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Putting Historical Quotes into the Classroom

Updated on December 31, 2019
gmarquardt profile image

The author has an M.A. in history and German from SWTSU and over 30 years of teaching experience at public high schools.

Historical quotes stimulate debate, develop critical thinking skills and encourage learning outside of the classroom. Quotes can be used in many different classes, from Einstein scientific quotes to Don Quixote quotes in Spanish class. However, in a social studies class, they truly shine, as social studies curriculums generally support more diversity in learning controversial topics, individual historical characters, broad ideas and themes, as well as economic and political theory. A perfect quote can define a historical period as nothing else can. Think, for example, how "... the only thing we have to fear, is fear itself ..." defines the New Deal. Perhaps a better example is JFK’s, "Ich bin ein Berliner," speech which helps explain his fight of communism as well as describing the Berlin Wall. We all associate a good quote with a period in time, and using quotes to help teach any subject is a good tool to help students learn.

So here are five examples of methods to use quotes:

I highly recommend this book, which is not only a great time saver, but an excellent read in its own right.
I highly recommend this book, which is not only a great time saver, but an excellent read in its own right.

01. I believe in what?

Rating quotes according to student’s beliefs is a fun and engaging method to get students to delve deeper into the meaning and ideas behind certain quotes. Using sets of quotes that illustrate both sides of an argument is an excellent method to get students to not only see both sides of a controversial or political topic, but also to instill empathy and understanding to an antithetical position. Many examples can be found in James Smith’s phenomenal book, Ideas That Shape A Nation, where I discovered this fantastic and meaningful method.

The following is an example I use often in an American history class, while discussing the differences between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton and using that as a building block to the understanding of liberal and conservative, role and creation of the electoral college and the two party system we have today.

I start them off with these instructions: On a scale of 1-5, rate your opinion of the following quotations by (insert name here). Be prepared to justify your ratings either in a short statement or an oral discussion. 1 you strongly agree with the quote or you feel the statement is admirable considering its history, and 5 you strongly disagree with the quote or you feel the statement is contemptible considering its history.

_____ "Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God." ~Jefferson

_____ "There is a natural aristocracy among men, The grounds of this are virtue and talent." ~Jefferson

_____ "Every constitution then, and every law, naturally expires at the end of nineteen years. If it be enforced longer, it is an act of force, and not of right." ~Jefferson

_____ "No reason can be assigned why one man should exercise any power ... unless they have voluntarily vested him with it." ~Hamilton

_____ "The process of election (through the electoral college) affords a moral certainty that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications." ~Hamilton

_____ "Constitutions should consist only of general provisions; the reason is that they must necessarily be permanent, and that they cannot possibly calculate for the possible change of things." ~Hamilton

I normally assign these as homework so that the student has time to reflect and perhaps do some outside research. The next class period is dedicated to oral arguments and discovery of their own ideas and biases.

02. How is that even relevant?

I use quotes to make connections to the outside world. My favorite multi-media lesson uses a silly quote by none other than Homer Simpson. Outside of my door, I hang the following dialogue:

Lisa: "Well, Dad, if the museum didn't inspire you, maybe you should do something really radical like Christo."

Homer: "Is he that jerk that revealed the magicians' secrets?"

Lisa: "No, Christo is a conceptual artist who does huge outdoor projects. He once wrapped the Reichstag in plastic."

Homer: "Not the Reichstag!!!"

Lisa: "Oh, yes, and he also set up hundreds of yellow umbrellas along the California highway."

Homer: "Why did he do that?"

Lisa: "To make the world a more magical place, I guess. Although they did blow over and kill some people."

Homer: "Killer umbrellas! Of course! Exquisite."

As my students come into my classroom with a quizzical look on their face, I start the lesson on Berlin. Using the quote as a gateway to a larger presentation concerning one of Germany's most important landmarks, I ask them if they know what the Reichstag is and what its purpose is. Using a powerpoint presentation, we discuss what the Reichstag is, when and why it was built, and what it represents today.

Then I explain a little background to the show; Homer has become an artist, but his work is not well received. Lisa tells him to do something outlandish, something that might get him noticed, something perhaps like what the famous Christo would do.

This small but wonderful excerpt allows one to introduce art appreciation and interpretation, the history of Berlin, Christo’s art throughout the world, and the Reichstag, not only historically, but also artistically. After my explanation, I show the class pictures of Christo, his style of art and a couple of pictures of his umbrellas in California. By this time, my students' interest is completely piqued. Then I move on to pictures and a quick lecture of the Reichstag. I discuss the construction of the building, the burning which led to Hitler’s eventual takeover, the iconic photograph of the Russian soldiers on the Reichstag, the fact that it became a history museum after the war, and how after reunification the Reichstag was repaired and is seen today as a main symbol of Germany’s democratic strength. Finally, I show a few pictures of the Reichstag as it looked all wrapped up in Christo's fabric. As I look around the room, every single student is watching and learning, and is engaged. Although it is a good twenty minute lesson, it is one that incorporates many disciplines; art, architecture, history, and the German language. All of that started with an innocent quote on the front of my door.

03. Who said what now?

Using quotes without assigning them to the speaker until the discussion is over is another good example of fomenting discussions on a variety of topics. Excellent variations exist here, but a great example is to have quotes by controversial people over mild topics. No one gets too riled up over the following examples, until they realize who actually said them!

"Do not compare yourself to others. If you do so, you are insulting yourself." Adolf Hitler.

"Think a thousand times before taking a decision, but after taking decision never turn back even if you have a thousand difficulties!" Adolf Hitler.

"I believe in one thing only, the power of the human will." Joseph Stalin.

This follows the famous joke where one asks, who would you rather vote for?

Candidate A associates with crooked New York politicians and consults often with an astrologist. He chain smokes and drinks at least five martinis a day.

Candidate B was kicked out of office twice, usually sleeps until lunch time, used opium in college and drinks prodigiously every evening.

Candidate C is a decorated war veteran, a vegetarian, does not smoke and is sober.

Which of these candidates would you vote for?

Candidate A is Roosevelt. Candidate B is Churchill. Candidate C is Hitler.

These types of quotes and general silliness stimulate conversations in the classroom and assist in learning.

02. Guess Who?

Simply put up some random quotes during the school year and see if the students can guess who might have said them. For example, if you are studying biology, you could write the following three quotes on the board and see if student know who said them. Also, a quick matching game might work here as well.

Matching B

1. "Do not worry about your difficulties in math, mine are greater!"

2. "Dull minds are never either intuitive nor mathematical."

3. "Chemistry is a class you take in high school or college to figure out 2+2=10, or something."

Matching A

A: Dennis Rodman

B: Albert Einstein

C: Blain Pascal

Do you use quotes to spice up your lesson plans?

See results

01. The Old Standby

Comparing and contrasting two different quotes by the same person is a great way to look at change. Asking students why someone changed their mind so completely opens up excellent discussion and debate opportunities. The following example from Andrew Jackson exemplifies his policy change over the years of his presidency.

"It will be my sincere and constant desire to observe toward the Indian tribes within our limits a just and liberal policy, and to give that humane and considerate attention to their rights and their wants which is consistent with the habits of our Government and the feelings of our people." Andrew Jackson, Inaugural Address, 1829.

"After a harassing warfare, prolonged by the nature of the country and by the difficulty of procuring subsistence, the Indians were entirely defeated, and the disaffected band dispersed or destroyed.... Severe as is the lesson to the Indians, it was rendered necessary by their unprovoked aggressions, and it is to be hoped that its impression will be permanent and salutary. "Andrew Jackson, Message to Congress, 1832.

To be honest, I never liked classrooms filled with posters full of inspiring quotes by cats "hanging on," and to this day I refuse to have those types in my classroom. However, I do use the five methods above to introduce quotes into my curriculum, and I change those quotes at least once a week to stimulate new conversation and learning. Using those quotes in my classroom, I get students to make those connections to the learning that goes on outside of the classroom. So get inventive and creative, because you never know how those quotes will inspire lives and learning.


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