Imaginary Community Project

Encouraging student interest in history

We all know that our young friends may be less enthusiastic about historical subjects than we are.  That may be because their past study of the subject has consisted mostly of memorizing names and dates.  I must admit that was my own main objection to learning history when I was younger.

Below are some ideas you may find helpful in your history and/or language arts classroom:

Encourage students to read historical novels about the period they are studying.  This may help them get a more personal viewpoint of the time period.

If available, share with them journals of people (preferably kids their own age) from the time period.  Again, this can help them imagine what it was like to live through the era.

Help them find interesting websites and videos about the time period.  Check the For Further Reading lists at the ends of books.  Most will list kid-friendly websites.

Imaginary Community Project

I used this teaching unit very successfully with students in my high school classes.  I believe it could be successfully adapted for students at just about any grade level.  It combines history study, report writing, oral presentations, creative writing, and even newspaper design/writing.  It could be used in a language-arts classroom, a history classroom, or ideally, in a combination of both.  I used it in language arts, but coordinated with a history teacher who was covering the same era.

Teacher preparation:

First, choose an era pertinent to your class.  I used the unit with one class  reading Arthurian legends, and with a different class studying Kansas history/Westward settlement.  I have also known teachers who used it with Elizabethan-era study and it could also be used with Depression-era or World War II eras, etc.  The class creates an imaginary town in this time period, and each student becomes a fictional resident in the town.  Students create fictional stories of their individual characters in daily journals and culminate in creating a town newspaper.

I believe thorough teacher preparation is essential to the success of the unit.  Teachers must have a good overview of the historical material, so that they know what subjects their students should research, and they should also have a good idea of what to expect students to be able to find in their own school library and on the Internet.

Major components of the unit:

Historical overview:  This may be provided by the teacher, and may take the form of lecture, reading material, or film/video.  This should give students a general idea of the life of people in the era and some of the main events.  It should also give students an idea of what communities in the era were like, and what kinds of jobs people had.

Research reports:  Students may be given report topics individually or in pairs on limited subjects related to the era.  They will prepare oral reports which may include visual aids to help their classmates understand the subject.  For example, in a unit on pioneers, a student may prepare a report on covered wagons which would include the dimensions, outfitting, cost, etc. for this important vehicle.  The teacher may determine (according to the age and educational level of the students) how formal these reports should be.  The information given in the reports becomes realistic detail as students tell their characters’ stories. In my class, I spread these out so that each class began with one report giving factual information, and then students used that info in their fictional journals (see below).

Development of the imaginary community:  The students may locate and decide on a name for the town.  Each student imagines a character he or she will portray in the town.  The teacher can provide a character-development worksheet  on which students create the details of their characters:  Name, age, gender, occupation, etc.  One fun element is for each student to imagine a “secret” for his/her character.  Later, a directory is created listing all the characters and their details, and giving a hint of the secret without giving it away.  Students may work these other characters into their own stories.

Fictional journals:  Each day, allow students some time to write a journal.  The journal is in the fictional character’s voice, and tells a story of his/her own life and adventures.  My students really enjoyed this.  When I did this activity with my lowest-level classes, even students who always “hated” writing, would plead for more time when our 15 minutes of writing time was up!  Many of them willingly took their journals home to work more on them outside of class.

Community newspaper:  The class decided on a name for the newspaper, and students worked in groups to edit the major pages of the newspaper:  front page, local page, editorial page, society page, and classified ads.  You could include comics if you wanted to.  This gives students a chance to practice journalistic style for both factual and fictional events.  All students wrote for all parts of the paper; each group edited the page it worked on, and chose articles for it.  One of my favorites was for the Medieval newspaper:  “For Sale:  used coat of armor.  Hole in breast plate, needs repair.  Contact the family of the late Sir Michael.  Must sell.  All offers considered.”

You may even want to end the project with a class party in which students can share their stories and their characters’ secrets.  The length of time you choose for the total unit is up to you!  If you decide to use this idea, or have questions about it, I’d like to hear from you.


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