Timelines are a great way for students to get an overview of a history topic. We recently finished a unit in our history book about famous explorers. Our textbook organizes the explorers by country, so students read about Marco Polo (Italy) first. Then, move over to Portugal, followed by lots of Spanish guys, and end with Engand, France, and the Netherlands. The format of the book makes it seem like Spain did all of this conquering and then other people sailed across the Atlantic and explored the northeast coast of North America and Canada last.
I had my students create an explorer timeline, so we could see that after Marco Polo’s great journey, the explorers of the Americas were actually all sailing and conquering at about the same time. We used paper Sentence Strips for the timelines, which are a great length and width to make a timeline– and they already have a straight line printed on them.
Building a Timeline
- Gather your information in notes or a chart like this Explorer Timeline Notes page. Identify the first date and the last date that will appear on the timeline. Determine the time span and then add a few years before the first date and after the last date, so there will be space at the beginning and end of the timeline. With our explorer timeline, the first year was 1295 and the final year was 1609. We needed a span of at least 314 years.
- The sentence strips are 24″ in length. The next step is to determine the increments of time along the strip. This is the part that can confuse kids. Their first reaction is to list each explorer in order of travel on evenly spaced lines, but the point of a timeline is to show how close or far apart events happened from each other. After counting, subtracting, dividing, and measuring, we determined that we would make marks every 1.25″ and each mark would equal 10 years. Creating the spacing on the timeline is great measuring and counting practice.
- We noted that there was a break in explorer activity from 1295 until 1492. We created a “broken timeline” where we could jump over 100 years, so we would have enough space to fit all of the years we needed.
- To further emphasize the point that the explorers from various countries were all sailing within the same time, we color coded the explorer information by sponsoring country. The color on the timeline created a great visual and helped students group the information by time as well as by nationality.
- The final timeline included 12 explorers, the year of the explorer’s main or first voyage, a brief explanation, and a small illustration that represented the explorer.
The finished timelines gave a great overview of all of the explorers we studied. We were able to make generalizations about the explorers as well as incorporate math skills. Students need more practice reading charts, tables, and graphs, so they can draw conclusions about any data presented. When students are reviewing big chunks of information at the end of a unit of study, have them create a chart or table of some kind to help visualize similarities, differences and big ideas.
Another fun way to work with data is to build infographics. After our timelines were finished, students focused on two explorers to compare. To see how the infographic project turned out, Click Here.