Making History Fun: Utilizing Storytelling for the AP Exams

by | Mar 3, 2022

Written by: Amanda Schumaker

            Did you know that PepsiCo once had the sixth largest naval fleet in the world? In 1989, the Soviet Union bought billions of dollars’ worth of delicious Pepsi, but there was one major problem: Soviet money wasn’t generally accepted worldwide. The solution? The Soviet Union instead paid PepsiCo with 17 submarines, a cruiser, a frigate, and a destroyer. Unfit for ocean voyages, these vessels were essentially useless. However, the acquisition of the fleet tied the multinational corporation with India for possession of attack submarines. The ships were immediately handed over to a Norwegian shipyard to be scrapped, and PepsiCo CEO Donald Kendall humorously told National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, “We’re disarming the Soviet Union faster than you are.”

            Did you also know that the 1904 Olympic marathon in St. Louis was a total mess? The winner completed most of the race in a car. The guy in second place almost died from ingesting rat poison and was carried across the finish line by his coaches. The fourth-place finisher was a Cuban nationalist who lost all his money gambling when he arrived in the United States. He showed up to the starting line in a business suit – and took a nap by the side of the road in the middle of the race.

            The past is filled with tales of pettiness, frivolity, and eccentricity. We don’t often learn about events like these in school, but they are a part of history, nonetheless. When I meet with students looking for help in their history classes, I am reminded of why my favorite subject has the unfortunate reputation of being “boring”: history isn’t taught as a story.

            Think about it. History has all the storytelling elements we love in our favorite novels and films: courageous heroes, witty side characters, malicious villains, glorious triumphs, heartbreaking tragedies, and more. Books like Brown’s The Boys in the Boat, Woodward and Bernstein’s All the President’s Men, and Hoffman’s The Billion Dollar Spy have repeatedly made it to the top of best-seller lists. Ford v. Ferrari, 1917, The Post, and Dunkirk were all nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture in recent years. And don’t even get me started on Hamilton: An American Musical! History has all the drama we crave, built right in.

            Why, then, do so many students speak of history as if it were the bane of their existence? The answer is simple: they view history as a series of names, dates, and facts that must be memorized. They don’t make the connections between the people and events they read about in their textbooks. Real people and real events don’t exist in a vacuum, isolated from the rest of the world. They aren’t key terms on a list, severed from the rest of human history. And this isn’t the way the AP exams want you to think about history.

            Don’t get me wrong, knowing the significance of the Mongol invasion, the War of 1812, and the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand is important, but so is the context in which these events happened and the people who reacted to them. Understanding how people and events connect to one another and impact one another is crucial. The AP exam doesn’t ask, “Who was the principal author of the ‘Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions’ at the Seneca Falls Convention?” (Answer: Elizabeth Stanton). The test does, however, ask, “The language and themes of the ‘Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions’ were most directly inspired by which document?” (Answer: The Declaration of Independence).

            To be successful on the AP history exams, students need to be able to make these connections and recognize broader themes. Yes, knowing the who, what, when, and where is important – but so is knowing the why and the how.

            Many students struggle to make these connections and, as a result, miss the key trends and themes in their history classes. When I ask students how the Scientific Revolution led to World War I, they often look at me like I’m crazy. But they smile and laugh as I connect the Scientific Revolution to the Enlightenment, the Enlightenment to industrialization, industrialization to colonization, and colonization to the “isms” that led to World War I (nationalism, imperialism, and militarism) – jokes and stories thrown in for entertainment value, of course! “No one has ever explained history like that before,” they tell me. After they see these connections, they have a much easier time making their own.

            Stories matter. They help students retain and make sense of an overwhelming amount of information. Stories make history fun. And, they will help students succeed on the AP exams.