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What in the World? December History Lessons You Can Teach at Home (Part 1)

by David Engle | Dec 01, 2020 | 12 min read

This is a fascinating world we live in. When you step back and look at it, something historic has happened literally every single day. Sure, some events are bigger and more important than others, but think about it…history is made every day.

In this new, regular blog series, we’re going to look at world history by month, with two blog posts each month that list momentous events in the history of the world–and inspiration for lessons that you can teach your children at home!

We took a look at historic October events here and here. Then we reviewed some important dates in November here and here. Now, onto December!

December 1, 1955: The modern American civil rights movement is born. December is a key month when it comes to milestones related to the civil rights movement. On this day, Rosa Parks, a Black woman, was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama. Why? Because she refused to give up her seat on the municipal bus to a White man. Nor would she move to the rear of the bus. Her arrest is arguably the most important moment in civil rights history, as it launched a yearlong boycott of the city bus system by Blacks in Montgomery (just four days later, on December 5, 1955) and led to legal actions that put an end to segregation on municipal buses across the South. The boycott ended on December 20, 1956 with the United States Supreme Court ruling that public transportation would be integrated. This was a monumental step toward racial equality and desegregation, especially in southern states. Take this event and use it as an opportunity to discuss Rosa Parks’ heroism and dignity in the face of racism, then dive into more milestones of the American civil rights movement. Some noteworthy names include Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, the recently passed John Lewis, Bayard Rustin, Robert Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson, just to name some. There are also plenty of events that occurred during the 1950s and 1960s alone, including Freedom Rides, Brown v. Board of Education, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Selma to Montgomery march and the March on Washington, DC, and the Greensboro Sit-In.

December 1, 1990: England and mainland Europe are finally connected. This date is more of a technicality, but it’s still pretty cool. As you’re most likely aware, England and Europe had been separated by the English Channel since, well…the Ice Age! But on December 1, 1990, engineers digging a railway tunnel beneath the English Channel penetrated the last rock layer, finally connecting England to the mainland. Now, it wouldn’t be until May 6, 1994 when the “Chunnel” (as it’s affectionately called) would open to the public, but this is still an historic date. Today, the Chunnel accommodates passengers in cars or on motorcycles and bikes via the the Eurotunnel, which takes you from Southern England to Calais in Northern France in a matter of approximately 35 minutes; this is particularly convenient for families taking their holiday in mainland Europe, as you can pack as many people and belongings as can safely fit in your vehicle and simply cruise across the Chunnel in your car. Conversely, the Chunnel can be used for train passengers via the Eurostar train, which departs from London, Ashford, and Ebbsfleet in England and makes direct stops in Paris, Brussels, Euro Disney, and beyond. This event opens the doors to lessons on modern engineering, innovations in transportation, and even the history of the English Channel.

December 2, 1804: Napoleon Bonaparte is crowned Emperor of France in Paris. In typical Napoleon fashion, the then-35-year-old Frenchman actually crowned himself–he took the crown handed to him by Pope Pius VII and placed it atop his own head. With that gesture, Napoleon Bonaparte became the first Frenchman in 1,000 years to be crowned an emperor. Prior to this historic event, Napoleon rose quickly through the ranks of the French Revolutionary Army before returning home in 1799 to help save the French government. He got to work quickly, defeating Austria in battle in 1800, enforcing the Napoleonic Code system of French law in 1802, and created the French Empire by 1804. In just three years, Napoleon’s rule stretched well into Southern Italy. He enjoyed his powerful reign over the next several years, but by 1812, Napoleon began to lose his touch. He suffered a devastating and disastrous invasion of Russia, he lost Spain in the Peninsular War, and was exiled to the island of Elba in 1814. Napoleon managed to escape to France the following year and created the Grand Army that ultimately suffered its signature defeat to the Duke of Wellington in Waterloo on June 18, 1815. He was exiled to an island off of Africa and died there in 1821 at the age of 51. Napoleon’s body was returned to France 19 years later, when it was carried through the Arc de Triomphe and entombed under the dome of the Invalides. Expand upon these events and dig deeper into Napoleon’s life and empire as well as some of the battles he won and lost.

December 5, 1901: Walt Disney is born. Not much explanation needed here. Walt Disney, the legend who created, well, most of the entertainment you enjoy today, was born on this day in Chicago. As a young boy, Walt showed artistic talent drawing farm animals and parlayed that ability into a job as an artist. But his imagination took him far beyond anything he could have possibly dreamed, when in 1928, Walt Disney produced Steamboat Willie, the debut of everyone’s favorite mascot, Mickey Mouse. Steamboat Willie also happened to be the first cartoon ever to feature synchronized sound. Walt created more short features, most notably the groundbreaking Silly Symphony short film The Three Little Pigs, which was released in 1933 and took home the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film in 1934. That film served as the springboard for Walt’s biggest success–the first full-length animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, released in 1937. This was simply the first blockbuster and global sensation in a string of unprecedented success that lasted into the 1980s, slumping a bit, and then resurging in the 1990s–to this day, the Disney empire is a freight train that simply can’t be stopped. Walt capitalized on his incredible success by opening Disneyland in Anaheim, California in 1955, followed by Walt Disney World outside Orlando, Florida in 1971. Unfortunately, Walt did not survive to see the completion or opening of the Florida theme park; he passed away in 1966. Today, Disney is a worldwide media powerhouse, with ownership of innumerable properties–Star Wars, Marvel, ESPN, ABC, Pixar, The Muppets franchise, the Indiana Jones franchise, and so much more. Use Walt Disney’s magical creations as a jumping-off point to discuss media empires, pop culture, and entertainment history.

December 6, 1865: Slavery is abolished with the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Those are the words of the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution, which was ratified on this date, effectively ending slavery. This amendment essentially served as a follow-up to President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, during which he declared, “all persons held as slaves within any State, or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” Unfortunately, these words did not officially end slavery–it took the ratification of the 13th Amendment to do so, and this date is an important milestone for America. This is a great opportunity to learn more about the ugly history of slavery, the Civil War, President Lincoln, and the efforts of abolitionists to end slavery once and for all.

December 6, 1877: Thomas Edison finishes and demonstrates his newest invention–the phonograph. The first words recorded on phonograph? “Mary had a little lamb.” This is the phrase Thomas Edison uttered in his laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey while demonstrating the phonograph, which used a revolving cylinder wrapped in foil to record sound. The unique invention was a bit of a hybrid of the telegraph and the telephone; the phonograph used a diaphragm that had an embossing point and held against rapidly-moving paraffin paper (Edison later switched the paper in favor of a metal cylinder with foil). Speaking vibrations would create indentations on the paper, so Edison equipped his new machine with two diaphragm-and-needle units–one for recording and one for playback. The phonograph certainly shaped the music industry in the years to follow, but it had many other practical uses during the late 19th century, including letter-writing and dictation without the need for a stenographer, phonographic books for the blind, family recordings for remembrance, music boxes and toys, speaking clocks, teaching languages, and other educational uses. What better time to further explore Thomas Edison and his many inventions as well as their importance to us even today.

December 7, 1787: Delaware becomes the first state to adopt the new Constitution of the United States of America. Delaware became known as the First State because, well, they were the first to ratify the US Constitution. Ratifying this new constitution was in Delaware’s best interests because they were (and still are) small in size, population, economy, and military; joining a larger body (the United States) with its national government, taxes, and defense would put the tiny state on equal footing with the rest of the soon-to-be states. Delaware is the second-smallest state by area and is home to president-elect Joe Biden.

December 7, 1941: Japan bombs the US Naval Base at Pearl Harbor. A date which will live in infamy. It was just before 8:00 am on that Sunday morning–sailors were preparing for leave, going through the paces of a normal military routine before gathering for church services on Ford Island and Pearl Harbor in Oahu, Hawaii. Around Oahu, US Marines and Army soldiers at naval air bases were performing similar routines. And then the attack came, without warning. Japanese torpedo planes launched their weapons at Battleship Row, striking Battleships West Virginia, California, Oklahoma, and Nevada. Dive-bombers blew up airplane hangars and other nearby buildings and aircraft at Hickam Field. Bombs dropped from high above destroyed the USS Arizona and other battleships. Fighter planes shot at military personnel and aircraft. It wasn’t over, however. About a half-hour later, the second wave hit, with Japanese aircraft hitting many of the same targets, further disabling–but not defeating–the Pacific Fleet. And then it was over.

When all was said and done, and the smoke finally cleared and the fires were finally extinguished, the Japanese had crippled or destroyed nearly 20 American naval vessels and 300 airplanes. More tragically, 2,403 people–sailors, soldiers, and citizens–were killed, and approximately 1,000 more were wounded. The attack on Pearl Harbor was devastating…but it did not stop the US. Though the Japanese destroyed many aircraft and buildings, they failed to neutralize some of the island’s most important onshore resources and facilities: repair shops, shipyards, submarine docks, and oil storage depots. This allowed the Navy to get back on its feet somewhat quickly. The following day, addressing Congress, President Franklin D. Roosevelt uttered these unforgettable words: “Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.” That same day, President Roosevelt declared war on Japan, which would prove to have devastating consequences. Three days later, Germany and Italy, allies of Japan, declared war on the United States. And thus began World War II.

Nearly 80 years later, the attack on Pearl Harbor continues to be one of the most devastating and tragic events in American history. FDR’s words still ring true, making this an important and sobering history lesson that could expand to battles and leaders of World War II, the subsequent bombings of Japan, and the aftermath of the war.

December 8, 1991: The USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics), aka the Soviet Union, is dissolved. It was a gradual process that more or less began in 1989, when Mikhail Gorbachev decided to loosen the Soviet’s grip on Eastern European countries. The dominos began to fall shortly thereafter: the newfound sense of independence and democracy in Eastern Europe led to the fall of the Berlin Wall in November of 1989, which preceded the overthrow of communism throughout the region. After consulting with President George H.W. Bush in late 1989, Gorbachev decided to allow multi-party elections–including a new presidency–that would allow democratization of the country to begin. One of the first steps toward the fall of communism in Eastern Europe was the removal of Red Army troops from East Germany. Internationally, the plan was going quite well–at home in the Soviet Union, however, Gorbachev was facing increasing pressure to keep the USSR intact. Soon, the Baltic States were demanding freedom from Moscow, which led to violence in Latvia and Lithuania in early 1991. Later that year, in August, hard-line Communists staged an unsuccessful coup against Gorbachev–but it was enough to diminish Gorbachev’s power to the point that democratic politician Boris Yeltsin gained some of that power; Gorbachev resigned as head of the Communist Party shortly thereafter. More dominos proceeded to fall.

Belarus and Ukraine declared independence from the Soviet Union just days after the coup. After meeting with President Bush, Secretary of State James Baker, and Gorbachev, Yeltsin and leaders from newly independent Belarus and Ukraine formed the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) on December 8, 1991, thereby extinguishing the Soviet Union. On Christmas Day 1991, the Soviet flag was lowered at the Kremlin and the new Russian flag was raised in its place. Boris Yeltsin became the first-ever president of Russia, while 12 new independent republics–Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Ukraine, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan–as well as the Baltics were recognized and formalized by May 1992. This major event can branch into lessons about the Cold War, Communism and its leaders, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and other Eastern European countries and events.

December 10, 1898: America and Spain sign the Treaty of Paris. Not to be confused with the Treaty of Paris signed in 1783, this Treaty of Paris was an agreement forged between America and Spain, giving the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico to the United States, as well as the promise of Spain to withdraw from Cuba following Spain’s defeat in the Spanish-American War. Giving up three countries and ceding control of another seems a bit one-sided, doesn’t it? Well, that’s the price a country pays for losing a war. President William McKinley was more or less pressed into this war, as Spain destroyed the battleship USS Maine in Havana’s harbor in February of 1898, killing 260 Americans. In late April, Spain and the US declared war upon each other, and on May 1, Commodore George Dewey took out the Spanish Fleet at Manila Bay in the Philippines during the war’s first battle. This victory allowed the US to occupy Manila and eventually force the Spanish to surrender the Philippines. Meanwhile, in Santiago, Cuba, a naval force and US Army ground troops–among them, Theodore Roosevelt and his “Rough Riders”–attacked the Spanish and won the Battle of San Juan Hill in early July. Within a couple of weeks, the Spanish surrendered Santiago–and Cuba, thus ending the six-month war. On December 10, the two sides signed the Treaty of Paris, officially ending the conflict. Take a deeper dive into the Spanish-American War and go over the heroics of the “Rough Riders” as part of your history lessons.

December 10, 1830: Poet Emily Dickinson is born. Emily Dickinson’s story is not your typical tale of success. In fact, one could argue that she experienced very little success–at least poetically–during her 55 years. The reason why is because none of her poetry was published until four years after her death. Her family happened to discover nearly 2,000 poems–written on scraps of paper, the back of recipes and shopping lists, and any other piece of paper that happened to be nearby–bound by hand in approximately 40 volumes, which they had published in 1890. It wasn’t until the 20th century that Americans recognized what a treasure they had in Ms. Dickinson, who today is considered one of literature’s greatest icons. Ms. Dickinson gained a reputation as an eccentric recluse, only leaving her father’s home in Amherst, Massachusetts to attend what is now Mount Holyoke College for one year, to take two brief trips to Philadelphia and Washington, DC, and to see a doctor in Boston about eye problems. But this reputation has not overshadowed the brilliance of her work, which featured simple subject matter such as the robins, bees, household items, and other everyday items found at her father’s home; the simplicity, however, was conveyed through lyric poems that, according to a Virginia Commonwealth University biography of the poet, “captured impressions of particular moments, scenes, or moods” as she focused on “topics such nature, love, immortality, death, faith, doubt, pain, and the self.”

Her poems defied standard conventions of the day, utilizing “slant rhyme,” using strange capitalization and punctuation, and generally lacking titles. Ms. Dickinson’s first published works were altered by the publishers, printed out of order, with titles, and edited from the original manuscripts. It wasn’t until 1981, when editor Ralph Franklin took on the arduous task of reassembling her poems based on physical evidence on the papers themselves, that Emily Dickinson’s works were published as they might have been intended in The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson. Explore other great poets of the 19th and 20th centuries, and take deeper looks into the meanings of Emily Dickinson’s poetry.

December 14, 1799: George Washington dies at Mount Vernon. We all know that George Washington was the first President of the United States, that he was a successful general during the Revolutionary War, and that he’s the face of the one-dollar bill. But he accomplished so much more before he passed away in his Mount Vernon bedroom on this date at the age of 67. He didn’t suffer a long illness, but his final few days were difficult and uncomfortable as what seemed to originate as a cold and sore throat developed into something much more serious. After various treatments by multiple doctors, George Washington died surrounded by his wife Martha as well as close friends between 10 and 11 on the night of December 14. Among some of his (possibly) lesser-known accomplishments include being elected as a delegate to the First Continental Congress in 1774, serving as commander in chief of the Continental Army in 1775, organizing the first US Cabinet and Executive Branch as the first President of the United States, creating the US Navy in 1794, signing the Pinckney’s Treaty that reopened the Mississippi River to American ships after the Spanish had it partially closed, appearing as one of the first two faces on a US postage stamp, becoming the only president to have a state named in his honor, and being posthumously honored with the incredibly rare rank of six-star general–also known as the General of the Armies of the United States–in 1976. So much to learn about George Washington, including the Revolutionary War, the first American government, and any of the other achievements listed above.

December 15, 1832: Famous engineer Alexandre Gustave Eiffel is born in Dijon, France. World-renowned for his–you guessed it–Eiffel Tower, Gustave Eiffel was a French civil engineer who actually designed another of the most iconic structures in the world. After some early projects, Eiffel solidified his reputation as a world-class engineer with the design of the arched Gallery of the Machines for the Paris Exhibition of 1867. In 1876, he designed the 525-foot steel arched Ponte Maria Bridge over the Douro River in Portugal. He’d use that same design 20 years later to create the 540-foot Garabit viaduct in Truyere, France which, at 400 feet above water, was the highest bridge in the world for several years.

Rewind back to 1879 when Eiffel took over as the lead internal engineer of a project after the initial engineer died. This job involved creating a support system for a statue that would rely on a skeletal structure to support the copper skin of the statue. Eiffel and team then built the statue from the ground up and then dismantled it for its journey to its ultimate destination–New York Harbor, where the Statue of Liberty still stands as a representation of all that is great about the United States of America. But it was in 1889 when Gustave Eiffel truly made a name for himself–literally. It was then that the Eiffel Tower was unveiled to amazed onlookers at the Universal Exposition in Paris. At 984 feet, it was the tallest structure in the world and an instant tourist attraction. But it certainly wasn’t appreciated for its beauty until years later. Eiffel’s famous works are a perfect introduction to architecture, engineering, and other famous landmarks.

That does it for historical figures and events through the first half of December. Stay tuned for the second half of the month, coming soon! In the meantime, check out our partner site,, for more fun and factual lessons!

David Engle
Hello, and thanks for reading! I’m David Engle--dad, husband, sports fan, and writer/editor. As a father for the last 18 years (father of two for the last 14), I consider myself to be pretty well-versed in all things related to education, childhood, and parenting, and I'm thankful for the opportunity to share some insights and knowledge with fellow parents. I have been a professional writer and editor for a quarter of a century (it pains me to admit that) and have been writing in the educational space for a number of those years. I reside in southern New Jersey with my wife, two kids, two dogs, and three cats. Never a dull moment.
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