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Teaching with Historic Places

Heritage Education Services

Teaching with Historic Places (TwHP) uses properties listed in the National Park Service's National Register of Historic Places to enliven history, social studies, geography, civics, and other subjects. TwHP has created a variety of products and activities that help teachers bring historic places into the classroom.

The National Register Can Help Teachers

For teachers who want to enliven classroom instruction by using historic places, the National Park Service's National Register of Historic Places can help in a number of ways in addition to Teaching with Historic Places lesson plans and other services. Having an inventory of more than 80,000 nomination forms of historic places throughout the United States, the National Register can lead you to places that tell some of the fascinating stories you want your students to learn from the past.

Cleveland Arcade, Cleveland, OH. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.

National Register Program:
Americans are proud of their heritage and are honored when places in their communities and states are entered in the National Register. Historic properties in a community are tangible links with the nation's past that help provide a sense of identity and stability. The National Register, which recognizes the values of properties as diverse as a dugout shelter of an Oklahoma pioneer settler, the Breakers Mansion in Newport, Rhode Island, and a 12,000-year-old prehistoric site, has helped many to appreciate the richness and variety of their heritage.

Listing a property in the National Register provides recognition of it's historic significance, consideration in planning Federal or federally-assisted projects, eligibility for Federal tax benefits, consideration in decisions about coal-mining permits, and eligibility for Federal preservation grants.

Federal, State, and Tribal Preservation Offices:
Federal agencies, states, and American Indian Tribes look for and evaluate buildings, sites, and other physical remnants from the past within their lands. Then they nominate properties they decide are historically or culturally important to the National Register. Since most registered places are privately-owned and significant to the history of the locality or state in which they are located, most nominations come through State Historic Preservation Offices. The professionals in State Historic Preservation Offices work closely with local governments, historical organizations, and the public in locating and researching places that might qualify for recognition in the National Register. State offices, like the National Register, maintain files on listed properties, and also have information on other places within their states.

National Register List:
The first step in teaching with historic places all around us is to find those places. Either the National Park Service's National Register office or state preservation offices can provide information on National Register properties in any state or county. The address and telephone number of the National Register of Historic Places are: National Park Service, 1849 C Street, NW, 2280, Washington, DC 20240; (202) 354-2213.

NPS Focus
Visit NPS Focus, an online database, to find out more information about properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  Summary information about National Register properties can be found through the use of a simple or an advanced search. This system makes it possible to find places linked not only geographically, but also by characteristics such as architectural style, theme (area of significance), period of significance, resource type, architects, or significant people. For example,


• if you are planning an instructional unit on industrialism and the Gilded Age, you can use the NRIS to identify properties associated with Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jay Gould, or other key figures; industrial complexes or company towns from the late 19th century; or local mills or factories.

• if you are focusing on milestones of the Civil Rights movement, you can obtain a list of properties nationwide representing African American history since 1950.

• if you want to explore how your state's evolving demographics relate to trends in U.S. immigration and cultural diversity, you can request a list either of resources in that state (or even in a specific county or city) associated with various ethnic groups, or of properties in several states associated with a single group.


The search will then create a "Title Display List" of different places that fit the specified criteria. From this list, select a property and view the summary information. From the summary information navigate to the text of a National Register nomination or see the photographs associated with a nomination.  Basic information such as resource name, address, location, and date of listing all appear in the summary information.. 

You can use both the NPS Focus and the NRIS to conduct your own electronic searches to identify National Register properties by state, county, or city. To conduct more complex customized searches, or if you have questions about the NPS Focus or the NRIS, contact the National Register at

Documentation About Historic Places:
Once you have identified one or more historic places, you can obtain copies of the documentation kept by the National Register by writing or calling your State Historic Preservation Office, or contacting the National Register at the address and number given above. The National Register maintains files on more than 80,000 historic districts, sites, buildings, structures, and objects. Because historic districts often include hundreds of historically-significant buildings and other features, the listings in the National Register represent more than 1.4 million places important to the nation's history. Approximately 90 percent of National Register properties represent state and local history, and teachers would be challenged to find a more accessible summary of major historic themes, people, and events for many areas of the country as can be found in the documentation for these places.

Historic properties are not limited to those listed in the National Register, but because investigations constantly bring to light new places, there are decided advantages to starting with National Register properties. These places have been documented already, and every property file includes considerable information useful to teachers: a physical description of the place listed, geographical information, one or more maps, an explanation of historical significance, a bibliography, and at least one black and white photograph. Frequently, files contain other information as well, such as site plans, historic photographs, copies of primary documents, drawings, or other materials.

Photographs from the official National Register and National Historic Landmarks archives - from a variety of sources, including State Historic Preservation Offices (SHPO) and nomination preparers, have been posted to the web through the photo sharing site, Flickr.  Each individual picture, collection, or set, is accompanied by a textual description and explanation of the historic significance of the listed property.

A number of materials that the National Register program produces for other purposes than classroom education can also benefit teachers.  In addition to informational brochures, the National Register publishes technical "bulletins" on specific types of resources to assist those evaluating properties for possible nomination to the National Register.  The brochures and bulletins include basic information about the National Register as well as information on the different property types eligible for a National Register nomination.  The bulletins also include technical information and guidance on preparing nominations for specific kinds of places, such as archeological sites, cemeteries, battlefields, and residential suburbs.  These bulletins generally contain historical background, bibliographies, and guidance in understanding what these places tell us about local, regional, state, or national history. Such understanding is essential for teaching or learning from places and for explaining how they meet National Register criteria for significance. Therefore, bulletins on topics cited above, as well as post offices, mining resources, aviation resources, landscapes, and other types of places might help you interpret the cultural resources you find in your communities.  These brochures and bulletins are free and are located online at

The National Register program also has participated in the creation of other publications, books, and videos that can benefit teachers.  From the National Register’s “Publications” webpage you can find information on the following books: National Landmarks, American’s Treasures, Building the National Parks, and African American Historic Places. There is also a video that teachers can order entitled, American Legacy: The Work of the National Register of Historic Places. 

Additionally, the National Register program has helped to produce special editions of CRM, a technical periodical produced by the Cultural Resources Programs of the National Park Service.  The following editions are available online:

The National Register of Historic Places: Volume 25, no. 1, 2002

Creative Teaching with Historic Places: Volume 23, no. 8, 2000

Archeology and the National Register: Volume 18, no. 6, 1995

Using the National Register of Historic Places: Volume 17, no.2, 1994

Teaching With Historic Places: Volume 16, no. 2, 1993

Traditional Cultural Properties: Volume 16, Special Edition, 1993 (search under the Issue Title)

Cultural Diversity and Historic Preservation: Volume 15, no. 7, 1992

National Register Participation:
You and your students may find important places in your state or community that are not listed in the National Register. Direct participation in the process of researching and nominating a property to the National Register is another option for educators. You already know that students who "do" history demonstrate greater interest in and mastery of the subject. Participation has the added advantages of reinforcing the idea that history has value in "the real world," and of demonstrating one way to translate learning into good citizenship.

The National Register bulletins discussed above will help you identify, research, document, and register historic places. Nomination information, forms, and instructions for completing them also are available on the National Register Web site. You may also obtain a free "Starter Kit," or a computer disk with the information you need to prepare nominations electronically, by writing or calling the National Register.

Although completion of the entire nomination process from identification to listing may be beyond the scope of a single year's class, the project can be divided into stages and combined with other endeavors that provide each participating class with a sense of accomplishment. One class could conduct initial research, write articles for a local newspaper, and submit information to the local library. Another class could analyze how the property relates to broad national themes as represented by National Register criteria, design a school exhibit, and work with the State Historic Preservation Office to nominate the property to the state and/or national registers.