What Counts as History?

This lesson asks students to think about what counts as history. It is divided into two parts. Part 1 gets students thinking about what’s included in the history they study, and what’s missing. Part 1 can stand alone as a complete lesson. Part 2 extends the project. In it, they compare how a U.S. history book and an African-American history book address the same time period. They also reflect on how including new groups alters the study of history.
Grade Level


Activities for the middle grades (6-8) and high school (9-12) meet the following objectives:

  • To help students question their assumptions about history
  • To help students expand their ideas about what “counts” as history
  • To help students see that when you focus the historical lens on an excluded group, the entire story changes. (It’s not as simple as just adding a little section at the end of the chapter that says, “Oh, and here’s what African Americans were doing at the time.”)
Essential Questions
  • What topics have traditionally been included in the study of history? What topics have traditionally been excluded?
  • How do historians decide what to include and what to exclude?
  • How does including African Americans change how we look at U.S. history?
  • Handout 1: What Counts as History
  • Handout 2: Excerpt from the Table of Contents of African Americans: A Concise History 
  • A United States history textbook


The study of history is the study of what happened in the past. But what’s included in history? What “counts” as history? History textbooks have gotten much more inclusive in recent decades. They now include more about African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans and women. They also contain more about the lives of ordinary people.

For the most part, though, history textbooks continue to emphasize government, the military and economics. In part that’s because of the kinds of data that are available to historians. Government, military and financial documents abound. It’s much harder to find documents that provide insight into the lives of, say, 19th-century live-in domestic workers or indigenous people whose histories were oral, not written. But available sources are only one reason that history textbooks have tended to have such a limited focus. Another is that the stories of everyday people just didn’t seem important. That belief is changing.


Professional Development

You can read some general information about African-American history and Black History Month online at The History Behind Black History Month.



history |ˈhist(ə)rē | (noun) The study of continuity and change over time; the study of the past.


Middle Grades And High School

Part 1

1. This is a lesson about history. You’ve studied history in your classes, so you know that when you study history you’re learning about what happened in the past. As a class, make a list of topics you’ve studied in history. The teacher or a class volunteer should make a list of the topics as students call them out.

2. Assign the topics from your list to one of the categories below. Remember that some topics may fall into more than one category. Also, you may notice categories that aren’t listed here. Add categories as necessary.


Government (includes laws, elected officials, documents, foreign policy, reform)


Military (includes wars, military leaders)


Business (includes economics)


Technology (includes inventors)


Famous people (i.e., entertainers/celebrities)


Everyday people/Everyday life (includes home life, work life, social life)


Institutions (includes schools, religious organizations, volunteer organizations)


Families (includes children)


Movement (includes migration, immigration)



3. What do you notice about the categories into which your history studies fall? Based on your class’s table, what kinds of history do you study most of the time? On your own, write a paragraph explaining to a student from another class what kinds of things you study when you study history. Think about why.

4. It’s much harder to look at a list and answer the question, “What’s missing?” So here’s a way to get at it. Divide the class into groups and do the following activity.

a. Imagine that it’s 100 years from now and you’re talking to a historian who wants to write about daily life in the early 21st century. What would you tell her? Here are a few questions to get you started:

  • What kind of home do you live in?
  • Who else lives there?
  • What do you do every day?
  • What do other members of your household do?

       You get the idea. Tell the historian everything you think she should know to write about daily life.

b. Now look back at the list of topics you and your classmates remember studying in history classes. How does what you would tell the historian of the future compare to what you’ve studied? Make a Venn diagram to see the similarities and differences. Bring the groups back together and discuss your findings.


Summing Up

So far you have:

  • identified topics you study in history;
  • put them into categories;
  • identified topics related to your own life that a historian might write about;
  • compared them to the topics you have studied; and
  • identified categories of history not seen in your own studies.

Part 2

1. You may not have thought much about it, but the people who write your history text books do the same kind of thinking that you just did. They make decisions about what kind of stuff to include in the book and leave out. In other words, they decide what counts as history. In the rest of this lesson, you’re going to look at what they have come up with.

Start by reading Handout 1: What Counts as History. Answer the “Check Your Understanding” questions at the bottom of the reading.

2. Now think about the textbook called African Americans: A Concise History. Compare this title to textbooks with names like A History of the United States or A History of the Ancient World. This textbook focuses specifically on African-American history. Handout 2 is a section from the table of contents of African Americans: A Concise History. Working with a partner, get a copy of a U.S. history textbook. Photocopy the table of contents from it. Then find the section of the table of contents in your U.S. history book that corresponds to the section of the table of contents you have from the African-American history book. (Note: The chapter from African Americans might correspond to more than one chapter in your U.S. history book.)

3. From what you can see in the tables of contents, how are the two textbooks similar on the topic of the early republic? Jot down your answers on a piece of paper. To get a closer look at how they’re different, look at each subsection of Chapter 5 from African Americans. If you were to put it into the U.S. history book, where would it go? Write the section titles from Chapter 5 of African Americans in the section(s) of the U.S. history book chapter(s) where you think they would fit.

4. As a class, discuss what you discovered. What parts from African Americans were you able to fit into the U.S. history book (remember, only some parts will be included)? Where did you put them? Why was it difficult to make the match, and why did some sections not seem to fit at all? These are hard questions, and deserve a lot of thought. As a final activity for this part of the lesson, write a journal entry that reflects on them.



Answer this question in writing: What have you learned about what counts as history?

(Feb. 2010)

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