How to Write a TwHP Lightning Lesson

Teaching with Historic Places lesson plans begin in one of two ways. You either know what place you want to write about or you know what content or historical themes you want young people to acquire through a place-based investigation. You will need to know both to write the lesson, but authors typically start with one or the other in mind.

Click here to download the standard .docx template for the lightning lesson plan (without NPS logo)

Ready to go? Try it in three steps.

1. Determine first the place you want to feature or what curriculum goals you want to meet

>> Place first
Consider what themes, time periods, people, and histories are associated with the place. How is the place evidence of those things?

For example, if you choose a historic factory, the factory will at least be evidence of technological advances and the workplace culture of its era. If you have a historic house, the house will be evidence of who lived in this region and perhaps why, evidence of a pattern or an exception to settlement in the region, the needs of the people who lived there, and their status and values.

>> Content first
Think of places that are commonly associated with the history and themes you want to teach. Did this history happen in schools? Courthouses? Did the people associated with the history live in rural or urban areas? What kind of place did the need to do their work, live their values, achieve their goals, or survive social pressures?

For example, a lesson about the French & Indian War can use the reconstruction of Fort Necessity to teach the desperation of young George Washington and his soldiers. The men did not have time to acquire cement, good timber, and nails. The fort is crude, small, and built in a circle not a square or triangle. It did not look like other historic forts that students may be familiar with today. Its construction and its very name are evidence of the situation (dire) and environment (forested, remote) in which Washington found himself.

Quality check: All historic sites in the Teaching with Historic Places series are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Make sure yours is listed by checking the National Register Database or even through the historic site's Wikipedia page, which should include the NRHP Reference #.

2. Research the historic place

All National Register sites have a nomination form, which describes what the place looks like, why it's significant, and what events, people, remarkable architecture, and other important elements are associated with it. It documents the importance of the place. Your first research step should be to access the nomination, either through the National Park Service website or though the state's own Historic Preservation Office. Archivists at the state or local level will be happy to assist you if the document is not available online.

Once you locate the nomination, begin to research primary sources such as photography, illustrations, and blueprints of the historic place through online historical collections from the Library of Congress, such as the Library of Congress' HABS/HAER/HALS collection that documents historic places through photography, illustrations, and blueprints.

After searching the National Park Service website and the Library of Congress online database, look at history and culture centers near the historic place. Find out if the historic place is part of a state, local, or National park. There may already be educational resources about the historic site that you can improve upon with the place-as-primary-source approach.

In this early stage, keep an eye out for evidence that surprises you or challenges your assumptions. Look for photos of the place and maps to put the place in context. Keep in mind the old saying, "a picture's worth a thousand words."

If you went into the project with a place and a narrative in mind, be open to changing your mind. You may be surprised by a "hidden history" or see the historic place in a new light, now that you're thinking of it in terms of place-as-primary-source.

3. Outline and Develop your lesson plan

Click here to download the standard .docx template for the lightning lesson plan (without NPS logo)

A lightning lesson plan is short and sweet. It is not a booklet about a historic place or topic, and it is not a summary of significance about your chosen historic site.

The lesson begins with a brief introduction that describes the featured place in the context of content standards. It is accompanied by photos, typically of the place and/or the subjects. This is intended to introduce the lesson and does not come with a question set.

The body of the lightning lesson are the guiding questions, the materials and question sets, optional post-lesson activities, sources used to write the lesson, and a short list of online resources (prioritize .orgs, .govs, and .edus) for teachers and students who want to learn more about the historic place and topics.

Each Map, Reading, and Image is followed by its own question set. There should be 2-5 questions per material. The first question should ask students to recall information and from there questions should become more complex, demanding higher order thinking and hypothesizing from the student. They can help scaffold knowledge as the lesson progresses and may ask students to compare information from different materials in the lesson.

Break-down of the Lightning lesson plan

1 Compelling or Essential question to introduce the topic and a big idea, followed by the prompt, "What historic place could you study to answer this question?" Students will begin the lesson by theorizing what place-evidence could help them explore an abstract concept.

1-2 Maps put the place in a geographical context (political, cultural, physical, etc) or illustrates the design of the property the historic site occupies.

A map reveals the relationship of this place to other places. For example, a map that shows a farm located near a river will provide evidence to theorize how the farmers transported goods.

1-2 Readings may be primary or secondary sources.

One reading should be a general reading to provide students with the history of the place and the people who lived there. The readings for lessons on this website aim to be in plain English at the 8-9th grade level, analyzed using a Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level test.

If a primary source text is complex, consider breaking it down into excerpts. You may also want to take advantage of the complexity and ask the student to practice reading comprehension and vocabulary-building skills. In the questions, ask students to analyze the text's audience, argument, and point of view.

1-2 Images should include a photo or illustration depicting the historic place, if possible.

Avoid portraits of the people associated with the historic site unless background imagery reveals evidence about your featured place. If you want to include a portrait that shows the subject of the lesson but can't move the activities along, present it as an eye-catching illustration in the introduction.

3-4 Optional Post-Lesson Activities are intended to suggest further learning about the topics, themes, and content touched on in the lesson.

They should not be an expansion of the lesson about the historic place. They are opportunities for the students to take the ideas from the lesson and apply them to other eras, people, places, and classroom subjects. One activity should have students engage in a local history or historic preservation investigation.


REMEMBER! Buildings, bridges, churches, and city streets are literally physical, objective evidence of the past and are primary sources. It is the job of historians and students to analyze these places and interpret them.

A Teaching with Historic Places lesson plan will guide your students through a close reading of the historic site, to acquire curriculum-linked skills and content. It uses the physical characteristics and human interactions with the historic place to meet curriculum standards and to impress upon students the importance of preserving historic places.

After you draft a rough lesson, you may discover you've written a great curriculum product but lost the power of place. It is up to you at that point to decide if you want to settle for a lesson related to a historic site (not a TwHP lesson plan) or one that uses the historic site as evidence (a TwHP lesson plan).

The managing editor at Teaching with Historic Places is happy to consult with you about your curriculum development. Please contact us via email by clicking here.

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