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10 of the best websites for bringing history & social studies to life

Here are some great resources to deliver authentic learning experiences

History and social studies bad reputations for being boring. To many students, these subjects mean reading long-winded textbooks and memorizing incessant facts. They don’t necessarily see the importance of studying something that happened hundreds or thousands of years ago.

Getting students to really care about what they’re learning involves bringing the subject to life for them. Thanks to the internet, there are so many ways for students to experience the past. History and social studies feel more real as students participate in these interactive and immersive activities. The resources are endless, but here are our online charter school’s 10 favorite websites.

1. Google Earth
Much of history involves understanding the geography and settings for key events, and with Google Earth, students can explore those places. The free software lets them view the globe from a high altitude or zoom in on countries, towns, and even street corners. The overlay feature allows students to drop a map over a historical site, which gives more context to its significance. With Google Earth, students can also view 3D models of various sites and create “flyovers,” where they can use placemarks to “fly” from one point to another over a specific route.

2. Google Lit Trips
For some students, the best way to experience history is through storytelling. Google Lit Trips takes the locations and journeys of beloved literary characters, and drops them into Google Earth. The program also offers relevant media, thought-provoking discussion starters, and links to supplementary information about real-world references to bring the story back into a historical perspective.

3. YouTube
YouTube is a treasure trove for historical film clips from more than 100 years ago—when motion pictures were invented—to the present. Learning about presidential elections? Search and view the first-ever televised presidential debate between Sen. John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon. There are also an abundance of channels that help students visualize historic concepts. For example, American Rhetoric compiles speeches of political, cultural, athletic, and religious significance. Other channels, like Crash Course, give students mini-lessons on social studies, U.S. history, world history, and government.

4. iCivics
iCivics makes learning about social studies and politics interactive and fun. Founded by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the website uses games to transform abstract concepts into real-life scenarios. Students get the chance to learn how the government works by stepping into the role of a judge, member of Congress, community activist, and the President, and engaging in challenging and thoughtful role play. To top it off, the points students earn while playing can be used to vote on their favorite “impact project,” which the site then donates to every three months.

5. Eye Witness to History
Learning about history through a first-hand perspective can bring historical events to life for students. They might know the facts and figures behind an event, but seeing it through the eyes of someone who lived it makes it more real; it helps them remember how history affects people. Eye Witness to History brings together accounts of significant historical events from the people who saw them happen. Students can get into the authors’ mindsets and understand the fear, hope, and emotions they felt as history was being made.

6. Smithsonian’s History Explorer
Smithsonian’s History Explorer offers an almost endless amount of resources to help students dive deep into the topics and events that catch their attention. The comprehensive search function allows them to browse by theme, grade level, cross-curricular connections, and eras. The majority of the resources are videos and reading material, so there’s less opportunity for interaction, but the breadth of information keeps students captivated and eager to learn more.

7. The First Thanksgiving
Scholastic created an engaging website that delves into the scene of the First Thanksgiving. Students can read historical letters and find out about the Mayflower voyage, the relationships between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoags, and what day-to-day life was like for early Americans.

8. Discovery Education Virtual Field Trips
Discovery Education Virtual Field Trips take students to some of the world’s most iconic locations. The immersive experiences include trips to the National Archives, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, and farms across the U.S. The trips give students the opportunity to explore far-off locations through an attention-grabbing and interactive multimedia experience.

9. Historical Site Recreations
There are some historical sites that, even with a plane ticket and passport, can’t be experienced as they once were. War, natural disasters, and population shifts have caused the destruction of many significant locations. Technology, however, is making it possible to see these sites again. For example, organizations like Rekrei are using crowdsourced photographs of monuments, museums, and artifacts, along with knowledge of architecture, to recreate them in 3D and preserve a human heritage. Several reconstructions—typically of entire ancient cities—can also be found on YouTube.

10. Virtual Reality (VR)
Student can walk through ruins and ancient civilizations, and go on virtual field trips through the use of VR. Google Expeditions transport students to the Pyramids of Giza to experience their incredible size almost firsthand or to Machu Picchu to walk the ruins and take in the detail of the work. The trips really bring history to life and provide students with the tools to become fully immersed.

Ultimately, any online resource that piques a student’s interest and gives them avenues to explore will help bring history to life for them. We’d love to know what websites you have found helpful! Leave a comment in the section below and let us know what has made your student fall in love with the subject.

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