Monday, May 21, 2012

Sometimes Known As Bunk

       "History is more or less bunk. It's tradition. We don't want tradition. We want to live in the present, and the only history that is worth a tinker's damn is the history that we make today." Inventor/Industrialist Henry Ford, as quoted in the Chicago Tribune, in 1916.
         On the other hand:
        "To me history ought to be a source of pleasure. It isn't just part of our civic responsibility. To me it's an enlargement of the experience of being alive, just the way literature or art or music is..."You can't be a full participant in our democracy if you don't know our history."  David McCullough, who, I suspect, would still find pleasure in history even IF he had not found a way to make a handsome living from studying and writing it.  
       But it has appeared to me that those who administer our schools stand in closer agreement with Mr. Ford if one is to judge by the content of many a mandatory test. I came across a provocative essay, Teaching for Historical Literacy, written by Anne Goudvis and Stephanie Harvey.   It begins: 
       "At the very moment when calls for a rigorous, content-rich curriculum reverberate from coast to coast in the United States, many elementary schools have put history and social studies on the back burner. Increasingly, these disciplines are being squeezed into an ever smaller corner of the school day or, astonishingly, abandoned altogether. No Child Left  Behind (NCLB) has morphed into MCLB - Much Curriculum Left the face of high-stakes tests in math and reading."
     In response, Montana teacher Greg Timmons wrote an eloquent essay, in which he enlarges upon the educators' suggestions for encouraging students' historical thinking, for implementing such study - especially in a time when teachers' instructional time is so limited.  Here's the line that lifted my eyebrows and gladdened my heart: 
     "Historical fiction and non-fiction illustrated books are great resource for immersing students into the past. With strong writing, vivid language, and striking images, they allow students to better imagine a different place and time. Because these books are usually short, students can review several sources and engage in critical thinking about different points of view."

      All of this brings me to what I really wished to offer you all today: My recent conversation with Vermont author, Natalie Kinsey-Warnock.  
      CH: Are you not just knocked out and disgusted that history is getting such short shrift in America's classrooms? I mean, what kind of cockamamie attitude is that? What is it you were telling me about the other day – Story Keepers?
     NKW: My idea for the Story Keepers Humanities Curriculum probably began when I was a young child, when my father, mother, sister and brothers, instilled in me a love of history.  It was my sister’s genealogical research that led me to begin writing books, most of which are based on family history.  I strongly believe that the way to get children excited about history is to make it personal and relevant, and I believe this is best done by connecting historical events to family history.
         CH: You must be like a genius!
         NKW:   I don't know about that - 
         CH: I do!

        NKW: Yeah, well, after telling the story of my great-great-grandfather, who fought in the Civil War, and survived the Sultana disaster (this little-known tragedy is our country’s worst ship disaster), I have seen classrooms of students, grades 3-6, storm the school’s library, strip every Civil War book off the shelves to search through them, while the astonished librarian told me that she’d never had a book go off that shelf before.  Reluctant readers and writers have told me, after doing projects on family stories, that they never knew writing could be so much fun, and that they wanted to become writers.   I’ve seen students who had never written more than a paragraph before, suddenly write five pages about a family story that they’d found, and beg to take it home over the weekend so they can keep working on it.  
       CH: Now see, THAT is what I just love about this history business - it's not just a boatload of factoids. It's stories,  genuine stories about real people. It's like David McCullough said: "Nobody ever lived in the past, only in the present. The difference is it was their present."
     NKW: Exactly! What I wanted to do was  to start a  kind of history revolution in this country, for students to see that history could be exciting, interesting, and relevant, and to nurture in them a passion for history that would last a lifetime.  So I talked it over with teachers hereabouts and we started the StoryKeepers pilot program with the fourth graders at Glover Elementary [ Glover, VT].
       They bring in family artifacts and stories. Some of the lower level students, who struggle with reading, comprehension, and writing, are shining with this curriculum---they are excited, enthusiastic, eager to share and participate, and are enjoying  success

    CH: I can't help but think that as a kid puts names, faces, time & place intersections with of his or her ancestors - puts them at the scenes, in the smack-middle with historical events and movements, that history will come alive and bust out of its irrelevant, boring drudge-reputation, that the dead will come alive and not in some creepy zombie way.

      NKW:  There was a study done by Emory University in Atlanta, GA; it found that children who know their family stories have higher self-esteem, suffer less from depression, and are better able to handle peer pressure.  We believe this curriculum will not only benefit individual students but will also enhance the partnership between schools and communities, and will nurture the relationship between schools and local and state historical societies and museums, as students, in striving to find their family stories, also discover their community’s stories. 
      CH: So what happens from here? How's your revolution progressing?

     NKW: There's going to be a graduate course offered here in my part of the world, at Lyndon State College.    The idea is that these grad students will wrap their heads around the power of family stories in teaching history. Learn the ways of tracking them down and implementing these within the course content.  

    CH: It sounds to me as if this curriculum, this way of going about teaching social studies would have to enhance the students' reading and writing skills. Really, it's not as if we're trying to bring up a generation of authors - golly, what an idea! - it's that we want citizens who can knowledgeably participate in the republic –

     NKW; Take part in our civilization's conversation. And shoot,  without some sense of who we are and what we humans have been about, what are we going to read and write about?

       CH: Couldn't have said it better myself!



Gretchen Woelfle said...

I couldn't agree more! I began my writing-for-children career with short stories based on family history. When I do school visits I give the children a lifelong homework assignment - learn your family stories and pass them on! A plus for me - lots of great research to learn the details of 19th century ice-fishing in Maine, Gold Rush food prices, etc etc etc.

Myra Zarnowski said...

I do hope that the Common Core State Standards, which emphasize more reading of nonfiction will assist us in bringing more history into the classroom. Teachers will be looking for well-written history books. The problem, of course, is affordability. It isn't that teachers don't want to teach history, they simply need the time and the materials. In my experience, children and teachers enjoy well written history.

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