Shelby Anderson is a 5th year social science teacher at Laguna Beach High School in California, USA, teaching U.S. History and Human Geography. Additionally, she serves as the Educational Outreach Coordinator Board of Directors for the Historical Unit of Southern California and represents the Women’s Army Corps when participating in living history activities. Shelby’s living history-focused lessons has also gained her recognition as one of 100 top creative and imaginative teachers by the Walt Disney Company in 2023. In this post, Shelby shares some of her advice on how to work with historical reenactors in the classroom.
Bringing history to life is a high praise that teachers may hear from students and parents, and something that may have been difficult during the bleak years of the Covid-19 pandemic. However, I argue that Covid-19 provided a valuable shake up to our education system. It required us teachers to look at our current methodologies, see what worked and what didn't, and encouraged us to try something new. Today, I feel that teachers are in a unique position to challenge methods of the past and implement new ideas in the classroom, ones that may help with reviving engagement and inviting students to make connections to the present day by a deeper dive into history. As a first year teacher during the Covid-19 pandemic, I knew I wanted to find ways to keep my students engaged that seemed tangible and real when so much of our educational lives were on the computer. One method I implemented in my classroom was inviting historical reenactors, also known as living historians, into my classroom to speak to students about their curated collection of uniforms and artifacts.
Historical reenactors are individuals who collect historic garments, artifacts, tools, and other items to build an ‘impression’ of a certain individual or group from history. As a reenactor myself, I had a unique perspective on the inner workings of the reenactment community, and the opportunities in the K-12 education system [students aged 5 to 18 years old] for innovative and engaging lessons. Through this article, I hope to encourage and empower K-12 teachers with tools to bring in knowledgeable and engaging guest speakers into their classrooms.
By bringing in reenactors into my own classroom, I have learned some best practices to ensure engagement, learning, and building long-lasting relationships with historical communities.
1. Getting your ducks in a row
There are two parties that have to be on board before you can have your exciting guest speakers come, your administration and the historical organization you are partnering with. First, reach out to the living history group about 2-3 months prior to the day you would like them to attend, as many groups have events and other activities on their calendar, it is best that you connect with them early. Be clear with the organization regarding which era/impression you are hoping to bring into your classroom, when you are hoping to have the reenactor speak, and touch on what topics you would like covered. Please also ask the organization if there is a fee or a requested donation. Often historical groups are not-for-profit and the participants are volunteers. Once you have the organization’s interest, speak with your school administration and confirm what the process is to have a guest speaker in your room. Also, communicate any costs associated with this endeavor. One of the most important parts of planning is having the permission in hand well in advance of the chosen date, as sometimes that red-tape can take time to remove.
2. Decide your content/topic
Best practices would be to schedule your reenactor to speak on the desired topic AFTER you have taught it to your students. This will give the students the opportunity to activate prior knowledge when your historian asks them questions. For example, if you are having a WWII soldier come in and speak about their uniform, daily life experiences, and the European theater, it would be best that your students have already learned about D-Day. Having the students know about at least one topic gives them that jumping off point to engage with the historian. On that point, once you have established what topic and which reenactor will be speaking to your students, it is valuable to schedule a meeting or call with the reenactor(s) to go over content and expected outcomes. Discuss with the reenactor what your student’s previous knowledge would be, what you are hoping the reenactor will speak on, and what you would like the students to walk away with by the end of their talk. This preparation will help ensure not only that the historian stays on topic. It is recommended to clarify to the historian the content and/or state standards you are seeking to meet through email so that when they are preparing for your in-class presentation they can better select artifacts/historic garments that help tell the story. Also, ask the reenactors what items they wish to bring to the school and if they will need tables, microphones, or other elements to make their presentation a success. Ask if the reenactor is comfortable with the students touching artifacts. Do clarify to reenactors that no weapons are allowed on school campuses, even props, so as to avoid any concerning or misunderstood situations.
3. Decide a schedule
If it has not already popped up in your conversations with the historians, choose a date and the time in which your guest speaker will come. Will you have your guest speaker speak to one class period? More than one? At a school assembly? During homeroom? Tutorial? These are all important questions for you to engage with the reenactor, and potentially other school staff. One best practice is to have the reenactor come only one day to speak to the students, whether that is through multiple periods or one large assembly. Typically, historical reenactors and living historians are volunteers, which means some may have to take a day off their full time job or drive long distances in order to accommodate your school, so please be respectful with your request to try to keep it to one day. If you have reenactors who are interested in doing larger, multi-day activities, please also discuss if items will be taken home each day, or if storage is necessary. In the event you have two or more reenactors attending, decide with them who will speak first, how long, what topics one will cover versus the other. Do plan for snack or restroom breaks if you are having the speakers talk to multiple class periods.
4. Day of To-Dos
I highly recommend calling the reenactors a few days before just to confirm all is well and handle any last minute questions. This is an opportunity for you to go over the day’s plan, clarify meeting locations, etc. I recommend emailing them a map of where to park, where to check in with the front office, and where the adult restrooms are. Instruct your historian to arrive about 30 minutes before their first presentation, hiccups always happen and this gives you time to settle in your guest speaker into whatever space they will be presenting in. Often they need a few minutes to set up their displays and check electronics if they are necessary for your space. Double check that all presentations, screens, projectors, etc. will be ready when the speaker arrives. If your historian is not being compensated for their time, a coffee or small snack is definitely appropriate to provide to the historical volunteer. I always provide a bagel and coffee whether or not there is a donation provided.
5. During Presentation
It's the big show! Your guest speakers are here, your children are settled in and ready to hear from this new and expertly dressed person in your room. Start with an introduction of who the reenactor is and where they are from, remind students about previous lessons on topics relating to the era that will be discussed, and pass it off to the historian. If the historian is allowing students to touch artifacts, please be circling and monitoring students as they are handling the delicate items from the reenactors personal collection. Encourage students to ask questions, prompt them quietly to raise their hands and engage with the reenactors about the items they hold or the historical garments they wear. Reenactors love to tell you about the items they have collected and curated. If there is a lull in the presentation, or students are not asking questions, ask questions yourself!
“Can you tell us about ____ item you are wearing and what it does?” “What might a typical day for ____ person be like?” “What were some of the concerns of a person during ____ time” “What were some experiences of children during ___ era” are all good prompts to get a conversation rolling with the reenactor and students. Some historians may not be familiar with typical classroom pacing and prompts to help keep the momentum going can be helpful. As the reenactor speaks, keep an eye on the time, as often historians get so enthralled with the lesson that time slips away! Prompt the reenactor on time limits 10, and 5 minutes out, and then when time is up have the students thank them for their time. If the reenactor is staying for another presentation, make sure to guide them to the adult restroom if necessary and have water on hand.
6. Wrapping up
At the end of the day, assist the historian with packing up if possible. This is a great opportunity to reflect on the day’s presentation and build a lasting relationship with the volunteer. I especially recommend walking them to their car and asking for a mailing address to send a thank you note if appropriate. A sincere way to solidify the partnership with the organization would be to send a card signed by all your students, or if you wish to turn it into a reflective assignment, have the students write thank you letters to the reenactor and outline the information they learned. Keeping data on the event, such as how many attended, how many different classes, topics covered, artifacts shown, and copies of the students' letters are all valuable information to have when justifying your efforts to do another talk in the future, so make sure to record this
information for yourself!
You may see this list and be concerned about all the moving parts required to get an event of this proportion off the ground, however from personal experience I argue that it is definitely worth your time. During the Covid-19 pandemic I coordinated multiple online Zoom events where reenactors spoke to my students on topics from all different eras. Even with this limited form of learning, I heard from students, and eavesdropping parents, that this was one of the highlights of my class that year and that it was a very enjoyable and memorable experience. Since the start of in-person learning I have resumed reenactor talks and brought them to life in my classroom every year. I have seen increases in engagement and excitement in class, as well as requests for more guest speakers. You will find the effort you put in to build these relationships with historical organizations to be a fruitful partnership that you can rely on again and again in future years of teaching. While the Covid-19 pandemic shook up our usual way of doing things, I believe that we have the support and tools to try out new methodologies that enable us to engage students in new and exciting ways of learning.