Teachers across the country are out traveling to destinations near and far this summer. Perhaps you traveled to Independence Hall in Philadelphia or the Statue of Liberty in New York; maybe Fort Sumter in Charleston, or Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota; could you be going to the Alamo in San Antonio, Alcatraz in San Francisco, or Union Station in Chicago? Maybe you headed abroad to the Eiffel Tower in Paris, Big Ben in London, or the Colosseum in Rome? Vacations keep us fresh, inspire us, and provide us with that much needed downtime from the day-to-day rigors of the classroom. Whether you traveled the country, the world, or stayed close to home, chances are you may have visited a historical site at some point. It’s in our blood; we plan trips around them, sneak them into our vacation itineraries, or stumble upon them on our travels and must stop. Traveling is exciting and there is nothing better than stumbling upon a historical site that we can teach about in the classroom. No matter how big or small the history of a site, I’m sure you took as many pictures as possible!
If this sounds familiar, then you are indeed a social studies teacher! The other thing that us teachers must do upon visiting a historical site is take lots of pictures, but who do we show those pictures to? Maybe our peers, social media, or family members, but have you ever considered sharing these photos with your students? Do not let those photos disappear into the depths of your phone as they can be a great resource for your lesson plans! Make a separate file, label that file, and be prepared to dig them out after your summer has come to an end. Keep reading to see how you can put those exciting memories of historical sites to use in the classroom!
Now that the school year has begun, you are likely busy planning units and lessons by gathering materials and designing or updating your PowerPoints. Of course, you could get some help with Social Studies School Service by using these curated PowerPoints for World History or United States Government, or you could also go with your own initiative and make you own presentation from scratch. This is the time to reach for your phone and open that file with pictures from those historical spots you visited over the summer. Take a few minutes and let the summer vacation memories come back to you and enjoy. Once your reminiscence is over, pick the best photos that will fit into your lesson plan goals. Don’t worry if you find yourself or a family member in the photos, that is kind of the point.
In the Classroom
The time has come: you will now be teaching your lesson on the place you visited over the summer! As you scroll through your presentation making the points necessary to complete your lesson plan objectives your pictures from your vacation will come up. Tell the students what it was like at the site you visited, how it differs today, and what it would have looked like in the past. Allow students to ask questions and, by all means, allow your kids to laugh at the pictures you are in. By using your personal vacation photos as a teaching tool you have made the place in the photograph real, it’s no longer just a picture in a book or on the internet. It’s a real place and now they know someone who has been there. You have made it personal; they can ask you questions like, how do you get there, what does it cost, what are the best parts to see, and so on? While it may feel self-indulgent to post your vacation pictures, it actually creates a personal connection with your students. It also makes you human; as teachers we know that students sometimes forget we are people too. It can also show that you have a family or friends and that you go on vacations and have fun just like the students do.
Making Student Connections
Do not stop with just presenting your vacation photographs! Use this opportunity to build personal connections with your students. You can ask your students, “Where did you go on vacation over the summer, or in the past? Have you ever visited historical sites on vacation or over the weekends? Have you traveled to different states or countries?” You may find yourself pleasantly surprised at how many actually visited interesting and historically relevant locations. Maybe they didn’t visit any particular historic site, but they did go out of state or country.
Discover more by asking your students, “What was the food like? Did people speak differently? What was different and what was the same to where you live?” Have the students share their personal stories about these locations and activities as a whole-class discussion or in small groups. Use the opportunity to get to know your students better and for the students to learn about each other. An activity idea is to have each student create a PowerPoint or other type of visual presentation using photographs from their own personal travels. This is a great opportunity to practice public speaking as students are much more comfortable talking about something they know or have done as they are now the experts.
Using your own vacation photographs in the classroom setting can really open the doors to conversations you never thought you would have with your students; it can foster curiosity and the desire to learn and travel. It makes history or the social sciences come to life, it gives you as the teacher an opportunity to find out about your students interests and curiosities, and it gives you a chance to relive your vacation right when you need it most. So keep those vacation photos handy, you are going to need them this year!
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Bret Werner teaches dual enrollment U.S. History to high school seniors, AP* European History, U.S. History Through Film, and chairs the Social Studies department at a high school in the Philadelphia suburbs. He has also taught graduate-level education courses for the University of Phoenix. Bret has a B.A. in History from Kutztown University and an M.Ed. in Social Studies Education from Widener University. Mr. Werner has had three books published on military history topics, and enjoys living history, travel, live music, and going on weekend adventures with his wife and two kids.