Make Classes Fun By Teaching History CSI Style

Beth Ritter-Guth 24-02-2010

Is History Dead???As a kid, I shuddered when history teachers tried to make memorizing dates and facts fun. Generally, dressing up and acting out the part of Susan B. Anthony had something to do with my personal distrust of 80s-style active learning techniques.


Fortunately for kids today, times have changed, and the Information Super Highway plowed over the Brady-Bunch approach to teaching and learning.

How do history teacher’s make learning fun these days? Some use programs like Teen Second Life or materials from the National Archives, but the teacher still has to create his or her own lesson plans for those tools to work.

Once the hunt starts, teachers become overwhelmed by the volume of materials available, and return to the textbook in an effort to stay sane. Lesson plan sites often charge teachers for sub-standard lessons that do not tie into government educational mandates.

My hope was to find a lesson plan site for history that was both free and fun. I wanted to find something that would engage the students and foster a love of learning while relying on ethical use of internet content.

In hunting around for a best practice site, I stumbled on a nugget of gold: HSI: Historical Scene Investigation.


Solving History, CSI Style

Like a CSI, kids solve “crimes” using evidence (historical documents). Although the site is simplistic in style, the creators of the site, Dr. Kathleen Owings Swan, Assistant Professor of Social Studies Education at the University of Kentucky and Dr. Mark Hofer, Assistant Professor of Educational Technology at the College of William and Mary, did their homework in creating these historical investigation lesson plans.

The site is easy to use, and students and teacher’s have no problem accessing the links. While the graphics could be a little flashier, the ease of use is most important, and students with dial up (ye gads, they still exist?) can access the materials from home as well as students with speedier networks.

Students Crack the Case!


Students with alternate abilities will be able to use screen readers, and homeschoolers or people interested in learning a bit about history can dive right in!

While the site appears to be geared toward a younger audience (K-8), the primary documents used in the cases are excellent starting points for teachers or parents in advanced grades who want to buff up the assessment or challenge.

The historical investigation lesson plans cover 14 cases, and all of them include a student and teacher view. Readers are encouraged to submit ideas, as well. Each case comes with links to primary documents and offers up a challenge for students to investigate.

Make Classes Fun By Teaching History CSI Style case acknowledgements


One investigation, “The Case of Sam Smiley,” asks students to create a timeline, build a personality profile of him, and then generate a hypothesis for his cause of death. This is the only case that is not historical, but it teaches students the tools historians use to crack cases.

All of the historical cases offer accurate documentation and prompt students to rely on their analytical abilities in determining an outcome.

Make Classes Fun By Teaching History CSI Style i smell a rat

My favorite, “I Smelt a Rat! Constitution Controversy” asks students to look at the men who did not sign the Declaration of Independence.


After reading an excellent selection of primary documents, students must determine why men like Patrick Henry and George Mason did not support the signing of the Constitution. Truly, I never really thought about the guys that stormed out the door and ran home to complain to their wives.

HSI: Historical Scene Investigation is a rock-star educational site that engages students and helps them think beyond dates and times. Students become stakeholders in the learning process without having to dress up like Benjamin Franklin. Truly, the digital age is good.

Are there any teachers out there who source the Internet for cool teaching tools and lesson plans? Share them with us in the comments.

Related topics: Education Technology, Study Tips.

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  1. Bob Ford
    August 2, 2017 at 10:16 am

    For those of us who went to George Mason Elementary School, and lived near Patrick Henry's home Red Hill, that one is a no-brainer! :)

  2. Margie
    April 29, 2017 at 2:19 pm

    I use HSI students enjoy it.

  3. Beth Ritter-Guth
    February 25, 2010 at 9:03 am

    Hi Mike :-)

  4. Mike Harris
    February 25, 2010 at 8:24 am

    George III didn't take that well. I guess he was ...

    *whips out shades, puts them on*

    ... royally ticked off.


    • Beth Ritter-Guth
      February 25, 2010 at 8:44 am

      I love the Horatio-meets George III vision that just popped up in my feeble brain! You are a riot, Mike! Thanks for the laugh!!

      • Mike Harris
        February 25, 2010 at 8:49 am

        Ho-ly ... I didn't even realize it was you, Beth, that wrote this! Hi! :)

  5. Lisa
    February 25, 2010 at 6:45 am

    One good resource, especially for history teachers, in the Zinn Education Project to complement Howard Zinn's book A People's History of the United States. There are a bunch of primary source images and class activities organized both by theme and time period.

    Its good stuff.

    • Lisa
      February 25, 2010 at 6:46 am

      D'oh...forgot the link:

    • Beth Ritter-Guth
      February 25, 2010 at 8:43 am

      Zinn is, indeed, and excellent resource! Thanks so much for sharing it with us!!

  6. Lisa
    February 25, 2010 at 3:46 pm

    D'oh...forgot the link:

  7. Simon Slangen
    February 24, 2010 at 8:07 pm

    Awesome. Wish I'd have been thought history like that.

    • Beth Ritter-Guth
      February 25, 2010 at 10:53 am

      Me, too, Simon!!!