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Engaging Students to Act Like Historians:
Ideas to Entice Thoughtful Collaboration and Positive Interactions Before Students Begin to Complain that History is Boring!

James A. Diskant


     As the school year drew to a close last June, I was able to wrap up my work a day early to attend the 18th Annual World History Association Conference in Salem, Massachusetts. As on the last occasion I attended this conference (in Milwaukee two years ago) I came away with new ideas and energized to incorporate them into my teaching in the coming year.1 Specifically, the Salem conference inspired me to rethink strategies for my required 10th grade course in the fall so as to further encourage my students to stretch their learning preferences and become engaged learners who are willing to move beyond their comfort zones of learning.2

     I have always started my course in world history with a survey (see Addendum A) which has been a great way for me to learn about my students, as well as for them to learn about me, since I use it after they fill it out as a way to introduce myself to the class. This year I plan to broaden the survey and include additional questions about students' learning preferences (see Addendum B).3 As I think about my/their return to school this September, I am reminded of an off hand comment that a 10th grader made last spring. "Dr. Diskant," she awkwardly began, "Why don't we do anything fun any more? Remember that scavenger hunt on the Indian Ocean that we had last year?" The activity she had referenced had been done more than a year and half earlier and she still remembered it! While this particular student was inconsistent in her work and was quick to "label" work that she found hard or uninteresting as "boring", it was striking both that she had so clearly and fondly remembered an activity that we had done in the opening days of ninth grade and also that she had a good point about the importance of getting students involved in their own learning by discovery and by movement.4

     The 10th grader's comment is connected to what I learned or re-learned at the WHA in that interaction, discovery, movement, visuals, and music all need to be part of learning from the first day of class! In this way students will be able to incorporate the eight learning preferences listed in Addendum B and I will be able to make my class more interesting, more "fun" immediately so that when we have to tackle harder reading materials they will be ready to do so.

     One of the keynote addresses at the WHA, Lauren Arnold's "The Emperor Rejoiced with Joy': Franciscan Missionaries and a Papal Gift to the Yuan Court in 1342: A Case of Cultural Misunderstanding"5 offered an energetic and exciting tale of discovery, persistence, and an appreciation of the connection between visual and written sources. Arnold's story was as much based on her research on the acquisition of gifts as it was on how they may have been seen by others and one needs to look carefully at diverse clues, artistic and written. Arnold took us painstakingly with humor and aplomb through her discoveries to uncover the truth surrounding the gift or tribute of the 14th century, depending on one's perspective.

     What did I take away from this dynamite lecture on a topic that at first I had only a passing interest? I was reminded of three concepts:

1.)   Inspiring delivery matters

2.)   Visible excitement is crucial

3.)   Empowering engagement with one's audience/students so that they will feel ready to do historical work on their own

     Now, of course, I know that … after all I have been teaching for most of my adult life and had decided some time ago to teach at the secondary level so as to have opportunities for more engagement than I had thought was possible in some of the college classrooms that I had encountered. Yet Arnold reminded me of something crucial that I too often ignore: the visual hook. And, coupled, with the comment of the student mentioned above, I needed to revisit my opening activity to draw my students into my approach of teaching/coaching and keep them there until June.

     Immediately after Arnold's lecture I attended a fabulous workshop (in my humble opinion the best of the entire Conference!), entitled "Models of Collaboration in the World History Classroom", co-facilitated by Linda Black and Deborah Smith Johnston.6 While I am familiar with the interactive and collaborative ideas that both teachers discuss, they modeled these ideas so splendidly that it a joy to participate in any workshop they lead.7 It is always helpful to discuss these ideas again so as to re-inspire me to remind me whether I am engaging my students enough. While I use many of the strategies that Johnston recommends, it was energizing to think about the variety of discussion techniques — Inner Outer Seminar, Inner Outer Stand Up, Role Play, Hearing on Foreign Policy, Silent Salon, Modified "Silent" Salon, Small and Large Group Discussions, Think-Pair-Share, Trials, and Fire Lane – in the context of the approaches that I was already re-considering after listening to Arnold.

     As I worked to put these lessons together and to think about the three day opening activity that I had used with my 10th grade students for the last two years (see Addendum D) I realized that it was too passive.8 Admittedly the activity worked as a review of concepts that most of my students had learned in 9th grade, but it didn't engage them very much. On reflection the role of the News Team didn't work at all, since it did not allow all students to work on one of the skills that they desperately need to have down pat and takes a great deal of work: good listening, careful note taking, and asking follow up questions should they be confused. Most students simply waited for the News Team to ask them questions which they answered, but there was little engagement or interaction.

     I realized that Arnold, Black, and Johnston helped me come to terms with the ideas that I know and that I need to reenergize the beginning of my course: with illustration, movement, unanswered questions, and a role play that is more interactive than the earlier version had been. In this fashion I plan to create more of a student-centered classroom where inquiry and engagement form the basis of a preliminary activity. The newer version (see Addendum E) allows students to use different kinds of learning – preferences that some of them already like and others that need to stretched and encouraged to learn and absorb — that was already discussed and assessed in their surveys (see Addenda A and B).

     My new plan is as follows: Day One: As usual: Course Overview and Introductions; Day Two: An Activity on Community Building (see Addendum C); for homework I will distribute the assignment (see Addendum D), assign reading on the end of the Napoleonic Era and the Congress of Vienna (pages from the text and a brief supplement). Finally, I will assign the different positions and distribute the particular primary or secondary reading, along with an illustration, for that position, along with an illustration of their person(s) for the role play.9

     When they arrive in the class on Monday, I will play the music that the delegates heard in Vienna – Beethoven's Battle of Symphony. The music, along with a painting of the Congress, will set the stage for the official meeting. After a brief (no more than 10 minutes) full class activity that taps into Preferences #3 and #5 (see Addendum B), where we will unravel answers to the following questions:

1.)   What was the Conference?

2.)   Who participated in it and why?

3.)   Who appeared to benefit from it and why?

4.)   Who appeared to lose from it and why?

And to segue to their planning for their Position and the Roundtable discussion:

5.)   If you put your character(s) into this picture, how does it either reinforce what is already happening or how does it change or challenge it?

Afterwards they will have the period to plan their Position for the Roundtable Discussion.

     During the Roundtable Discussion, students should be able to take advantage in one form or another of most of the different learning preferences (see Addendum B). After the Roundtable discussion is over there will be four culminating activities: homework, two open-ended quiz questions, a journal entry, and a self-assessment (see Addendum F). If the Roundtable discussions work as I hope that they do, students will be able to understand the emerging political spectrum, as well as the ability of powerful men to stay in power in contrast to the worlds' majority who may be united in opposition to the status of those in power, but for a combination of different reasons – geography, language, methods, and/or values – found that unity impossible. I had placed the positions more or less from right to left on a continuum:

  • Positions One, Two, and Three are reactionary and lack popular support
  • Positions Four, Five, and Six are variants of conservative, moderate, or even liberal; they are willing to work in some ways with the far-right coalition; they have little popular support, but slightly more than those to their right
  • Positions Seven and Eight are conservative and yet have popular support
  • Positions Nine, Ten, and Eleven have been able to accomplish many of their goals and are now more conservative than they had previously been; are seen as models for many other unhappy people in the world
  • Positions Twelve and Thirteen have been moderately successful in reaching their goals and are seen as threats to those in positions of power (Positions One – Eight) and are definitely seen as models for oppressed people throughout the world; yet their radical aspirations are incomplete
  • Positions Fourteen and Fifteen have been completely unsuccessful and were killed in their attempts to bring more equality and freedom to their respective societies

     Finally, to make sure they "get" it, students they will get up and stand – in a Role Play Version of a "Fire Lane" — where they belong in the political spectrum and succinctly state their position openly to the whole class, not in an attempt to persuade, but in an attempt to make it clear to themselves and to the rest of the class. Using pictures, words, and questions, I am confident that we will have an interesting (even inspiring!) beginning of the year, both as a review activity and a way to engage more students – particularly those who are bored by traditional lecture styles – that what historians do is in fact interesting, relevant to contemporary politics, and, as the above-mentioned student reminded me last spring, can be "fun"!

James Diskant, Ph. D is World History Connected's editor for Pioneering New Classroom Approaches. He teaches at the John D. O'Bryant School of Mathematics and Science in Roxbury (Boston), Massachusetts.

Addendum A

United States and World History II
John D. O'Bryant School for Mathematics and Science
Dr. Diskant
Background Questions
September 2008

1.)    What is your name?
        What is your homeroom and the name of your homeroom teacher?
        Who is your English teacher?
        What grade are you in?
        Who is your guidance counselor?

2.)    What is the name of your parent or guardian and his or her daytime phone number should I need to call during school hours? Or even better, an E-mail address?

3.)    Were you at the O'Bryant last year?      If not, where did you go to school and what history course did you take?

4.)    What did you like about previous history courses and why?

5.)    What did you dislike about previous history courses and why?

6.)    How do you learn the best?

What types of activities make it easiest for you to understand difficult material?

7.)    How do you learn the least well?

What kind of activities makes it hard for you to understand difficult material?

8.)    Do you have any advice for me to make this a successful and enjoyable learning experience?

9.)    What was the best book you read over the summer and why?

10.)  What do you do to relax on a daily or weekly basis?

Addendum B

Multiple Intelligences Survey10
''Your Seven Kinds of Smart'' (+1)
Adapted from Thomas Armstrong11

Check (x) each statement that applies to you.

1.) Verbal/Linguistic Intelligence                     TOTAL:

Books are very important to me.
I hear words in my head, before I read, speak, or write them down.
I am good at word games, like Scrabble or Password.
I enjoy entertaining others or myself with tongue twisters, rhymes, or puns.
English, social studies, and history are easier for me than math and science.
I have recently written something of which I am especially proud.

2.) Logical/Mathematical Intelligence                  TOTAL:

I can easily compute numbers in my head.
Math and/or science are among my favorite subjects in school.
I enjoy brainteasers or games that require logical thinking.
My mind searches for patterns and regularities in things.
I am interested in new developments in science.
I believe that almost everything has a logical explanation.

3.) Visual/Spatial Intelligence                                TOTAL:

I often see clear visual images when I close my eyes.
I am sensitive to color.
I enjoy doing jigsaw puzzles.
I like to draw or doodle.
I can easily imagine how something might look from a bird's eye view.
I prefer looking at reading material with lots of illustrations.

4.) Bodily/Kinesthetic Intelligence                                    TOTAL:

I participate in at least one sport or physical activity on a regular basis.
I like working with my hands on concrete activities (like carpentry, model-building, sewing, weaving).
I like to spend my free time outdoors.
I enjoy amusement rides and other thrilling experiences.
I would describe myself as well coordinated.
I need to practice a new skill, not just read about it or see a video about it.

5.) Musical/Rhythmic Intelligence                                     TOTAL:

I have a pleasant singing voice.
I play a musical instrument.
My life would not be so great without music.
I can easily keep time to music with a simple percussion instrument,
I know the tunes to many different songs and musical pieces.
If I hear a musical selection a couple times, I can usually sing it fairly accurately.

6.) Interpersonal Intelligence                                 TOTAL:

I am the sort of person that others come to for advice.
I prefer group sports (like softball) rather than individual sports (like swimming).
I like group games like Monopoly better than individual entertainment.
I enjoy the challenge of teaching others how to do something.
I consider myself a leader, and others have called me a leader.
I like to get involved in social activities at my school, church, or community.

7.) Intrapersonal Intelligence                                 TOTAL:

I regularly spend time alone, reflecting or thinking about important questions.
I have opinions that set me apart from the crowd.
I have a special hobby or interest that I like to do alone.
I have some important goals for my life that I regularly think about.
I consider myself to be independent minded or strong willed.
I keep a personal diary or journal to write down my thoughts or feelings about life.

8.) Naturalist                                                                         TOTAL:

I have a garden and/or like to work outdoors.
I really like to go backpacking and hiking.
I enjoy having different animals around the house (in addition to a dog or cat).
I have a hobby that involves nature.
I like to visit zoos, nature centers, or places with displays about the natural world.
It's easy for me to tell the difference between different kinds of plants and animals.

Add Up Your Totals in Each Subcategory:
Areas of Strength:
What I learned about myself that I did not know before:

How will this survey's results help me in school?
How will this survey's results help your teachers?

Adapted from "Multiple Intelligences' Instructional Strategies
and Activities for Language Learners"

1.) Verbal/Linguistic:

Debates, Storytelling, On-line communications (E-pals), Group discussions, Word-processing programs, Word games

2.) Logical/Mathematical:

Word order activities, Grammar relationships, Pattern games, Number activities, Classifying and categorizing, Sequencing information, Computer games, Cause and effect activities

3.) Visual/Spatial:

Using graphs and diagrams, Drawing a response, Video exercises, Computer slide shows, Multimedia projects, Mind mapping, Graphic organizers

4.) Bodily/Kinesthetic:

Role playing, Dancing … Hands-on learning, Manipulatives, Multimedia games or activities, Aerobic alphabet, Building a model or 3-D project

5.) Musical/Rhythmical:

Write jingles for a commercial, Jazz chants to remember vocabulary/grammar/verbs, Musical cloze activities, Create music for skits and plays, Use music as a stimulator, Look for tonal/rhythmic patterns in music of target language

6.) Interpersonal/Social:

Cooperative teams, Paired activities, Peer teaching, Board games, Simulations, Surveys and polls, Group brainstorming, Situations or dialogues

7.) Intrapersonal/Introspective:

Describe/write about preferred way(s) of spending free time, Keep a journal on a particular topic, Engage in independent study

8.) Naturalist:

Describe changes in the local environment, Debate the issue of homeopathic medicine versus store-bought remedies, Plan a campaign drive which focuses on saving an endangered species


Addendum C

U.S. and World History II
Dr. Diskant
Class work:
Friday, September 11th
Creating a Perfect Community?

            Today's class work has two purposes: 1.) to see whether you and your partners can come to an agreement over your values to create a "perfect community" and 2.) to reflect on communities from the 15th through the 18th centuries that may have come close to being "perfect" from the criteria that you chose.

I. Creating a Perfect Community? (5 minutes)

Write down as many items that you want in this perfect place.

II. Creating a Perfect Community: Partner Work (10 minutes)

1.) Compare the lists with your partner(s).
2.)   What aspects can you agree that need to be a part of this community?
3.)   Why did you decide on those particular aspects?

III. Relationship to the late 15th through the 18th Centuries (10 minutes)

Think back to the communities that you studied last year; which ones, if any, came close to being "perfect" from the criteria that you chose in Part I? Why? If you do not think any of these communities came close to being "perfect", why not?

IV. Sharing and Prioritizing with the Entire Class

Addendum D

United States and World History II
Dr. Diskant
A News Show:
Revolution and Counter-revolution, 1800-1830

     Next week we will work in groups to prepare positions for "Newsmakers of Vienna," a simulation of the attempt to stop revolutionary changes in Europe and South America in the early 19th century. We will have that simulation on Tuesday and Wednesday, when the News Team will question the leaders of the five empires (Groups #1-5) responsible for trying to stop these changes. Given that many other voices were making themselves heard in this period, the News Team came to decide to invite other people to get a fuller picture of the issues of the 1820's in the world. First, they invited three other leaders and their advisors (Groups #6-8) who may agree with some aspects of stopping change, but have their own particular views different than the leaders who met in Vienna. In addition, the News Team invited other people (Groups #9-13) who were very much in favor of change to meet peoples' needs whose views, in their opinion, have been ignored by the leaders represented by Groups #1-9. The point of the News Show is not only to understand the nine different perspectives, but also to understand both the emerging political spectrum and the developing alliances that the different people may or may not have found among similar people.


  • News Team
  • Group #1: Prince von Metternich of Austria and his advisors
  • Group #2: Prime Minister Castlereagh of Great Britain and his advisors
  • Group #3: King Frederick William III of Prussia and his advisors
  • Group #4: Tsar Alexander I of Russia and his advisors
  • Group #5: Prime Minister Talleyrand of France and his advisors
  • Group #6: Emperor Qianlong of China and his advisors
  • Group #7: Sultan Mahmud II of the Ottoman Empire and his advisors
  • Group #8: President James Monroe of the United States and his advisors
  • Group #9: Simon Bolivar of Venezuela and his advisors
  • Group #10: French peasants (who gained their land as a result of the revolution)
  • Group #11: Haitian Citizens (former slaves from St. Dominigue)
  • Group #12: Sequoya and members of the Cherokee Nation
  • Group #13: Olaudeh Equiano and his supporters among the Ibo people

Addendum E

United States and World History II
Dr. Diskant
A Large Roundtable Discussion in Three Parts
The World Around 1825: Who is in Control?
Reactionaries, Moderators, or Revolutionaries

            On Monday you will work with a partner or by yourself to prepare your position for "Newsmakers of Vienna," a simulation of the attempt to stop revolutionary changes – as shown by the success of the Austrian and British led army of stopping the gains of former emperor Napoleon in Europe and South America in the early 19th century. The objectives for the News Show are to gain an understanding of:

  • fifteen different perspectives,
  • the emerging political spectrum by the early 19th century,
  • alliances that people – leaders or subjects and/or citizens – made to advance their goals, and
  • issues – opinions and/or methods – that they kept people apart from one another who may at an initial glance have had many things in common with one another and in a "perfect" world could have worked together.

The simulation will take two days; we will have that simulation on Tuesday and Wednesday. We will hear from the leaders of the five empires (Positions One – Five) who were responsible for trying to stop these changes. In addition, we will hear from three leaders who did not participate at the Congress and whose countries were not represented at the Concert of Europe (the organization set up by the Congress) and yet may have agreed with some of the ideas articulated by the first five positions (Positions Six – Eight). But the opinions of these men did not represent all the voices in this period so the Roundtable will be opened up to additional voices – people who very much wanted change, some of whom were successful and others who failed and died in their attempts (Positions Nine – Fifteen).

            Part One: on Tuesday the men in power will speak, moderated by Emperor Qianlong of China – Position Eight — who ruled one of the most powerful empires and yet tried to work on his terms with a range of people who both agreed and disagreed with him. Then we will hear from other men in power, including reactionaries, conservatives, and moderates who also had political power, and yet disagreed with the Chinese Emperor. Meanwhile those representing those positions in favor of change will sit in the audience – the outer circle – and listen to those who oppose them. Those in the outer circle who take notes as to what they hear and learn.

            Part Two: on Wednesday those who had been in the audience will speak, moderated by Position Nine that of Monsieur and Madame Bonhomme, fictional French peasants who had gained land as a result of the radical changes ushered in by former French leader Maximilien Robespierre in the 1790's and are now content with their new position. Then we will hear from other revolutionaries, as well as liberals and those in favor of change; some of whom were successful and others of whom were not and may have been killed in their attempts (a little historical imagination brings them to the Roundtable!). Meanwhile those representing those positions in positions of power will now sit in the audience – the outer circle – and take notes as to what they hear and learn about people who oppose them.

            Part Three: the moderators of both days will open a dialogue to exchange views across the political spectrum so as to clarify the emerging political views of the early 19th century from reactionary to radical, along with conservative, moderate, and/or liberal in between. Part Four: all positions will stand in the room to create the political spectrum that existed and "shout" out your perspective for all of us to hear.


  • Position One: Prince von Metternich and his advisor, Austria
  • Position Two: King Frederick William III and his advisor, Prussia
  • Position Three: Tsar Alexander I and his advisor, Russia
  • Position Four: Prime Minister Talleyrand and his advisor, France
  • Position Five: Viscount Castlereagh and his advisor, Great Britain
  • Position Six: President James Monroe and his advisor, United States
  • Position Seven: Sultan Mahmud II and his advisor, Ottoman Empire
  • Position Eight: Emperor Qianlong (deceased) and his advisor, Chinese Qing Dynasty
  • Position Nine: Monsieur and Madame Bonhomme, fictional French peasants who had gained their land as a result of the revolution
  • Position Ten: Major Ridge and his advisor, Cherokee Nation
  • Position Eleven: Simon Bolivar and his advisor, Venezuela
  • Position Twelve: President Dessalines (deceased) and his successor, Haiti
  • Position Thirteen: Olaudeh Equiano and a supporter among the Ibo people
  • Position Fourteen: Olympe de Gouges (deceased) and a supporter who had helped gain equality temporarily for women and were later killed
  • Position Fifteen: Wolfe Tone (deceased) and an advisor of the United Irishmen who were killed for their attempts to bring freedom to Ireland

Addendum F


1.)   Homework

Make an illustration of how participants in the News Show: Newsmakers of Vienna allied with one another to achieve their common goals or how they would have fought with each other.

  • Be sure that you include most of the groups in your illustration. The best illustrations will be creative and detailed.
  • In addition to illustrating these issues and/or problems, be sure to explain in a clearly written paragraph why you organized the illustration the way you did. The paragraph should be written on a separate piece of paper.

2.)   Quiz: 6 Points

  1. Since the majority of the world's population appeared either to want change or to have their needs heard by their rulers – as represented by French peasants, former slaves, the Cherokee, and others – what appear to be the two most important reasons why they failed to unite with one another to accomplish these goals: geography, language, methods, and/or values? Explain your answers for a full 4 points.

  2. Despite the reactionary and/or conservative political alliances, what two economic reasons showed that the balance of power was shifting in this period?

  3. Journal Entry #1


4.) Self Assessment

United States and World History II
Dr. Diskant
A Large Roundtable Discussion in Two Parts
The World Around 1825: Who is in Control?
Reactionaries, Moderators, or Revolutionaries

Name:                        Period:                                   Position:

Using the school-wide rubric on Speaking, please assess yourself below. Then, answer the questions to support the assessment that you gave yourself:



Answer these questions on the reverse side:

  1. Comment on the quality of your preparation.
  2. Comment on your ability to work with your partner.
  3. Comment on your presentation.
  4. Overall grade that you think you deserve.




1 While there were some excellent sessions geared for secondary teachers at this meting, too many of them were offered at the same time so that only two people ended up attending the one that I had co-facilitated. Nonetheless, several workshop leaders inspired me in these directions and, of course, informal conversation about teaching and learning was irreplaceable.

2 This essay is continues a theme I pursued in a previous article for World History Connected, "Engaging Students to Make Meaning out of their Own Learning: Constructing Student-Centered Electives and Focusing on Student Decision-Making in Required Courses," which argues for student-construction of these courses. See For the scholarship supporting this approach, see Howard Gardner, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (NY: Basic Books, 1983) summarized in Marjorie Hall Haley, "Learner-Centered Instruction and the Theory of Multiple Intelligences with Second Language Learners" in Teachers College Record: 106: 1, January 2004, pp. 163-180; but actually people are multi-faceted and learn at different times in diverse ways, hence the term "preferences" appears to fit better.

3 This new survey is one of the appendices of one of the required readings from Marjorie Hall Haley for the graduate course that I taught at Boston College last spring: Theories of Instruction.

4 Part of the appeal of this activity, I believe, was that it involved stations, so that students were encouraged to move around in class. Given how sedentary most secondary classrooms are, teachers need to be reminded of the importance of kinesthetic learning.

5 At 9:30 am on Saturday, June 27th: "'The Emperor Rejoiced with Joy': Franciscan Missionaries and a Papal Gift to the Yuan Court in 1342: A Case of Cultural Misunderstanding"; see also William McGurn, "Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth" in Wall Street Journal, 241: 44, 3/5/03 and Lauren Arnold, Princely Gifts and Papal Treasures: The Franciscan Mission to China and Its Influence on the Art of the West, 125-1350 (SF: Desiderato Press, 1999).

6 Black teaches at Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas and Johnston at Lakeside School in Seattle, Washington. Both teachers should be familiar to World History Connected readers: Black had been a secondary teacher for more than 20 years and has shared many of interactive lessons with countless teachers. Johnston has done as well; she also used to write for World History Connected.

7 Ok; by way of full disclosure Deb Johnston and I had been colleagues at the now defunct World History Center and are still good friends; I have also worked with Linda Black on developing AP curricula.

8 This activity was adapted from "Newsmakers of Vienna," in Lesson 1, pp. 1-6 in World History: Book 3, 1815-1919 by Mary Edna Costello, Eileen Maloney, and Gary Mangan (Villa Maria, Pennsylvania: Center for Learning, 1992).

9 Materials are varied; most come from web sites; a few from collection of documents.

10 Adapted from Haley, Appendix C, pp.174-177.

11 Originally from Thomas Armstrong, 7 Kinds of Smart: Identifying and Developing Your Many Intelligences (New York: Plume/Penquin Group, 1993)

12 Haley, p. 179.



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