Teaching Tip 14—How Timelines Organize History!

You may be a big fan of timelines, you may be intimidated by them, or you may not have even run across this concept yet. Wherever you are on the spectrum, timelines play a significant role in helping your students to organize the things they are learning about in history, as well as notable events and people in literature, art, science, music, and even athletics! It coordinates visually—even artistically—lots of information.

With that in mind, let’s talk about the “why” of timelines before we tackle the “how.”

Why Timelines?

I remember hearing the buzz about timelines when I was a young homeschool mom. It seemed to be one of those “cream of the crop” strategies for teaching that homeschoolers could easily use at home. So, when I saw an inexpensive world history timeline for sale, I added it to my pile with glee.

Back at home, I opened up the package and found 15-20 sheets of paper (8.5″ x 11″). They had a continuous line and the centuries marked at the top. Beneath the line, every so often, there would be a short blurb about some historic person or event, with the specific date indicated.

The first puzzle for me was where to put 15 feet of timeline! There wasn’t room in our kitchen, dining room, or living room. . . So, I taped it up on the hallway wall leading to the bathroom. And, much to my surprise, it became a magnetic draw to everyone who walked by. I would see people walking down the hall with their head tilted at an awkward angle as they saw the unfolding of historic events (or, at least, the dates)—right before their very eyes!

When a timeline is visible, when it’s spread out so you can walk past centuries of events and people, it becomes VERY exciting! You begin to make connections between things you know and things that you never quite “got” before. Suddenly, history begins to seem much less like disconnected factoids floating in space (that somehow must be memorized for tests) and much more like a story, with everything connected and related.

And, if you begin to add dates for the books you are reading aloud (“Oh, let’s add The Cat of Bubastes back here in ancient Egypt!”), music you have been listening to (“Here, let’s put Sweet Betsy from Pike right by the California gold rush in 1849!”), and even members of your family (“You’re right, Great Grandpa DID fight in WWII, so let’s put him on the timeline right here!”), suddenly, you and your children will find yourselves living in the very midst of history!

Sounds amazing, doesn’t it?

How to do Timelines?

The wonderful thing about timelines is that they can range from do-it-yourself simple, to downloadable timelines with images and events/people that you can choose and arrange, to elaborately designed and printed timelines that are ready to be used—and all kinds of in-between versions!

Here are a few ideas of what’s possible to do yourself:

  • One of my homeschool mentors simply tacked up blank sheets of paper along her wall, and then, as her children studied something, they would list where it fit on the timeline. It wasn’t pretty or artistic, but, for them, it was really effective.
  • Some moms, following the practice of Charlotte Mason, have done timelines in a notebook format (note: it doesn’t take over the house this way!). The notebook format, called a “Book of the Centuries” allows them to have a 2-page spread per century—some enterprising moms have created theirs with pockets to keep pictures of projects and other information about that time period. As students go through the notebook, they will see an unfolding of developments and events over time.
  • Some have taken a poster board to put on the back of a wall, drawing horizontal lines every 2-3 inches to separate the centuries. This is a great way to have a more visible timeline that is a bit more contained than the sprawling-down-the-hallway version!

Then there are many, many versions of timelines to buy. Don’t feel intimidated and don’t feel pressured—take your time, decide if this or that timeline has what your family needs, and whether it’s affordable.

Getting Started

Remember, the concept of a timeline is an educational STRATEGY for helping your students organize information in such a way that it is memorable and interesting. . . so that new connections and ideas are sparked in their minds.

A great way to get started is to play with a timeline. Make a quick version, with 2 or 3 pieces of paper, listing events and people that will be immediately interesting to your kids:

  • Their birth years;
  • Your birth year;
  • Your parents’ birth years;
  • Notable events of that era;
  • The presidents or prime ministers of those years.

Then, together, think about any books about this time your family has read, or music of the era they’ve heard, or science discoveries of the past 50-60 years that you find exciting, and write them on the timeline. Add visual interest with drawing pictures If any of you are artistic, or adding printed images from the internet.

Finally, put this highly relevant and interesting (to your family) timeline up on the wall in a location that will be accessible and visible.

Now, watch, listen, and see what happens! What kinds of questions or ideas are coming up in normal conversation? What else do your kids want to add to the timeline? Do you need to add another sheet? You’re on your way to greatness!!

The unfolding story of history is monumental. . .awe-inspiring. . .and worth the time and trouble.

History Revealed

That’s why we included timelines in every chapter of the History Revealed curriculum, from antiquity to modern times.

From the Teacher Guide:

“The point of doing a timeline is not to burden the student with needless labor. Instead, it is to begin to create a mental bulletin board on which to organize the people, the events, and the flow of history. Encourage your students to see this exercise as the start of a jigsaw puzzle, which will eventually display for them a very clear understanding of the chronology of history, which will, in turn, help them discover for themselves some of the cause and effect relationships between actions and subsequent reactions. Also, it will give the Christian student a much broader understanding of God’s interaction with the people and nations of history.”