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Hands-On History -- AP European History with *Action*!
Meghan Paher, 3/20/2012

Editor's Note from Susan Richman: We've been so grateful to have Meghan Paher teaching a 2nd section of AP European History with us. Meghan is both a past participant in our AP Online courses, a PA homeschool graduate (PHAA), and has a masters in history and has worked at many historical museums and history sites, including the  Tryon Palace Historic Sites and Gardens in North Carolina. I know she in part developed her own deep love of history back in her own homeschooling days, when delving into history meant projects like creating her own Civil War era gown and taking part in the local history activities at nearby Gettysburg PA. 


Too many history classes consist of reading books and very little more.  It’s hands-off history, distancing the student from what he or she is supposed to be learning.  Is it any wonder so many adults today found history boring as students?

It’s time to turn on your student’s senses!  History took place in a living world, full of sights, sounds, tastes, feelings, and smells—so let’s get hands on and experience some of them!

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We understand the past so much better when we interact with it first-hand.  My AP European History students use their senses and creativity to learn about the past.   Through projects, film, art, music, reading, writing, sound, smell, taste, and touch, they come to understand the huge impact European history has on their lives every day—even though it is hundreds of years and thousands of miles away.

Looking at a picture of an artifact or seeing one in a glass case is nice.  But how much better is it to touch and use one?  For their “Touching History” project, my students research an artifact with a connection to European history (often they choose a family heirloom or antique) to discover its past.  What is it?  Where was it made?  What stories does it carry?  One of my students researched a Hungarian spinning distaff that had been stored in her family’s closet for years (her grandfather once tried to sell it for $35 in a yard sale!).  Through her research, she learned exactly what it was and how her great-grandmother would have used it.   She also learned that it was at least 100 years old and fairly valuable—she discovered distaffs similar to hers in a museum! 

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Reading about the past is terrific, but how much more exciting is it to hear about the past from someone who was actually there?   With the “Hearing History” project, students do an oral history interview with someone who lived in or spent time in Europe.  It’s amazing what they discover this way!  Last year one of my students interviewed a family friend.  When she was small, this friend gave her a very unusual gift—an original KGB badge from Cold War Russia.  During the interview, she discovered he had worked for U.S. intelligence, and the government put him in charge of debugging the United States’ embassy in Moscow.  Listening to his stories, she heard about Cold War spies, intrigue, and secret missions…  Instead of just reading about U.S/Soviet relations and the Cold War in a textbook, she learned about it first hand from someone who was there and helped make history happen!

Ever wonder what the past tasted and smelled like?  Instead of just reading about historical food, agriculture, diet, and women’s domestic skills, my students do a “Tasting History” project.  Provided with three historic cookbooks from the 1700s, 1800s, and early 1900s, students choose a recipe, then actually cook the dish and taste it with family or friends.  To wrap up the project, they write a paper about their experience, answering questions like, “Why did the recipe call for ‘a piece of butter the size of a hen’s egg’ instead of 2 tablespoons?” “You have a modern kitchen, but what tools and utensils would someone have used to make this recipe 200 years ago?” and “Did the recipe give you an oven temperature and baking time?  Why not?”

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I encourage students to use their creativity to learn about the past as much as possible.  This includes art work and creative writing, among others things.  Students who love art and music enjoy creating their own “Historical CDs” and “Historical Bumper Stickers,” and designing “Historical T-Shirts,” as well as watching historical music videos!  Students also complete a “Postcard from the Past,” in which they choose a dramatic photo or painting from European History and imagine they were there, writing a short letter to a friend about the event.  For a larger creative historical writing project, one of last year’s students researched her family’s history and wrote a short play based on the real events of her family’s immigration from Russia to America in 1907.

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Sound like fun?  AP European History covers the years 1450 to today.  It is an intensive, fast-paced, college-level course that prepares students for the AP exam and gives them a working knowledge of the political, social, and cultural history of Europe.  It’s challenging, but a lot of fun!  It’s hands-on history…  Let’s go learn about the past!

For more information, check out my course description. 


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