Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Road More Traveled By

As Tanya mentioned in her August post, summer vacation for a nonfiction writer can be a goldmine of new topic ideas. New subject ideas ooze out of every art exhibit, bus ride, and brief conversation with a stranger. This summer was a little bit different. During our super special family trip to Italy, my senses were all thoroughly engaged but my thoughts went beyond my own writing. As I watched my kids explore a world they had become well educated about, it confirmed my belief in the delicious variety of subjects that could possibly appeal to kids.

My kids both study Latin and thus Roman history. They were especially excited to visit Rome and Pompeii, to see the actual historical sites that their excellent Latin teacher had discussed so engagingly over the years. It was fun to watch them read snippets of Latin on the old Roman walls and even on the sewer covers (there are Latin mottos on sewer covers? Who knew). It was the kids who had to explain to the rest of us non-Latin scholars the sordid details of what went on inside the Coliseum and why the Arch of Constantine was so significant.

The information they had retained was substantial. With that level of knowledge came both the interest to learn more and to share with others. Their excitement in explaining about famous events that had occurred right where we were walking was contagious. The Circus Maximus wasn’t really much to look at—a large field of dirt and grass in need of watering. But these kids could tell a great story about the chariot races that used to take place there and, despite the heat, we all gladly stood around for awhile so we could imagine what it must have been like.

Our trip wasn’t one big history lesson. The Latin scholars were also downright gleeful about the different flavors of gelato, the Pope lollipops, and the male body parts with wings souvenirs prominently on display at the Pompeii gift shops. So their answer to the question, “what was the favorite thing you saw on the trip” still came as a surprise. Even more of a surprise, they both had the same answer.

Their reply: the Appian Way. What’s the Appian Way? A road. Yep, just a road. Well, it was the main thoroughfare of ancient Rome, parts of which still exist today. And we went on it. My kids could hardly contain themselves. Because they were taught well. They understood its significance and the thrill of touching history was palpable.

Good teaching, like good books, can get to that place where kids can understand the importance of history. This happens easily when the focus isn’t on what they need to be learning but on how many different things can be fascinating to know about if you’re just willing to give it a chance. Children’s books need to take that road more often. We would certainly all be heading in the right direction.

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