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Timelines of History


This assignment asks students to create a timeline that reflects the local, national and international events shaping history. A timeline can represent information from many different disciplines, such as science, social studies, mathematics, and language arts. Timelines show changes over time in areas such as war, transportation, technology, and space travel, to name a few fields of history. Timelines also work well when representing people's lives and events throughout history. Here, students will gather evidence to build timelines to create source-driven arguments that include evidence, a specific description and a justification.

Historians use timelines to display different types of information and to show cause and effect. For example, in tracking Christopher Columbus’ voyages, historians can trace how the Spanish crown spread its influence. Similarly, the evolution of different ideas, like Reason, across historical periods, like the Enlightenment, can have far reaching implications throughout history that may be easily mapped on a timeline. Timelines may reveal a bias in how history is written. Some historians on the East Coast ignore the colonial experience of other places in the United States, like the Southwest or Hawaii, in explaining the development of the United States. Yet, these histories are as relevant as the experience in the Roanoke, Jamestown, or Massachusetts Bay colonies. Indeed, because of its general absence in descriptions of the development of American democracy, many students will never familiarize themselves with other models of history that may shape a multicultural America. Timelines show parallel events and how different civilizations develop over time.


Blank world map (provided by


You will need:
Lesson plan length: 2 - 6 weeks.
World Map or one provided by the Instructor
Information on local history to supplement textbooks.
An Almanac of American history (suggested).
A World Atlas.
Presentation tools depending upon class capabilities. low tech: multiple poster board segments or segments paper for each group for timeline display. high tech: computer generated linkable timeline to post on the class website.

Initially, instructors play a directive role in going over the reading, glossary terms, and local history information. This assignment is excellently combined with a trip to the library and a library tour in order to introduce students to sources like almanacs and atlases. Instructors should evaluate the enclosed resources and determine the relevancy of the samples to their students. Instructors should consider integrating a local history and sources if they are available. These include guides, tour books, history books, and even guest speakers who may come in to discuss the importance of a place in the community.

Lesson Hypothesis:

The United States’ history begins at different times in different parts of the nation and across the world. How does extending our understanding of overall American history to include Spanish and Mexican colonies change our vision of American history? What are the different national and global motivations that change place over time?

goals & objectives

In completing this lesson, successful students will:

• Define and understand the glossary terms included.
• Track the colonial, antebellum, and modern development of the United States through its ongoing political, cultural, demographic, economic, and diplomatic shifts.
• Identify the formation of and changes within the nation’s multiple cultures and sub-cultures.
• Gauge the influence America’s past makes on the present, noting occurrences producing almost instantaneous influence and trends that produced more subtle implications for the country.
• Explain how major events are related to one another in time.
• Construct various time lines of key events, people, and periods of the historical era they are studying.
• Use a variety of maps and documents to identify physical and cultural features of neighborhoods, cities, states, and countries and to explain the historical migration of people, expansion and disintegration of empires, and the growth of economic systems.
• Distinguish relevant from irrelevant information, essential from incidental information, and verifiable from unverifiable information in historical narratives and stories.
• Understand and distinguish cause, effect, sequence, and correlation in historical events, including the long- and short-term causal relations.
• Explain the sources of historical continuity and how the combination of ideas and events explains the emergence of new patterns.
• Interpret basic indicators of economic performance and conduct cost-benefit analyses of economic and political issues.
• Evaluate the different ways that timelines may be presented (vertically, horizontally, categories).
• Use the 5 W’s of academic writing (Who, What, When, Where, Why) to define 50 timeline entries. • Using group consensus, determine 20 – 25 entries that provide examples from international, national, state and local history to create a timeline to explain the development of local history.
• Evaluate the differences in the two timelines. Is one more relevant? Why?
• On a rough draft, sketch out how the timeline entries will be mapped across the timeline.
• Create the timeline.

the lesson

Exercise 1: “Gathering Information”
Students are encouraged to review what they have learned in Social Studies to date and create timeline entries. Each entry should answer the 5 W’s: Who, What, When, Where & Why?

Instructors should create a rough draft of a timeline on the board that reviews the milestones covered in past Social Studies lessons.

For example, here is a list of explorers, listed in alphabetical order:
Columbus reaches the New World in 1492
Da Gama reaches India in 1498
Drake completes sailing around the world in 1580
Magellan discovers what comes to be called the Strait of Magellan in 1520

A timeline lists items chronologically.
1492 | Christopher Columbus reaches the New World.
1498 | Vasco da Gama reaches India.
1520 | Ferdinand Magellan sails through what will be called the Strait of Magellan
1580 | Sir Francis Drake sails around the world.

Part A. Instructors should divide students into groups of 3-4 and has a student in each group review past lessons from Social Studies to gather entries from local history. In addition to drawing from the Archive, students may draw from sources in the library or sources that instructors provide. In gathering entries for a timeline, students should pick events that are “important to the development of the United States.”

Part B. Instructors should have students review local history by reviewing the two enclosed Case Studies and important dates in mission history (covered in fifth grade). Students should define each entry using the 5 W’s (Who, What, When, Why & Where) and have at least 50 entries in total.

Part C. Mapping It All Together: Using the map provided here or one that you have prepared for the class, instructors should have students map out where all of their entries take place. Consider making connections using color or lines to show relationships. Students should include a key to interpreting the map.

Exercise 2: Editing or “Writing History”
To edit is to collect, prepare, and arrange (materials) for publication. For example, a newspaper editor decides where articles are arranged, whether to shorten or lengthen a story, or to remove an item altogether. It is in the editing of information that the writing of history happens. What is included and omitted reveals the subjectivity or position of the author. For example, someone creating a timeline on military history may include battle sites and important peace treaties, while another person focusing on agriculture may not include any of these entries.

Editing. After each group has defined 50 entries, each group must “edit” the list down to only 20 – 25 entries. In general, historians only publish 50% of the information they gather due to a variety of issues: from the need to use space effectively, to the attention span of their reader or limitations of the medium; not everything can be included. As a result, historians heavily edit what they include in a book or article and determine the most important or relevant information. Because students will be working in groups, each person in the group should approve of each timeline entry. This requirement reflects the working environment of many historians—history builds on the writing of past historians and historians work in a community of scholars who will critique or approve of historical methods or publications.

Drafting. After deciding which entries will stay and go, students should sketch a draft of their timeline. In making this draft, students should consider how the information should appear on the timeline. Will it be a vertical or horizontal timeline? Using the justifications they have created, students should produce a title for each entry. Are there any images that may assist in making the timeline? What is the goal of conveying this information? What sources are available to use? When possible students should integrate the maps they created in Exercise 1.

Creating. After completing a draft and having each of the students in the group sign off on the final list and design, students should create their timeline using in class materials or a computer program, depending on the availability in each classroom. Students should account for periods of time in a clear manner. Students should consider who might best represent their group in explaining the focus and choices on the timeline. What images, like maps or artwork, is available to illustrate the timeline. If the group had the choice to include any information on the timeline to best show the event, what would it be? A flag? A political treaty?

Sharing. Share the completed timeline by displaying it in the classroom and through class presentations. Are there any differences between the timelines?

Wrap-Up: Ask the class what they learned about process. Did they enjoy it? Did everyone agree with the final choices? Were there entries that were left out that some students felt were more important than one of the final choices? How did the group agree upon the final set? Any suggestions for activities to improve this assignment in the future?

case studies

A Brief History of Watts

A History of the San Fernando Valley
copyright 2010 the Studio for Southern California History