Bringing History into the 21st Century

Celebrate Digital Learning Day with a technological spin on timeless lessons

By Greg Harrison


February 1st has been named Digital Learning Day by the Alliance for Excellent Education. Given the explosion in technology use in our classrooms, homes, and as part of social communication, dedicating a day to this topic seems only fitting.

The technological focus of 21st Century skills goes hand-in-hand with Digital Learning Day, which celebrates teachers who provide students with the digital skills they need to succeed in school, in a career, and in life. In this article, I'm going to propose an activity you can do with your students that combines digital learning with traditional writing.

Communicating in the 21st Century

A basic tenet of 21st Century Learning, as outlined by Partnership for 21st Century Skills (, is communication, which plays into another tenet, development of life skills. The aim of Digital Learning Day is to highlight how teachers incorporate technology into students' experience. By combining these goals, you can help your students communicate effectively while using technology.

One method of communication is persuasion, or learning to convincingly state one's own point of view. Learning how to organize, compose, and present a persuasive argument is a very important life skill. Teaching persuasive writing easily lends itself to the most widely-used technological piece of all - the computer! The activity below would be suitable for upper-elementary to high school students.

Using History as an Example

One of the greatest pieces of persuasive writing ever penned was written by the great Thomas Jefferson. The Declaration of Independence contains all of the elements of a good piece of persuasive writing; a thesis statement, a series of ideas to support it, arguments and examples, and a very compelling conclusion.

In order to have your students delve into an exploration of this topic, give each of your students a copy of The Declaration of Independence and put them in groups of four. Have them use a highlighter to find the thesis, the three most compelling ideas to support it, at least two supporting facts or examples, and the conclusion. Have each group share what they found with the class.

After this warm-up, assign students a simple task for homework; they must think of a topic for a persuasive essay. The topics MUST be student suggestions. The persuasive essays will be much better if the topics are something students find interesting and compelling. Some sample topics are:

  • Why I should be able to get a puppy.
  • Why homework should be abolished.
  • Who should be elected as our next President.
  • Why skiing (or a sport of their choice) is the best sport ever.

Using the Persuasion Map

I discovered an excellent interactive graphic organizer called the Persuasion Map, which enables students to easily organize their ideas for a piece of persuasive writing. Using the computer, students type in their thesis statement, three compelling reasons which support their thesis statement, three facts or examples which support each reason, and a conclusion. Using the Persuasion Map, students can edit, save, and print their work. Once the map is completed, students can use it as a guide when writing their persuassive essay on the computer. If there is time, have your students share their final product with the class. The essays are then compiled into a "Persuasive Essay Book," which can be shared with other students, parents, teachers, and used during SSR time. Below are some other excellent lessons that would be great to use during during the upcoming Digital Learning Day.

Digital Learning Day Lesson Plans:

Technology At Work

This lesson is designed for early to upper elementary students. The main thrust of the lesson is to show students that "technology" isn't a new idea. It's been around since the beginning of time! Students utilize the Internet to compile a list of the ten technological advances they think are the most important in human history. Each group creates a timeline with their choices.

Teach Your Parents Well

In this absolutely marvelous middle school to high school lesson from The New York Times, students develop a course outline which teaches adults (their parents), about a relevant technology popular with today’s youth. The courses may be created using web sites, multimedia devices, digital cameras, cell phones, text messaging, or other uses of technology in contemporary culture.

Introduction of Self

In this fabulous lesson designed for middle-schoolers, students create a video reflection that introduces them to the rest of the class. This lesson is meant to be used at the very beginning of the school year, and utilizes the most popular form of technology (the video), in a creative and meaningful way.

And The Winner Is.......

In this excellent lesson designed for high schoolers, students are introduced to The Nobel Prize for Literature. Then, students work in pairs to learn about people who have won this famous prize. They do research on an individual, and create a PowerPoint presentation. This high-level lesson requires students to access and utilize a wide variety of technological tools.