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What in the World? December History Lessons You Can Teach at Home (Part 2)

by David Engle | Dec 10, 2020 | 11 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 already took a look at the first half of December…the second half of December is so packed with important history, it’s going to take two more posts to fit it all in! Here’s part 2 of 3!

December 16, 1773: The Boston Tea Party takes place. One of the more famous events leading up to the Revolutionary War, the Boston Tea Party was a protest of the Tea Act, which was passed by the British government and gave the East India Company control over all tea trade in the colonies and granted the company exclusive rights to all tea sales in the colonies. Not surprisingly, the colonists were none too pleased with this development. Tea tax was already high, so many colonists smuggled in Dutch tea to avoid the steep costs. The smuggling was damaging the East India Company, as they bought, sold, and traded goods from Asia, where much of their tea leaves came from. So, because of the Tea Act, colonists would no longer be able to afford their favorite drink. It also represented yet one more way the British government oppressed the colonists–such as the Stamp Act and the Townshend Acts as well as the Boston Massacre. They had enough.

The Sons of Liberty, a secret group of patriots (that included Patrick Henry, Paul Revere, Benedict Arnold, Samuel Adams, and John Hancock) who often held violent and extreme protests against British rule, led a group of more than 100 men disguised as Mohawk Indians to the East India Company’s ships docked in Boston Harbor. Once there, the group dumped 342 crates of tea into the harbor, costing the British company what would amount to nearly two million dollars today. The Boston Tea Party led to a string of events (the Coercive/Intolerable Acts imposed by the British government) that led to the First Continental Congress convening in 1774 and ultimately the American Revolution. Dig deeper into the Boston Tea Party and the British taxes and oppression that caused the protest. Then look at subsequent events, including the Revolutionary War. Given today’s social climate, this is a great opportunity to go learn about the Sons of Liberty and their leaders who fought for what they believed was right.

December 16, 1770: Ludwig van Beethoven is born. One of the most famous and influential composers of all time, Ludwig van Beethoven was born on this day in Bonn, Cologne, Germany. At a young age, Beethoven’s father began to vigorously teach young Ludwig how to play music, at times resorting to physical and emotional abuse. Beethoven made his recital debut at the age of seven, playing an impressive showing but not leaving much of an impression on the audience. By age 10, Ludwig had dropped out of school to pursue his musical studies full time; at age 12, he published his first composition. When he was 17, Beethoven left Germany for Vienna, Austria, then Europe’s epicenter of music and culture. However, after only a few weeks, he returned home to Bonn to be with his ill mother; while there, he began to create a reputation for himself and was summoned to compose a piece of music to honor the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II upon his death in 1790.

Just two years later, Beethoven returned to Vienna and studied piano with Joseph Haydn (at the time, considered the greatest composer in the world), vocal composition with Antonio Salieri, and counterpoint with Johann Albrechtsberger. He made his public debut in Vienna on March 29, 1795, playing what is known as his first piano concerto in C Major. Shortly after, Beethoven published a series of three piano trios as his Opus 1, earning him tremendous critical and financial success. In April of 1800, Beethoven debuted Symphony No. 1 in C Major at the Royal Imperial Theater in Vienna, which cemented his status as one of Europe’s most famous composers. The following year, Ludwig van Beethoven realized he was losing his hearing. While he was still playing and composing beautiful music (the period between 1803 and 1812 saw him compose an opera, six symphonies, four solo concerti, five string quartets, six-string sonatas, seven piano sonatas, five sets of piano variations, four overtures, four trios, two sextets, and 72 songs, including Moonlight Sonata symphonies No. 3-8 and the opera Fidelio), Beethoven was not a happy man. He remained alone and bitter, paranoid and miserable, short-tempered and greedy. Beethoven passed away in 1827 at the age of 56, leaving behind some of the most prolific works of music in the world. Use this lesson to study famous pieces such as Eroica: Symphony No. 3, Symphony No. 5, Fur Elise, Symphony No. 7, Ode to Joy: Symphony No. 9, and String Quartet No. 14.

December 16, 1775: Author Jane Austen is born. If only Jane Austen lived in another time, she might have been able to see just how successful and adored her novels would become. Sadly, this was not the case. Ms. Austen did experience a fair amount of success in the early 1810s, as she published a string of both critically acclaimed and financially rewarding works: Sense and Sensibility in 1811, Pride and Prejudice in 1813, Mansfield Park in 1814, and Emma in 1815. While these novels received their share of praise and earned her a nice sum, Ms. Austen was never truly recognized as the brilliant creator of these works…because she published them anonymously. Not until after she passed away at the early age of 41 in 1817 did she receive the acclaim she was due. That’s because, upon her death, Jane’s brother Henry and sister Cassandra published two of her completed, but never released, novels entitled Northanger Abbey and Persuasion as a collection. For this collection, Henry wrote a tribute to his sister, identifying Jane as the author and publicly connecting her to her previous works for the first time.

It wasn’t until the 20th century, however, that Jane Austen became a true household name–especially with younger generations of readers. While her works had been sporadically adapted into TV movies or miniseries here and there, in 1995 there was a Jane Austen explosion. That year alone saw four of her works adapted into either major TV productions or motion pictures, most notably: Clueless, a modern-day interpretation of Emma, starring Alicia Silverstone and Paul Rudd; Pride and Prejudice, a BBC TV miniseries starring Colin Firth; and Sense and Sensibility, directed by Ang Lee and starring Emma Thompson, Hugh Grant, and Kate Winslet in her breakout Hollywood role. The following year, Academy Award-winning actress Gwyneth Paltrow starred as the title character in Emma; in 1999, the film Mansfield Park was released to critical praise; 2001 saw Pride and Prejudice adapted into the extremely popular Bridget Jones’s Diary starring Oscar winner Renee Zelweger; in 2005, Keira Knightley headlined an all-star cast in the box office hit Pride & Prejudice. And those are just the most notable–there have been dozens more movies and TV series based on the works of Jane Austen as she finally received the credit she deserved. Pick a few of her novels and conduct in-depth lessons and activities centered around the prominent characters and themes.

December 17, 1903: The Wright Brothers launch the first successful airplane flights in Kitty Hawk, NC. It required a lot of patience–three years’ worth, in fact. But on December 17, 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright finally took to the air in the first powered aircraft at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. In the first-ever flight, Orville flew the Wright Flyer I approximately 120 feet on a 12-second trip. Wilbur followed by navigating the plane around 175 feet; Orville then took the aircraft about 200 feet; finally, Wilbur piloted the fourth and final flight of the day, piloting the Wright Flyer I for a 59-second, 852-foot journey at noon. A flight lasting a minute? No big deal, right? Wrong. These brief flights meant everything to the history of aviation, even if recognition didn’t come immediately.

In fact, it took a trip to France for the Wright Brothers to earn their proper due. The Wrights became larger-than-life celebrities in Europe by 1908, gaining major press and selling many planes before returning to the United States in 1909. Once home, the Wright Brothers’ wealth in Europe finally translated to success in the States as they embarked on a lucrative business career filling contracts for airplanes in both Europe and America. Wilbur, unfortunately, wasn’t able to revel in their success for long as he contracted typhoid fever and died in 1912 at the age of 45. Orville, however, was able to see the impact of their 1903 flights at Kitty Hawk, an event that paved the way for aviation as we know it today. If you haven’t been or are unable to get to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC to see the original Wright Flyer, you can explore the exhibit here. Then use this lesson to go more in-depth into the history of aviation or even other forms of transportation that are still in use today.

December 21, 1988: Pan Am Flight 103 is bombed above Scotland. From a celebration of flight to a tragic day in flight. Prior to 9/11, Pan Am Flight 103 may have been considered the most lethal act of air terrorism in history. The flight, bound for New York City, took off from London’s Heathrow Airport on the cold evening of December 21. Aboard the flight were 259 passengers and crew, which included 189 Americans. Not even 40 minutes into the trip, the plane exploded at 30,000 feet above Lockerbie, Scotland, killing everyone on the plane as well as 11 Scottish citizens on the ground. The debris scattered across 845 miles of Scotland, making this an extremely difficult case to solve as potential clues were spread across such a wide area. The FBI teamed with police investigators from Great Britain, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland in hopes of piecing together this devastating tragedy.

After seemingly endless hours of investigation, forensic experts were able to determine that a bomb had been used in a radio/cassette tape player from a piece of the device’s circuit board found on the ground–no bigger than a fingernail. From there, the team of investigators traced the evidence to a pair of Libyan intelligence operatives. Finally, in November of 1991, the United States and Scotland indicted them for planting the bomb. It took nearly another decade to extradite the men and bring them to trial–on January 31, 2001, one of the men was found guilty; the other was released. Since then, the Libyan government has formally taken responsibility for the tragic event and agreed to pay approximately $3 billion in settlements to the victims’ families. Unfortunately, awful events like these are part of our history…it may be painful to take deeper looks into them, but it’s also important to understand the ramifications of these incidents, including 9/11, and other heinous terrorist acts, and how they shaped the way countries fight terrorism today.

December 21, 1879: Josef Stalin is born in Georgia, Russia. Depending on which side of history you’re on, Josef Stalin could be viewed as a national hero or a ruthless dictator who gave no thought to sacrificing lives for his own expansion of power. Born Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, Stalin went through life craving greatness and respect and spared no mercy on those who he perceived as disloyal to him. His rise to power began sometime around 1922, when he was named the General Secretary of the Communist Party’s Central Committee. With this position, he consolidated power and manipulated staff in a way that people in these positions felt obligated to him. By 1924, after Vladimir Lenin’s death, Stalin had gone about destroying the political careers of all leaders of the old Communist Party by removing them from their positions. When those same people spoke out or wrote words of protest against him, Stalin changed gears and put them on trial as “enemies of the people” who were working against him–then he had them all shot. One political opponent of Stalin’s, an exile named Leon Trotsky, was tracked down in Mexico City and murdered. Stalin did not stop there, however–since everyone with a higher education was considered to be a threat, he made sure those people were silenced as well. He still wasn’t finished. Stalin’s economic policy pushed forward with the goal of rapid industrialization. The cost to achieve this? Millions of human lives. Peasants and farmers were murdered, innocent citizens were arrested and forced into cheap labor, and millions died from the famine that Stalin created as well as in the camps of the dreaded Gulag.

In 1939, Stalin agreed to a pact with Nazi Party leader Adolf Hitler in which both parties divided Poland and promised no military action against one another. With this pact, Stalin no longer worried about a threat from Hitler, and he banished those who warned him of such an event. Stalin felt secure in his allegiance to the Axis Powers, enough so that during this time he annexed the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) and murdered 15,000 Polish soldiers in order to conquer Poland. So, the Soviet Union was completely unprepared when Hitler did indeed attack in 1941, costing the Soviet Union both Belarus and Ukraine. The Germans were inching closer to the Kremlin in Moscow when the Red Army was finally able to change the course of the war at the Battle of Stalingrad in 1943. By this time, Stalin now found himself aligned with the Allied Powers and their leaders–President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. The three met at the Tehran and Yalta Conferences in 1943 and 1945 to discuss the post-World War II landscape. During these talks, Stalin demanded Eastern European countries be given to him so that he could create a Soviet bloc in Europe and make the Soviet Union a world superpower. Agreements between the three countries included stipulations that prohibited communism from spreading throughout Europe–however, Stalin ignored many of those provisions, which ultimately led to the Cold War. Still, Stalin got what he was seeking all along–the Nazis and Hitler were defeated, the Soviet Union was now a world superpower with seats at the United Nations table, and he finally had the respect he always craved. That didn’t stop him from executing soldiers and refugees returning to the Soviet Union after the war. By 1953, even the Kremlin had seen enough, and it was revealed that they were plotting to murder Stalin. They never got the opportunity–Stalin died on his own in 1953, a hero to his loyal followers, a villain to all others.

Whew! Certainly a lot to unpack when it comes to the life and reign of Josef Stalin. Take a deeper look at his nefarious strategies as well as his role in World War II, the expansion of the Soviet Union, and even the Cold War.

December 22, 1912: First Lady Lady Bird Johnson is born. Born Claudia Alta Taylor in Karnack, Texas, the future First Lady of the United States of America received her famous nickname, “Lady Bird” as a young girl. After graduating from the University of Texas, she met Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1934, and they were married that same year. For the next several years, Lady Bird helped advance her husband’s political career by keeping his Congressional office operating when he was serving in World War II, and in 1955 she ensured his staff was running things smoothly after he suffered a heart attack during his time as Senate Majority Leader.

Upon John F. Kennedy’s presidential election victory in 1960 (which also meant LBJ’s vice presidential election victory), Lady Bird went on an unprecedented goodwill ambassador tour of 33 foreign countries. In 1963, the Johnsons unexpectedly moved into the White House after the tragic assassination of President Kennedy that November. The famous photo of Lyndon Johnson being sworn in on Air Force One shortly after JFK died depicts Lady Bird Johnson standing by her husband on one side, with a distraught Jacqueline Kennedy on the other. During her six years as First Lady, Lady Bird created the First Lady’s Committee for a More Beautiful Capital (and later, the entire country), which focused on keeping cities throughout America litter-free. She also participated in President Johnson’s War on Poverty initiative, particularly the Head Start program for preschool children, which is still thriving today. After President Johnson’s second term ended in 1969, the family returned to Texas. The former president passed away in 1973, while Lady Bird kept going until 2007. Her time in the White House helped revolutionize the role of First Lady, and you can take this time to teach about other famous First Ladies and their contributions.

December 23, 1947: The transistor is successfully demonstrated at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey. The key component to any electronic device is a controllable valve that lets a weak signal control a much larger flow. At least according to “The History of the Transistor” by San Jose State University. That technology did not exist until December 23. 1947, when William Shockley, John Bardeen, and Walter Brattain introduced the transistor at Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey. The transistor changed the course of electronics–and the world–forever.

In 1952, the junction transistor was first used in a commercial product–a Sonotone hearing aid. By 1954, Texas Instruments began commercial production of junction transistors for portable radios. Soon after, Sony acquired the right to produce transistors and took over the market, using them to produce televisions that no longer required the use of vacuum tubes–rendering that technology obsolete in the not-so-distant future. Think about personal computers. Would the world be even remotely the same or as advanced as it is today without them? Well, without a transistor, there is no personal computer. And without a personal computer–just take a second to think about that. The transistor is arguably the most important invention in modern history. Craft a lesson about what other electronics were made possible thanks to the invention, and explore some other major inventions that changed the world, as well as their inventors–Alexander Graham Bell, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Edison to name a few.

That does it for the second part of December’s historical figures and events! I hope you had fun teaching (and learning about) all these timely topics. We’ve got one more post for December’s events and lesson topics, 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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