How to Teach History Chronologically

Benjamin Disraeli was one of the great 19th century prime ministers of Britain. His wife once revealed the confusion we all feel about the subject of history when she famously stated that she “could never remember who came first, the Greeks or the Romans.” Since American schools have largely ignored ancient and world history in the 20th century, most of us have had a woefully inadequate history education ourselves, and we can well sympathize with her plight.

The reform of the history curriculum has been at the heart of the classical/Christian education movement. There are two important principles that have been emphasized:

  • History should be taught chronologically and should emphasize all of human history rather than just American history.
  • History should be taught using real books and biographies.

In our last article we suggested two considerations to fine-tune these basic principles.

  • Students in K-2 are not developmentally ready to learn history chronologically.
  • We must fit history to the child, not fit the child to history.

Young children have a very weak concept of time so don’t feel like teaching chronologically means you have to study Egypt and Mesopotamia in 1st grade, when you would rather teach about the Pilgrims or the explorers. By all means, read The Story of the World to your children in the early grades, or at any age you like. These books by Susan Wise Bauer will build up a wealth of knowledge for you and your children and will prepare you and them for the formal study of history. But an emphasis on Bible stories and American history in K-2 is just fine. It is age-appropriate and something parents, teachers, and students can relate to and connect with the rest of the curriculum.

And there is nothing wrong with the three- and four-year repeating cycles of chronological world history many classical educators use, but that is not the only way to teach history chronologically. In our last article we promised to explain the rationale for the sequence recommended by Memoria Press and used at the Highlands Latin School in grades 3-6:

Grade 1-2: Stories from the Bible and American historyGreek Myths & Timeline Program Module (two year pace) (3-6)
Grade 3: D’Aularies’ Greek Myths
Grade 4: Famous Men of Rome
Grade 5: Famous Men of the Middle Ages
Grade 6: Famous Men of Greece

Looking at this sequence for grades 3-6, the first question is why Greek myths in the 3rd grade? Greek myths aren’t even history! No, they are not, but they are pervasive in art and literature, and a thorough knowledge of them is necessary to the study of Western civilization.

The Greek myths are imaginative stories similar to fairy tales and need not be remembered in chronological order, which is still a difficult skill for 3rd graders. They delight 3rd graders and capture the imagination of the young child. Just as important, there is a wonderful age-appropriate resource to teach them: D’Aulaires’ Greek Myths. This book is a classic in its own right. The D’Aulaires’ book alone is a fabulous reading curriculum for 3rd grade.

We do begin our formal “chronological” history curriculum in the 3rd grade, however, not with Classical Studies but with Christian Studies. “In the beginning” opens the book of Genesis, and so our young students embark on their history journey with our Memoria Press Christian Studies I, a historical study of the book of Genesis, in which we focus on learning the events of prehistory and the age of the patriarchs in chronological order. Every review lesson has an exercise called “Salvation History is Out of Order!” requiring students to rearrange the events of Genesis correctly, a difficult skill, but one made easier by the familiarity of the stories.

Next we begin the process of building a mental timeline for our students that will enable them to order all of the history they will learn in subsequent years. Since most 3rd graders are already familiar with the American founding and with Bible characters, we anchor our timeline accordingly and build on it each year.

Prehistory includes Creation, the Flood, and the Tower of Babel and gives our timeline a proper beginning. Our oldest actual date is 2500 B.C. for the great pyramids of Egypt, and our next two dates are 2000 B.C. for the call of Abraham and 1400 B.C. for the Exodus1. The birth of Christ is the hinge in the middle of our timeline, for which we have 1 B.C. and 1 A.D. 2 Then, at the far right of our timeline, we have three dates from American History: 1492, 1607, 1776, and the present year. Now our 3rd graders are visually and mentally prepared to study history as it unfolds from the ancient world to the modern.

In the 4th grade students study Roman history with Famous Men of Rome and our comprehensive study guide. Why Rome before Greece? Roman history is the best choice for beginning students because it covers 1200 years of continuous history that is easily organized into three eras: the Monarchy, the Republic, and the Empire. It has a beginning, 753 B.C., and an end, 476 A.D. Roman history, like all things Roman, is very orderly. It is the best first step for young students because the chronology flows so well and the characters and events are so memorable.

For our timeline we add 1200 B.C. for the Trojan War (Aeneas) and 1000 B.C. for King David. That gives us five approximate dates that are even numbers and easy to remember. From this point on we start adding more precise dates from the Old Testament and Roman history, such as the fall of the northern kingdom, the Punic Wars, etc. We go back and forth between Rome and Israel so students see that the Old Testament is real history and they learn to think about what is happening in Rome and Israel and later in Greece at the same time. I like to ask students questions like “What was going on in Israel during the Trojan War?” or “What came first: the Trojan War or the Exodus?”

In the 5th grade students study the New Testament in Christian Studies, for which we add only the date of the Crucifixion and Resurrection. Classical Studies continues the story of Western civilization after the fall of Rome with Famous Men of the Middle Ages, for which we add nine dates to our timelines. At this point we emphasize the big picture so that students can see that human history can be divided into three large periods: the Ancient World, the Middle Ages, and the Modern World.

In the 6th grade we review Roman history and begin the study of Famous Men of Greece. And again the question is why do we study Greece after Rome? Will we become like Disraeli’s wife and never remember who came first? No, studying one era of history before or after another does not mean that you will confuse the order.

And here is a perfect example of what I mean by fitting history to the child, not the child to history. Roman history is the best ancient history for the beginning student, regardless of age. While Roman history is a model of continuity and order, Greek history is a whirlwind of instability. While the Roman heroes are models of courage and virtue the Greek heroes always seem to be going over to the side of the enemy—not especially appealing to children or adults! The Greeks are brilliant in the intellectual arts; the Romans are brilliant in the practical arts. Rome is just a much better study for the beginning student, regardless of age!

And what is more, the continuity and order of Roman history allows us to construct a 1200 year timeline to incorporate into our 3rd grade timeline. Now the 1200 year Roman timeline becomes the framework upon which we add dates from the messier histories of Greece and Israel.

“But,” you might say, “isn’t an understanding of Greece necessary for an understanding of Rome?” For an advanced student, yes, but not at the beginning level where students are just getting the basic stories and chronology down.

There is a reason why Famous Men of Rome is a much more popular book than Famous Men of Greece. Children and adults like it better. You just can’t beat the Romans for inspiring, memorable history. On all counts, level of difficulty, familiarity, and appeal, Rome is the best choice for the beginning student, not Greece. Entice your students and lead them into a love of ancient history with the Romans and save the subtle and sophisticated Greeks for later.

In the next segment I will explain why the Middle Ages is taught in the 5th grade and how we continue our history curriculum into the upper school, grades 7-12.

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