Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Best Stories of all Time. Really!

Somehow October’s chorus about using our books in the classroom didn’t come everyone's way on the guitar until November, so kindly bear with me for a minute while I wrap up my part of this song with one last verse.

I hated history when I was a kid. The way we were supposed to learn everything was by memorizing a bunch of boring names and dates and battle sites. To me, the people in history were a lot like George Washington on the dollar bill; old and green and wrinkled and dead.

What a waste! The real George Washington wasn’t anything like that portrait. Just between you and me, our boy George was a stud. He was so tall that most other men only came up to his shoulder. He was a great athlete and his hands and feet were enormous—what a basketball player he might have made! This terrific horseman, dancer, and card player was also so fearless in battle that even when his horses were shot out from under him and bullets ripped through his coat, he never left the front lines. You can’t make this stuff up; it’s all true, and if I had known things like that about the dead people in my history books, well of course I’d have wanted to hear more.

So how can teachers make history spring to life for kids? Here are three of the ways.

1) The Storyteller’s Voice- One of the main reasons that so many stories from history are still around is that they’re really the best stories of all time. I hated history because all those moons ago, my own teachers didn’t know how to tell a great tale. But if teachers can teach by using a storyteller’s voice, you can bet your boots that kids will beg to listen in. The best nonfiction books can show you the way and can add in fabulous pictures to boot. (And forgive me for mentioning that our INK THINK TANK has these books in spades.)

2) Tie-Ins- If you can get kids to relate directly to something in a book about history, you’ve got it made. Here are some examples from my book talks—no reason why with a little extra imagination teachers can’t do this kind of thing too. In one school, the students put on a wonderful play about Lewis and Clark based on my book How We Crossed the West and invited me to watch. When I visited their classrooms the next day, I surprised each actor and actress by telling them some incredibly happy and sad and funny things that happened to their own characters after the journey ended. This new information was a huge hit. When I presented the same book another time, we were able to bring a real Newfoundland dog (like Seaman, the one Meriwether Lewis brought on the journey) into the room. Bingo! I got to tell about all the funny and even life-saving adventures the dog had on the trip. Trust me—dogs are attention grabbers all the way. And during a previous Presidential election, an older group did a great job of comparing the gigantic role propaganda played in promoting George Washington vs. King George III back in Revolutionary times with the role propaganda played in that particular presidential election.

3) Lights, camera, action!- Younger audiences like nothing better than to sing, laugh, make funny noises, and wear costumes. As it turns out, these qualities are great tools for teaching history too. I love to use my book The Old Chisholm Trail; A Cowboy Song as a fun intro to those famously difficult cattle drives from the wild west. Very Short Version of how this works: I dress up as a cowboy and briefly explain how hard that trip must have been. Then I invite 3 volunteer cowboys onstage, where they don huge paper moustaches, and I give 3 more volunteers stuffed longhorn cattle to hold. As I (badly) sing funny verses from the real song, the cowboys and cows make appropriate cowboy and cow sound effects when I point to them after each verse, and the audience sings the chorus in their turn. It is hilarious, it’s the BEST teaching tool, and it all comes from a book. Try it!

Preparing to put on our costumes

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