Teaching Method

Creating Lives

Creating Lives

Keynote Address – Teaching with Sakai Innovation Award

Sample Syllabi

Creating Lives is a teaching method I developed in which each student constructs a fictional historical character over a semester.

Students craft the life paths of their characters through weekly diary entries on a course website. They also write an analytical paragraph beneath that explains their choices. Through their avatars, on a weekly basis, students must integrate class readings, discussions, and lectures.

This method highlights the significance of everyday actions in world events, and develops the ability to shift perspectives to people from different backgrounds. It is a highly analytical endeavor. Students find it, in fact, academically more rigorous than writing traditional papers, as it requires comprehensive analysis of broad historical context in order to then take the second step of situating individuals’ experiences. This often results in closer attention to course materials and high levels of attendance and participation.

The personal nature of the assignment also leads students to connect and even identify with their characters, fostering research and exploration that goes far beyond the classroom. In an outside survey of 120 students in one freshman lecture course I taught, 73% of respondents said that they sought out additional resources. More than half (60%) reported talking about their characters to others, with 62% reporting that they personalized their avatars by incorporating some of their own personal history or attributes.


“Creating Lives in the Classroom,” The Chronicle of Higher Education - Edith Sheffer

“Creating Lives: Fictional Characters in the History Classroom," Perspectives on History - Edith Sheffer and Kathryn Ciancia

“Professors for the 21st Century: Team-Teaching Toward the PhD at Stanford," Huffington Post

“Creating Coherence with Conceptual Maps,” Berkeley Teaching & Resource Center

“Professors aim to revamp classroom education," Stanford Daily - Edith Sheffer and Kathryn Ciancia

“Germany, World Wars, & the Wiki: How Edith Sheffer and her Students Got a New Perspective on History," Teaching with Coursework, Stanford University - Keli Amann