Accelerating Student Learning and Motivation in Your U.S. History Classroom

Historical Stories and Unit Hooks

Why Study U.S. History?
Using the Standards
Standardized Exams
Developing Themes in U.S. History
Historical Stories and Unit Hooks
Using Primary Sources in the Classroom
General Strategies
Alternative Assessments
Rubrics and Scaffolds
Long Term Projects
Additional Resources
Kevin Williams: Contact and Information

(Click for image of Trumbull's Declaration)

1.  "56 Great Risk Takers"
Rationale:  While students understand the significance of the Declaration of Independence, they often have trouble understanding the personal risk involved in signing or supporting the document. If students are to enjoy history, they need to personalize it.  Jeff Jacoby’s story from the Boston Globe is perfect for this - it puts the 56 signers in their true context - people who took a chance for something they believed in.
Undoubtedly, the Founders understood the significance of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.  Jefferson urged Jonathan Trumbull to increase the scope of his famous "Declaration of Independence" (see right).  Later, factions of Congress came together in 1817 to commission a huge copy of this painting for display in the U.S. Capitol.
Online Resources:
  • A full text version of "56 Great Risk Takers".  It should be noted that it is increasingly difficult to find this article online.  It may be due to the fact that Jacoby faced outrage for perceived plagiarism (note his rebuttal below).  If you like the article, I suggest getting a hard copy for yourself by using the link above.
  • Power Point images
    1. Declaration of Independence Stein Image (might be hard to a google search for "Miller, birth of a nation") 
    2. Jacoby admitted "borrowing ideas" from another source.  Here is his rebuttal (or apology) 


2.  Ranking the Presidents
RationaleThe Presidents of the United States are often a mysterious group to students.  First, many students really have no chronological sense of the Presidency.  Second, to many students, the presidents seem almost like mythic figures– they barely seem human.
Online Resources


  • Rating the Presidents, Ridings, McLyer, McIver (1997)
  • Boller Jr., Paul. Presidential Anecdotes. Rev. Ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.



3. Cheese in the Presidencies of Jefferson and Jackson
  • Source: Sassman, Richard, “The Original Big Cheese”.  American History Illustrated.  January, 1989, pgs. 34-35

  • Online article about Jefferson's cheese
  • Images of Andrew Jackson  - has many images of Jackson during his presidency.  Scroll down to see one of Jackson and his cheese.

4.  "A Letter to My Master"
Online Source: Online source of the actual letter -

(click for a larger version of this image)

5.  Carrie Nation and the Temperance Movement
RationaleThere are few well-known stories of strong willed women pre-1900.  Most were reformers, abolitionists or early women’s rights advocates.  Carry A. Nation was a temperance reformer in the late 1800s /early 1900s.  Students love learning about her because she took the law into her own hands.  Her story fits into U.S. History chapters dealing with late 19th century culture, or Progressivism.
Online Resources:

Magazine Resource“Bonnet, Book, and Hatch, Weapon in Hand and Biblical Implications on Her Lips, Carry Nation's Campaign to Save Men from the Drunkard's Fate.”  American Heritage Magazine, December 1957.



6.  Depression Letter to Mrs. Roosevelt
RationaleThousands of children wrote letters to Eleanor Roosevelt during the Great Depression.  By reading these letters we gain invaluable insight into what it must have been like to grow up in the Great Depression – fears, wants, needs, etc.  We also learn how ordinary people viewed Mrs. Roosevelt.
Online Resources:


7.  The Butter Battle Book
Using the Butter Battle Book can help make the Cold War come alive for students.  I like to read it to my students.  To do so, I have digitized the book into a power point.  To access this follow this link, choose Butter Battle Book and then download all five powerpoints.  You can put them together (I couldn't upload the powerpoint in only one file).
NOTE:  You may need to try the link below several times before it will work.  Don't ask me why, but if it doesn't work, just keep trying until it does!
I've uploaded FIVE different powerpoints to my Google account.  They are all "published", which means you can download and alter them as you see fit:
    1.  Butter1
    2.  Butter2
    3.  Butter 3
    4.  Butter 4
    5.  Butter 5

8.  Suicide in Saigon
RationaleThe image of Quang Duc’s self-immolation is one of the most searing images in history.  Of course, students are innately interested in this event.  Why would he do this?  How could he endure the pain?  How could people let it happen?  And most importantly, what role did it play in the conflict in Vietnam?
Online Resources


9.  Slang in the 1920s
RationaleSlang is yet another way to hook our students.  Every society and generation has had its own slang.  What can slang tell us about the values of a particular period in history?  1920s slang can tell us a lot about what the values held by the youth of the day. What will current slang tell future generations about the youth of today?
Online Resources
  • 1920s Slang Dictionary
  • Contemporary Slang - be warned, this site may contain inappropriate words or ideas, and it may make you cool.
  • "Do You Speak American?" - an amazing new website from PBS that is easy to use and focuses on slang from throughout American history.  Check it out, but be forewarned, you are going to spend a lot of time here.
  • Civil War Slang - there are many sites out a "google" search for civil war slang.  This site seems to be one of the best I found.