Joan Brodsky Schur
One strategy for engaging middle school students is to help them identify with a person who lived in the past -- someone who affected the course of events and/or was affected by them. Research assignments through which students assume the identity of historical individuals can help middle school students surpass their age-appropriate egocentricity, while allowing them to have "big egos" as someone of historical importance.
A fifth grade teacher I know learned this strategy by default when he assigned his students to write a typical biography of someone famous; in this case, the life of one Chinese emperor from a list he provided. He was disappointed with the results: these "student-written" biographies were more or less cut-and-paste jobs from the Internet. They didn't reflect student investment, excitement or analysis. So he revised the assignment. This time students had to re-write their biography in the first-person voice of the emperor. (No autobiographies of ancient Chinese emperors could be found on the Internet, which was the whole point!) Now instead of writing, "The Yongle Emperor moved the capital of China from Nanjing to Beijing in 1403" a student could write, "In 1403 I made the bold decision of moving the capital of my empire from Nanjing to Beijing. The Ming Dynasty flourished, thanks to my wise decision." Oral reports are much more interesting as first-person presentations, in costume. Interviews with the various emperors can also be made as imovies. Later on an evaluative essay can be assigned based on what the class learned in toto: "What characteristics did the best Chinese Emperors have in common?" Or, "How did Chinese emperors wield power in ways that benefited China?"
A different strategy along the same track is to ask each student to learn about one role or job in a European medieval village or Middle Eastern city, while making sure that all social classes will be represented by the assigned roles. Students can research their role and then enact it when the class stages a fair, feast, or interacts in the bazaar. Parents can be invited to the "village" or "city" in their classroom, as students demonstrate their skills as cobbler, astronomer, troubador, and so forth. By seeing how different individuals had a role to play in the larger society, students begin to understand the advantages and disadvantages of rigid hierarchies, or the benefits of trade. However these assignments are set up, it is always important to research prominent historical women like Wu Zetian, the only woman to rule as emperor of China, or to study the role of women as midwives, poets, homemakers, and so forth.
To begin with, I would recommend viewing history not as a story to be remembered so much as a mystery to be explored. When you create your lessons with this approach in mind, an approach of having students' think and discover rather than simply read and recall, student interest and motivation will follow.
I teach world history in seventh grade and so I will use examples from my course. For instance, rather than just having your students read about the prehistoric Iceman in their text, have them work with pictures and descriptions of the artifacts found with him, and clues about the continuing scientific findings on him, to discover and then write about who he was, how he lived, and what he can tell us about our prehistoric ancestors. Rather than have students read and then do a worksheet on Ellis Island, have students read excerpts from first hand accounts and view photographs to discover what this journey was like for those who landed there. Rather than watch a video about daily life in Rome, set up learning stations that have students discover what their lives would be like in ancient Rome.
My second recommendation would be to build a repertoire of teaching strategies that will have students thinking, exploring, discussing. Strategies that will not only engage them, but will also help students to improve their thinking, discussion, and literacy skills. Several of my favorites include Discrepant Event Inquiry, in which students are ask to solve a historical puzzle by asking questions to which the teacher gives "yes' or "no" answers, and Mystery, in which the teacher provides students with clues to help them solve a historical mystery (for examples of an explanation of these two strategies see "Engaging Students with a Bog Body Mystery" in the January/February 2012 World History issue of Social Education
These strategies in particular lead themselves very well to students developing the questions that they wish to explore in a unit. Other strategies that I and my students enjoy, and that I would suggest examining are
- Response Groups, in which students receive written and/or pictorial information and consider open-ended questions on that material, and
- The many Kagan Cooperative Learning structures.
To build up such a repertoire, particularly in history, I would suggest you begin with a search of the online catalogue of NCSS publications (I would recommend the book published by NCSS, A Link to the Past: Engaging Students in the Study of History, for a dozen teaching strategies that I have found to be very engaging for my students), articles in Social Education and Middle Level Learning, and then consider attending the NCSS conference, your state's conference, and also look into the NCSS Summer Institutes.