Kids and a Sense of History

I remember my own introduction to US History half a century ago: boring. Behavior and grunt memorization were the keynotes of history, with side-trips for making graphs and tables. Always, of course, with the US of A as Number One In All Things.

The American Revolution was (since I think in visuals) a blurred and static image of lofty, Zeus-browed men dressed in white wigs and satin with knee-buckles, shooting documents like the Declaration and the Constitution straight from their foreheads into textbooks, to be memorized and tested on. It wasn’t until I stumbled onto historical fiction that the astounding notion of historical men were…actual…human beings occurred. There weren’t any historical women in those days, unless they were very saintly and martyred, or evil and then they wouldn’t tell us what for. Through fiction I made the astonishing discovery that the famous men were dads and brothers and sons and best friends!

(This was YA literature. In fifth grade the idea of historical men being lovers was even squickier than worms in sandwiches.)

So when I was a fifth grade teacher, doing the state required unit on US History, I paused in the text as often as I could and played “imagine” with the kids. Their restlessness would cease as I described what it must have been like sitting in those brick and stone buildings, windows closed, air stuffy (but at least the bluebottles were shut out) trying to invent a government from scratch, because how could you make it work without a king? While wondering if the Redcoats would break in and haul them off to a personalized hanging. Benjamin Franklin’s “We must all hang together or surely we will hang separately” took some explaining, but you know what showed up on almost every test after that particular chapter? Most got the dates right, many got the names right, but just about every kid in my class talked about the heat, the fear, and the bluebottles–and Benjamin Franklin worrying about them being hauled off and hanged.

Kids, like adults, respond deeply to experience, both lived through and shared. Isn’t that was ‘story’ is really about? To my students, the assassination of JFK lay in the loooong, grayish smear of The Past. He was just a name amid a jumble of men’s names, with no surrounding context–except that he was shot.

One year I told the kids what it was like on that day. Of course I was no eye-witness. I was a seventh grader in Los Angeles. But those kids listened with every cell in their bodies as I described how frightening it was to come into class after lunch, to find our history teacher distraught. Teachers didn’t have emotions, except for crabby when the class was bad, and neutral otherwise. But here was Mr H, who had a week before been showing us so proudly the blurry snapshot of his newborn son Joey, sitting there with his mouth pressed in a line, and when he asked for quiet his voice was hoarse.

But you didn’t ask personal questions in those days. Then the overhead speaker came on, and when the principal himself came on (unheard of!) and announced that the President of the United States had been shot, but was in the hospital and doctors were working on him to save his life, we all looked at one another in shock, some laughing the way people do to try to jettison feelings, some of us terrorized because surely that meant the Russian ‘commies’ were poised to drop an atom bomb on us before the end of class. The worst thing, the absolute worst, was when we turned to Mr H for cues and saw his head bowed, his hand hiding his eyes. Hisses rustled back from the first row, “The teacher is crying!” I recall pressing my arms over my gnawing stomach as I waited for the bombs we’d been hearing about ever since kindergarten, when we had those weekly bomb drills.

As years went by, I discovered that anyone old enough to remember that day could pinpoint where they were and what they were doing. That emotional proximity to great events cements them in memory, making us a part of them.

I told the fifth graders five years ago that their own kids and even grandkids might ask them to tell the story of where they were when the twin towers came down. The class reaction was “Ooooooh!” They did know some history, in the sense of feeling a part of it. The lesson about personal history (special days just to you), and family history (days that are special to your family, but others don’t care about) and the widening rings of interest, depending on impact, were just barely in view.

When I taught high school history, I could go more deeply into causes and effects of the French Revolution by relating the great events to personal histories. How at the beginning people were on fire with joy, because everybody of whatever social degree had the right to speak out. Like the butcher’s daughter Olympe de Gouges, who offered to defend King Louis before the Convention. Her Declaration of the Rights of Women seemed harbinger of true civilization for half the population of Europe . . . until 1793, of course, when the Committee decided that women out of their places were as threatening to “peace” as aristocrats, monks, priests, and nuns, writers, and the many, many other types of human they had to stamp out for the good of the nation.

I tried to get across how especially in the bright early days, participants–and everybody could be one if you could get to a Paris coffee house and offer a needed skill–had a strong sense of making history–so many writings and speeches began with this awareness–and how that began inexorably to unravel as one man’s, or woman’s ‘history’ collided with another’s, and conflicts increasingly were resolved with violence because there were no laws in place, no customs, even, showing how to deal with conflict. All that had gone out the window along with aristocratic trappings. What happens when my idea of law is not yours? How can we enforce it if there are no judges, lawyers, or police? Either we talk it out . . . or we fight it out.

I’d read them Wordsworth in 1805, after Napoleon had thrown over Talleyrand’s patched-up Peace of Amiens, and so Talleyrand withdrew to watch the comet burn himself out, and plan what to do with the remains. Wordsworth only knew that the peace had failed, so he wrote about the French Revolution, “As it Appeared to Enthusiasts at its Commencement”:

OH! pleasant exercise of hope and joy!
For mighty were the auxiliars which then stood
Upon our side, we who were strong in love!
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!–Oh! times,
In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways
Of custom, law, and statute, took at once
The attraction of a country in romance!

Wow, does that sound familiar to many of us who were young and strong in the sixties? (Though let’s not get too romantical: for us in L.A. ’69 was not the “Summer of Love” as at Woodstock, it was the summer of hellish heat, boys our age being summarily shipped off to Vietnam, the Watts Riots, and Charles Manson’s rampage. )

Anyway, showing kids that ‘history’ is every person’s story gathered into patterns, and that they are part of history right now, as they live, breathe, listen, and make decisions that effect others, the events of the past came alive, just a little.



Kids and a Sense of History — 26 Comments

  1. I wish you’d been one of my history teachers. Or even all my history teachers up through high school, and a few in college as well. I hated history — total snoozefest, especially since my brain isn’t wired for rote memorization, which as you say is what 90% of history is at the lower levels — until my mom started lending me her historical romances when I was twelve. At that point I learned to love history, but the history I learned to love was fraught with passions of the non-historical kind, and often inaccurate. At least I had the interest, though, and I eventually started reading nonfiction as well as fiction. I ended up majoring in history in college, though, and that never would’ve happened if I’d had only the experience of history as it’s taught in elementary, junior high and high school. :/

    I was an Older Student by the time I got to university, and I got a lot of googly eyes from the eighteen-to-twenty-two folks in one class when I talked about sitting in gas lines for hours and hours when I was a kid in ’73, about even and odd days and people getting into fights over cuts in line, about the guy who dragged the pregnant woman out of her car and started beating on her because she’d cut in front of him. It was a Poli Sci class, but the topic was energy depletion so the historical perspective was relevant.

    Anyway, yeah. I wish more teachers knew how to show history as three dimensional, about real people going through actual crises and changes, rather than just names and dates. I’ll grant, though, that the latter are easier to test on. 😛


    PS — you probably don’t remember me, but I was RHIANNON on GEnie, where we hung out in some of the same places. [smile/wave]

  2. Hi, Angie, of course I remember you! Oh yes, the gas lines of the seventies.

    One thing I really enjoy is sitting with people across several generations. My grandmother (95) will talk about life during the Depression (she was pulled out of school at age 12 and had to work full time), and there are a range of perspectives and experiences from people born in later years. Listening to their reminiscences is fascinating.

  3. I was really lucky to have gone to a lefty-liberal-NYC grade school that taught history through projects, original sources, and playacting. By the time I got to my much more traditional high school I had the sense that history was not dates and places but people doing eccentric, brave, hateful, stupid things for all sorts of reasons.

    And then I read Daughter of Time and realized on a visceral level that history is written by the victors, and had to rewire my entire take on the subject.

    I would have loved to have had you as a teacher, Sherwood.

  4. Mad: it sounds like you had an awesome time–and your classes were probably much like mine, as I used those same things, with maybe more storytelling.

    DAUGHTER OF TIME was a real eye-opener for me, too.

  5. My teachers, when it came to history, went a bit both ways, some engaging and some boring. When Ancient History was the topic, I remember things being interesting. When modern history was, it was dates and and names and boring with the occasional spark of something interesting, but not really. It wasn’t until I was in college that I started to understand that modern history was stories and cultures and interesting things, too.

    I’m in my student teaching right now, and as I’ve been working with first and second graders, I’ve felt this deep resolve that the last thing I want in my classroom as a teacher is robots for students. I want to do everything I can to bring the curriculum to life so they can feel it and explore it and learn it. I want to give them every chance to feel that they are part of history, right now, and that their stories matter.

    Thanks for sharing 🙂

  6. Madeleine, you were lucky! In the state where Sherwood and I went to school teaching history was an afterthought. One of my English teachers loved history, but was not allowed to teach it. The district hired coaches and then assigned them history classes–because history is so easy to teach, don’t you know. It’s just names and dates.

    History teachers need to work at getting students to understand that it takes imagination and empathy to grasp the significance of the past.

    Sherwood asked me to offer tips to any passing teachers, but I’d largely be repeating what Madeleine said. Stories about historical figures or that illumine what life was like back then help–especially if they are humorous or ironic

  7. Pilgrimsoul says: “History teachers need to work at getting students to understand that it takes imagination and empathy to grasp the significance of the past.”

    This is a biggie.

    Stephanie: Being aware of robot-avoidance puts you ahead of the game. It’s human nature to try to make a class easy, especially if you get a lively one, and rely on drone work and dull texts with the tests already supplied. It can take a lot of energy to build some energy and color and depth into a class, and especially to get kids thinking, if analytical thinking has been avoided in previous grades.

    but oh, the payoff when it works!

  8. Your post here and Superversive’s post on Byzantine political structure versus feudalism makes me think about the distaste people have for politics and how that becomes a distaste for government/governance… and what that can lead to..

    (–it’s a tenuous connection–it’s what you were saying about the French Revolution and how we decide to agree about laws and things…)

  9. It was never that bad in Germany, probably because we’re surrounded by all that history and stuff like, how did people live in those castles kept coimg up and introducing a more personal level.

    But the love of history was ignited by my parents, not school. I had been in more museums, castles, palaces and cathedrals than most teachers before I started school, and I could already tell Romanesque and Gothic architecture apart and knew why Schiller had to flee the duchy of Wurttemberg. And I read historical fiction – one of the first was Liechtenstein, a Medieaval novel in the Walter Scott tradition. What’s not to like about a duke who has to hide in a cave from his enemies, lol.

    I still remember the first time I came up with a historical fiction story. Must have been grade 2 or 3 (German system), after I had seen the skeleton of a Bronze Age warrior, complete with bracelets and a dagger, and wondered what his life was like and how he had died.

  10. I can’t read much of it now, but historical fiction was my road into history as it was for so much of us. Because there were actual people! I urge my kids to read biography.

  11. To bring the Founding Fathers alive, there’s nothing like a production of 1776, the musical.

  12. BRENDA: oh,that is so true!

    GABRIELE: oh yes, I can imagine that growing up in sight of castles would give one a sense of the passage of time, leading to curiosity about how people lived when such things were built.

    i suspect a lot of us history buffs came to liking history thanks to historical novels: in someone’s LiveJournal just yesterday, we were talking fondly about loving the novels of Geoffrey Trease. (He even had interesting female characters!)

    ASAKIYUME: I see that connection, oh yes!

  13. I’m about to be pedantic and persnicketty —

    After the Challenger disaster, a quick thinking psychology professor put the memories to the test. He asked his students to write down where they were and what they were doing when they heard of it. Later, they tracked down the students and asked them to do it again.

    There were many discrepancies. A good number of students had nothing in common between their two accounts. And their new “memories” were unshakeable. On being shown the original account, one student said that while she recognized her handwriting, it wasn’t what she remembered.

  14. I liked history up until the point I had to learn it in a classroom, because the way it was (usually) taught sucked the life out of it OR presented it stupidly. The one thing I remember from high school American history was “Anne Hutchinson bamboozled the judges” (yep, the textbook really used “bamboozled”). This gave me an image of her flashing the court full of men, who were so dazzled by the sight that they acquitted her (I don’t remember the charges). You’re right, “imagine” is a lot more memorable than dry facts, but I think, fortunately for your students, your games were a lot more accurate than whatever popped into my head while reading a boring textbook.

  15. Bamboozled, huh! She was a fascinating woman, and it was fun doing her, but restating her arguments in modern terms, so kids would get what was going on at that time. (I just didn’t dwell on the fact that during her trial she was on her dozenth or more pregnancy)

  16. The “dates and facts” style of history teaching was already passé by the time I was in secondary school in the 1980s. Instead, we got a curiously blood- and passionless style of history teaching where everything that might excite or ignite an interest in history was sanitized away in textbooks and we were constantly asked to compare the situations of antique slaves and medieval serfs to those of modern workers or to compare the constitution of the Weimar Republic to the modern one and whatever. Bloody or exciting things did not happen or were sanitized into oblivion with the sole exception of the teacher who made us read out some official dispatches from Nazi officials about the holocaust with the obvious intent to make us feel sick. The holocaust and WWII always happen in graphic detail in history lessons (even back when my Mom was at school in the 1950s), but everything else is sanitized.

    Plus, highschool history in grades 9 through 13 pretty much eternally cycled through the sequence French Revolution, Imperialism and German Empire, WWI, Weimar Republic, WWII. History before 1789 was covered only very cursorily. There was no Egypt at all, Greek antiquity did not include Gods or mythology, there was a bit about the Middle Ages, some stuff about the Hanseatic League, something about the Reformation and that was more or less it. History after 1945 did not exist, questions with regard to events of the 1950s to 1970s were ignored by teachers. The worst was the guy (long dead now) who replied to my question whether he could tell us something about the Cold War, because no one else had, “The division of Germany is supposed to be covered in politics class in grade 11. History grade 13 is World War II.” Never mind that I had asked about the Cold War which is more than the division of Germany, I was in 11th grade in 1989/1990, i.e. the year the wall fell and the politics teacher converted the “history of the division of Germany” unit into a discussion of current events, which was exactly the right thing to do under the circumstances.

    We did have some some good teachers, though. My old Latin teacher taught me more about history (not just Roman but everything into the 19th century) than the actual history teachers. There also was a teacher (whom I hated at the time, though I must concede that is methods were pretty good) who made us reenact the French General Assembly. Our Louis XVI was a longhaired heavy metal fan, who sided with the bourgeoisie in defiance of historical fact. But the best history teacher I ever had was my teacher of British and colonial history at university (the one for American and Canadian history was pretty good, too). He would always enhance historical facts with anecdotes, often funny or macabre ones, which made it come alive. I teach English, not history. But it’s this man’s approach that I copy, whenever I am called upon to inform my students about the US Civil War or the Tudor Era or Guy Fawkes or whatever.

    Another lesson I’ve learned from my own teachers, who ignored my questions about the Vietnam War or Watergate or whatever, is to answer questions the students ask, even if it’s not part of the curriculum.

  17. Gabriele, I loved Wilhelm Hauff’s Liechtenstein, too, ever since I came across my Dad’s old copy (Christmas present from 1954) in a box full of books. Most of them were the Ottjen Alldag novels in Lower German (which I’m glad to have now but couldn’t read then), but he also had some Karl May, Herrmann und Dorothea and best of all Liechtenstein.

    At university, I took a class on German historical fiction, where we read Felix Dahn’s Kampf um Rom (Battle for Rome), Lion Feuchtwanger’s Jud Süß (plus, I voluntarily read his Goya for a term paper) and Gustav Freytag’s Die Ahnen. Ah, bliss.

  18. Cora: and I bet it is your historical discursions that students will remember in coming years.

    That’s interesting that they did not teach much about the Reformation, and Luther specifically. Germany was so influential during that period.

    Now I need to hunt up Liechtenstein, if I can find it.

  19. Both my daughters have had at least one history/social studies teacher who opened them up to the idea that history is a collection of human stories and human characters. My younger daughter, now in 8th grade, had a fabulous 6th grade history teacher, and the more quotidian efforts of her teachers in 7th and 8th grade haven’t soured her on history, only on the lackluster teaching thereof. She’s really looking forward to taking high school history classes, on the theory that things will improve then. I hope she’s right…

  20. Cora, don’t remind me of the over-representation and the You Should Feel Guilty WW2 history in German schools. I still don’t read any books (except for Marcel Reich Ranicki’s biography) or watch films set in that time; I SO have had it.

    But fortunately, we got the ancient Greek and Romans, and the Middle Ages as well, and those were fun.

  21. Heh, I’ve just reread Ein Kampf um Rom – it’s such a fun, 19th century un-PC novel. I recently wrote a little review on my blog..

    *looks around and whispers* I have the complete set of Karl May’s Münchmeyer novels, too. 🙂

  22. Sherwood, Project Gutenberg should have both Ein Kampf um Rom and Liechtenstein, as Wilhelm Hauff and Felix Dahn have been dead for ages and their copyright should have run out by now.

    If you want a physical copy, try which is a sort of German ABE Books.

    Gabriele, what annoys me most about the extreme WWII focus in history teaching is that it limits history to the years between 1871 and 1945 and treats 1871 to 1933 as one long run-up to Hitler. It’s important to teach about the Nazis and WWII, but it’s not the only historical event that ever happened. And considering the sheer amount of Third Reich focus in TV documentaries, films, etc… it’s highly unlikely that any kids manage to go through life without hearing about it.

    As for teachers trying to make kids born decades after WWII feel guilty for Nazi atrocities, I had one of those in 5th or 6th grade. I recently found out that he still teaches, at a school where I sometimes work. I hope I’ll never ever run into him in the aisle and recognize him after 20+ years, because I don’t know if I would be able to keep myself from giving that guy a piece of my mind on behalf of the 11-year-old who couldn’t.

  23. Cora: Project Gutenberg didn’t have them, but I’ll try the link you gave me, thanks.

  24. There is a Gutenberg version of some of Dahn’s novels here, but the dialogue layout is a bit screwed. I prefer real books anyway, but I can’t get my hands on Stilicho except online. A German publisher reprinted some of the other novels, though.