I Can Hear it Now: Developing Historical Imagination

Use this exercise early in the year to develop the skill of historical imagination and to introduce the importance of studying any primary source in context. Repeat throughout the curriculum anytime to reinforce skills and to keep developing the themes of diversity and multiple points of view. This exercise can be developed into a learning activity in its own right by expanding the writing assignment in Step Two. Have students read some of the first-person accounts from the period for inspiration. Offer drawing as an alternative; for example, in the Civil War period show the drawings of correspondents like Winslow Homer and Thomas Nast as examples of the descriptive quality of journalistic drawing. Performing-arts students might like to do a musical and dramatic reenactment.


Play a song all the way through once for the class before beginning this exercise:

I’m going to play this song again—this time, listen with your eyes closed. As you listen, travel back through time with your senses to imagine this song in its “natural habitat,” back when it was first performed. Now close your eyes and think about these questions—you don’t need to answer them out loud...

Ask the first few questions before you start replaying the song (speak slowly and pause between each question to allow students plenty of time to think):

Imagine: Who is singing this song? Who is listening to the song? What are they doing? What are they feeling and thinking? Where are they

Let the students listen with eyes closed. If there is a logical place in the middle of the song, turn down the volume half-way and side coach with a few more questions (if there is no convenient interlude, add these questions to those you ask before playing the song):

Put yourself in the picture... Are you indoors—what is the building like? Or are you outdoors? What’s the weather like? What can you see in the distance? What can you smell? What other sounds can you hear?

Turn the volume back up. At the end of the song, ask students to keep their eyes closed and finish with the remaining questions:

Keep your eyes closed for a few seconds longer. Now that the song is over, what is about to happen next? What happened right before the song?


Write (or Draw)



After five minutes:


Ask for volunteers to share their stories with the class. As they do, keep a running list of the people and places mentioned on the chalkboard. Try for as great a variety as possible by encouraging students with a different scenario to volunteer.

Let’s hear about some of the different people and places where this song might have been performed.

After a good variety of scenarios have been listed, ask students to point out some of the most diverse situations. For example, “Marching through Georgia” might be sung by a soldier marching with Sherman’s troops, a veteran at a reunion, or a family accompanied by a parlor piano. It might be listened to by a freed slave following the troops, a Georgian farm wife by the side of the road, or a Union prisoner of war, among others. Then discuss the importance of context in historical inquiry:

How does the song’s meaning change for each of these people? What mistakes could you make if you tried to interpret the message of a song without taking the time to imagine its context?

On the other hand, what mistakes could you make if you relied on imagination alone? What other historical sources could you use to verify how accurate your imaginary scene was?


Historians have to balance imagination and evidence as they try to understand the meaning of documents and artifacts in their historical context. To make it even more challenging, sources can exist in more than one context. For songs, there are as many contexts as there are people singing or listening to the song!

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