a revered cat in charge of watching over the grain stores, and a tomb thief who meets an untimely demise, among many others.

The level of effort students put into their research and writing was incredible. To create more immersion, we played ancient Egyptian–themed music we found on YouTube, alternating with a loop of construction noises (kind of corny, but actually kind of cool). To help create a sense of community, between times spent helping students as needed, I too wrote a story that I shared with them.

Being in a room with 15 high schoolers ditching their phones and iPods to work fastidiously on ancient Egyptian historical fiction pieces was the highlight of my week (which has also indicated to me that I am officially transitioning into boring adulthood; I think I’m OK with that). To finish the assignment, we shared the stories together in class, and it served as a great way for students to compare, contrast, and ask questions pertaining to the subject.

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