Historical Thinking in the 5th Grade

What do our historical knowledge do our fifth graders bring into the classroom with them?  How do our kids make sense of the worlds around them?  These are the questions we set out to answer last week in our historical thinking unit.


Part I: Timelines

At the beginning of the year, I recreated our classroom timeline poster.  I noticed that the timeline we had hanging in our room, provided by a publishing company, didn’t really match the history that we learned in our class.  The white cartoon characters very much aligned with the dominate narrative that we try so hard to challenge.  So I decided to recreate the timeline, using the more diverse, challenging, relevant events that we focus on.

We (I say we, but shout out to my parent volunteer for doing this 🙌🏼), made copies of these timelines, blacked out the dates, and cut up all of the pieces.  Then students worked with their table teams, employed their historical thinking skills, and put the timelines back together.







I was fascinated by the comments and questions students generated.  This was an incredible way for me to get a grasp on what prior knowledge students had, and what misconceptions remained.  One of the most fascinating comments that arose were around the death of Trayvon Martin and the Black Lives Matter movement.  Many students place these events in the 1960’s, during the civil rights movement.  It was really hard for students (and me to), to believe that a seventeen year old could be senselessly killed so recently.

Another interesting trend was the way students began pulling books of the shelves.  My original intent was for students to look for evidence in the pictures, and combine that evidence with their prior knowledge to arrange the events on the timeline.  Kids did this for a little while, and once they had exhausted their existing knowledge, they turned to books.  It was unexpected, and was a very insightful moment for me to see how eager and capable they are to begin research.  Utilizing classroom resources, they were able to locate the exact or general dates of almost all of the events on the timeline.







After making and reflecting on the timelines, I asked students how they, as a teacher, would teach a timeline.  I assumed that students would say we should start at the beginning and work our way forwards, and then this would be my clever lead-in to explain that here in 5th grade, we work through history backwards.  But I didn’t have to explain why we work through history backwards!

One of our students automatically said, “well, I would start with today and work backwards.  We know way more about what’s happening today.  Those events were easier to put on the timeline.”  That was all the explanation the class needed.  Starting at a date three hundred years ago seemed bizarre to them, today was the only thing that made sense.  These kids don’t even need a teacher anymore.


Part II: Identity Maps & Interpretive Lenses

After we assembled our timelines, the next step was to think about how we each interpret history.  We talked about how we all see, hear, and experience things differently based on who we are, what experiences we’ve had, and what’s important to us.  We talked about our identities, and how those identities influence our views of history.  I tried to guide students towards focusing on race, class, gender, home life, language, education, and culture, (and some did), but they also insisted that I recognize all of the other things that shape who they are, like favorite sports players and pets.

Students created identity maps, outlining who they are as people and what’s important to them.  After creating identity maps, they selected 5-10 words from their maps that were most significant to them, and most significantly altered the way that they experienced the world.  These 5-10 words were then put onto their own poster board glasses, representing the lenses that each student looks through every day.

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These glasses turned out to be the coolest things ever, and we will be keeping them and using them all year.  When we present our big projects this year, students will come with their glasses in hand, ready to defend their interpretive lenses and positionally.  Pretty stinkin’ cool.


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One of the most insightful comments I heard was, “What would happen if I put on your glasses?  I would see the world differently?”  Wow.  Now there’s some critical thinking.

Way to go, Little Longhorns!  I can’t wait to continue and build upon these amazing conversations.  Each of your perspectives plays such an integral role in our classroom community and in the world at large.  Thanks for sharing your identities with us.


Love and Learning,

Ms. Green







4 responses to “Historical Thinking in the 5th Grade”

  1. hcweicker Avatar

    What inspiring activities you all create and do. Once again, I am excited for your year.

    Sent from the family iPad


    Liked by 1 person

  2. Diane Calkins Avatar
    Diane Calkins

    Those are some fortunate kids to have you as their 5th grade teacher! Making school interesting, relevant, fun, and teaching those critical thinking skills is so important. And really great to have such a great place to be a teacher.


  3. mel256 Avatar

    Outstanding. The last comment about wearing someone else’s glasses to see differently blew me away. Cue the tears. I am so very proud of you as a teacher and your 5th graders as historical thinkers.


  4. photocin Avatar

    Awesome and Inspiring!


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