Transporting Historical Figures from Past to Present

Perspective-writing activities bring "a bunch of dead guys" to life.

By: Jeremiah Clabough, Nefertari Yancie


To young adolescents, historical figures are a bunch of dead guys. Many students believe the issues, values, and perspectives of the people from the past hold no relevance to their lives in the 21st century. However, perspective-writing activities in the middle school social studies classroom can help young adolescents grasp the importance of people from the past who have affected the world around them today.

Perspective-writing activities call on students to research all aspects of an historical individual and apply that knowledge by writing a short piece as if they were that person. Students must consider how an historical figure might think and feel about events, issues, and other people in his or her time period. It’s an opportunity for students to truly engage with history.

One key ingredient of successful perspective-writing activities is incorporating texts that capture the personalities and values of historical figures. The readily available supply of digitized online primary sources can help teachers accomplish this goal. For example, free digitized primary sources are available from the Library of Congress (www.loc.gov) and the National Archives (www.archives.gov).

Here are three classroom activities that incorporate perspective writing.

Why Only Nixon Could Go to China

After years of fighting Klingons and building up resentment because one of them murdered his son, Captain Kirk is upset that he is to be the Federation’s representative at a meeting to discuss peace with the Klingon Empire. Mr. Spock says to him, “There is an old Vulcan proverb: Only Nixon could go to China.”

This quote from Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country illustrates the importance of moving past recalling facts such as what U.S. president visited China, and examining the reasons why Nixon could visit China despite weak U.S.–China relations. This is the type of analysis that students should be doing in our social studies classrooms.

Unfortunately, many students do not come into our classrooms with the prerequisite skills for this type of analysis. Social studies teachers need to scaffold this type of thinking with multiple opportunities for students to critically examine a text with an eye to exploring an historical figure’s beliefs.

Teachers might select a short passage from a text that captures the personality and beliefs of an historical figure. Henry Clay: The Essential American, by David and Jeanne Heidler, is a great biography that depicts the values of a man considered to be one of the greatest U.S. senators. Chapter two includes many quotes from Clay about his core beliefs. The students could answer the following questions while reading:

  1. What were Clay’s views on the issue of slavery?
  2. How do the authors describe Clay as a public speaker?
  3. Why did Clay favor the use of government funds for public projects?

Students could then discuss these questions in small groups, supporting their reasoning with quotes from the text. This process familiarizes students with defending their arguments through evidence, teaches them how to read a text critically, and helps them glean a great deal about the personalities and values of an historical figure in preparation for perspective-writing activities.

Blogging with Bilbo

Many people find it cathartic to write down daily events in their lives. In J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, if Bilbo Baggins had not penned There and Back Again, we would never have seen his personal growth from a sheltered hobbit to one with a spirit for adventure. Personal accounts allow insight into the innermost thoughts and feelings of others.

With this activity, students assume the role of an historical figure and create a blog about an event. As illustration, here’s a possible blog entry from Justinian the Great’s perspective:

From humble beginnings, I arose to be the greatest king of the Byzantine Empire. It is because of my innate strength of body, mind, and spirit that I will be remembered as the most powerful king in Christendom. My supporters and enemies now look to my empire and see Rome resurrected from the ashes like the phoenix. Through my prowess and the mighty Hand of God, I reclaimed the lands that were lost! Under the Justinian Code, I restructured the laws so they now serve as a guide for future civilizations. This is power! This is a legacy.

This writing activity allows students to apply their content knowledge using a medium many of them use every day: blogging. Students explore how an historical figure’s experiences influenced his or her writings, which allows them to contextualize the issues and events from a specific era. Students are able to see how historical figures view themselves as well as the world around them.

Historical Figures and Political Cartoons

Historical figures are perceived differently, depending on whom you ask. For example, while many of Andrew Jackson’s supporters viewed him as a man of the people, his opponents viewed him as a tyrant. Political cartoons allow students to see a range of perspectives about an historical figure.

Students assume the role of an historical figure and reject or defend how that person is depicted in a political cartoon. Many collections of political cartoons are available online. For example, a political cartoon about Alexander the Great (https://shafali.wordpress.com/2012/04/) explores his inability to conquer India. The short piece below is an example of Alexander the Great responding to this political cartoon.

Obviously, the artist of this rendering has his own ideas about the value of my victories. Unfairly, he is asking where is India? Conquering India was to be my crowning achievement, but through no fault of my own, I was not victorious. If not for my war-weary men, India would be a feather in my helmet. This charlatan chooses to focus on my glaring failure! This is unfair and not a clear representation of my success in campaigns. I was chosen by Zeus to be the harbinger of enlightenment to the barbarians. History will be the true judge! I think Alexander the Great has a nice ring to it.

This activity allows students to empathize with the differing interpretations of an historical figure’s accomplishments or failures. The ability to empathize is an important skill because it helps students see that history is rarely black and white. People have different perspectives based on social, cultural, political, religious, and regional values.

The exploration of these different perspectives allows students to determine for themselves the contributions and shortcomings of an historical figure.

Bringing Historical Figures to Life

At their core, perspective-writing activities promote higher-order thinking. Students must consider how an historical figure would think and feel about events and issues. Students also learn content-area literacy skills as they research historical figures.

If our objective as social studies teachers is to engage our students, our goals are to make historical figures three-dimensional in the minds of our students and relevant to their daily lives. Perspective-writing activities can help accomplish these goals.


Jeremiah Clabough is an assistant professor of social science education in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He is an editor of Getting at the Core of the Common Core with Social Studies. jclabou2@uab.edu

Nefertari Yancie is a middle school social studies teacher at William J. Christian K–8 School
in Birmingham, Alabama. mrsyancie@yahoo.com

Published in AMLE Magazine, January 2016.

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