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Using a Time Line as an Established Tool

By Shari Edwards on April 24, 2013
  • Grades: 1–2, 3–5

This week we will begin our big end-of-year research project, The Uncle Reuben Project, which will take over our classroom for a few weeks. Because our project will focus on a true story from the early 20th century, I have a little work to do to help my students grasp the meaning of time as it refers to history and to help them build and repair their own mental models of historic time.

I have been talking about historical time and using time lines with my 2nd graders since Columbus Day, last October. By January, they were able to apply their new skills during Kansas Day celebrations. In February, they found the birthdays of presidents and other important dates while studying Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I try to briefly reference the time line whenever a date is referred to in class.

By this time of year, when I mention a specific year in class, many of their eyes glance to our time line to approximate the location of the year. They are learning to find their bearings in history and, of course, that little action makes their teacher very proud!

Here are a few ideas for how you can use a time line in your classroom.

Creating Magnetic Time Lines for Dry-Erase Boards

I use several different colors of card stock with years printed on them to begin my work with time lines. I expanded double timelineattach magnets to their backs so I can stick them to my large, dry-erase board. Then when I'm teaching, I can select the years I want and can stretch them out to give me space to write events around them. My smartphone is a great tool for snapping a picture I can email to myself for further class use.

Moving the cards closer and farther apart actually replicates what our minds do when we think about time: We can lump many years together and keep specific events connected with those years or we can stretch them out and zoom in to a few specific years.


Ways to Use Time Line Cards

timeline cardsBegin with century marks. I arrange the century cards from 1400 to 2100 on the board (either vertically or horizontally). We brainstorm a few familiar events in history and place them in the correct century by writing them on the board between the century marks.

Be sure to mark the current year. This will help students begin to understand their location in time.hand pointing

You are here!


Add some mid-marks to the time line. Marks at 25, 50, and 75 years make it easier to put events in order within a century. Now let them1800s timeline order those first familiar events by deciding if they occurred between 1800 and 1825 or between 1825 and 1850, etc. This is such good practice for 2nd and 3rd graders who are working heavily with place value and number recognition to the thousands!

Zoom in on an event with several sub-events spanning a few years. For example, look at the important events in the life of one of our presidents. Now, students are ready to use time lines as thinking tools to help them organize and think about events that happened in the past.

Use multi-leveled time lines to keep their thoughts in perspective as they learn about an event. Pictured above is a two-level time line that we have zoomed in on and expanded a section of years so we can look at that time period in more detail.

Here are some time line cards I use in my classroom that can be downloaded by clicking on them.

timeline cardstimeline cards


Bring the time line cards out for other activities. I use them in math stations to keep the time line concept in their minds. I put several cards on the board with a variety of years on them. The first task is to put the years in order from earliest to latest. Then I can ask them to circle the dates before a year I've chosen ahead of time.



Variations on the Basic Time LineUncle Reuben Timeline Year 1

This is a picture of the time line we constructed during Year One of "The Uncle Reuben Project." It was very elaborate: It included the 100 years of Uncle Reuben's life and had an expanded time line for the 10 years he traveled around the U.S. between 1924 and 1934.

My students illustrated the events that we had no pictures for and they used ribbon to connect each picture to a particular time.


My class worked hard on typing labels and organizing pictures for this time line. They referred to it often, because it had great meaning to them! 

students working on timelinetyping labels

This year, our time line will most likely look different. A new group of students will be making their own meaning from Uncle Reuben's story. Plus I'm thinking of using clothespins or clips to clamp the years to a rope or cord. I can't wait to see what my students think of!

That is always the exciting part of any project-based learning project.

What Do You Think?

How do you attack the subject of historical time?

Do you have favorite time line strategies that work well with your students?


Comments (3)

Hi Margaret! Uncle Reuben was my Great Uncle, Reuben Johnson. The link in the first paragraph of the article will take you to a page with his story. I am waist deep in genealogy whenever I get the chance and happen to have quite a bit of good information about his life through his journals, ledgers, and other documents that I have acquired over the years. Thanks for your comment!

Why is this called the "Uncle Reuben" project (I'm very curious as this is my brother's name).

I really like using timelines as a substitute teacher so students at any level in any class can place where they are in a time and in a place that may or may not have been there any time before.

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