Visualizing world history thematically

Posted on 06.27.2012


I have been developing a thematic approach to teaching world history over the past 2 years with another teacher and it’s gone pretty darn well.  We’re still developing the units, themes, lesson and projects; but I’m happy with the direction we are going in.  I would like to develop the freshmen students’ sense of time-lapse and how different events relate to each other.  A simple solution I have been tinkering with is creating a timeline with them – this way they can visually see all the events we explore throughout the year and come up with patterns of how they relate.

It’s an obvious solution and I kick myself every year for not implementing it in my class.  I haven’t so far because I am not sure what form it should take with the students and class.

Can you help?

I am looking for solutions to the following problems:

  1. I’d like this timeline to be something that cannot be “lost”.Freshmen students are constantly losing handouts and class materials – even if we do an update on a weekly basis there will always be students that lose the materials.  I don’t want to waste paper and time having students re-do what we have already done.  (yes, I know it’s an important lesson in responsibility but there are other ways to teach it)
  2. I’d like this to be something that students can zoom in and out of for more or less detail; where events can be sorted by theme.We cover lots of events over a wide span of time – I worry this could fit and be expressed on one 8×11 sheet of paper.  Each event should have some details (I’ll think of a standard way to summarize the event at another time); students should be able to see the micro view and macro view of the event – how it is a singular thing and then have the opportunity to see how it fits in  a larger history or story.
  3. The timelines should be created by students and be public for students to share and study. It is not enough to just give students the timeline, it should be something they create on their own, in groups and as a class.  I’d like this to be something they have as a reference throughout the year when they need it.  Ultimately, I’d like it to live online somewhere I think – just don’t know if this is possible.
  4. Limited technology.  I do not have a classroom set of laptops nor do we really have computer labs.  I bring in my own laptop, have an Ipad and an Iphone; most students have access to internet or have a smart phone.  I have limited funds and resources/time to bring more technology into the classrooms (I teach in at least 3 different rooms).
My solution: (so far)
While we explore an event, students would create an event ID in class or for HW, we’d workshop it and then they’d update their timelines at home and we’d also update one timeline that lives online as a class.  Their timelines are not limited to a certain format; just a few restrictions:
– It needs to be chronological
– Each event ID must be filled out
– Each event in time must be present (I’d give them a list or number of events maybe – still need to think this one through)
– You must have your “timeline” updated for each timeline check.
Each class would also have a class timeline that we’d update together – a student would come up with the event ID and enter it into the timeline – we’d make it a ceremony or something fun.  I have been thinking about using the following two programs and need to investigate them further:
Free timeline website:
or a mac app but it seems really buggy:
It’s an interesting idea worth developing further this summer.