Teaching with Historic Places and the "Power of Place": Using Places to Teach

Historic places have powerful & provocative stories to tell

As witnesses to the past, they recall the events that shaped history and the people who faced those situations and issues. Places make connections across time that give them a special ability to create an empathetic understanding of what happened and why.

Why Places

Real historic places generate excitement and curiosity about the people who lived there and the events that occurred there. From ancient ruins, homes of presidents and poets, and battlefields that comprise national parks, to the main streets, factories, and farms listed in the National Register of Historic Places because they make a state or community special, places grab our attention. They offer experiences and information that help make the past real for anyone who visits or studies them. Rooted in this certainty, Teaching with Historic Places promotes places as effective tools for enlivening traditional classroom instruction.

Students As Historians

Teaching with Historic Places lesson plans turn students into historians as they study primary sources, historical and contemporary photographs and maps, and other documents, and then search for the history around them in their own communities. They enjoy a historian's sense of discovery as they learn about the past by actively examining places to gather information, form and test hypotheses, piece together "the big picture," and bridge the past to the present. By seeking out nearby historic places, students explore the relationship of their own community's history to the broader themes that have shaped this country.

Places help students develop skills as well as knowledge. Students learn to observe, gather facts, compare and contrast, synthesize and analyze, evaluate sources of evidence, develop and test hypotheses, and draw conclusions. Places are therefore well-suited to help teachers meet both state and national curriculum standards in social studies, history, geography, and other subjects. One of the ten themes in the Curriculum Standards for Social Studies, for example, is "People, Places, and Environments." The National Geography Standards use an understanding of the characteristics of and relationships among people, places, and environments as one of the marks of student achievement.

Teaching and Learning

By using places listed in the National Register to "bring history to life," educators can help students connect social studies, history, geography, and other subjects to their own lives. Students not only learn better, but also come to appreciate the value of the nation's cultural resources. TwHP materials guide teachers, historians, historic site specialists, and others through this process.

It is not necessary, though, to visit a place to feel its connections to history. Through a variety of materials and activities, Teaching with Historic Places (TwHP) enables teachers and students to learn from places without leaving the classroom. By examining and questioning readings, documents, maps, photographs, and by engaging in activities, students connect these locations to the broad themes of American history.

Places can help students connect the history all around them with national events and themes. A TwHP lesson based on the courthouse in St. Louis, for example, shows how people there debated a railroad route that would have national impact and how the Dred Scott Supreme Court decision started with a local case. Studying this building will help students understand the importance of their local and state courthouses, as well helping them grasp the significance of historic places generally. Local sites often make a stronger impression on students than those more famous but farther away, thereby sparking their desire to learn more.

Ultimately, teaching with and about historic places benefits everyone. Educators have one more means with which to engage and excite students, students acquire knowledge from and an appreciation for cultural resources, and society gains a better-educated citizenry.

Last updated: December 10, 2015