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History In The Classroom

August 30, 2006

Between this week and next the bulk of our school age children will give up their summer time habits and take up the role of students.  Education should be a fun experience but far too often is not viewed that way by our little scholars.  If one were to ask what subject they disliked the most a huge segment would respond with history, and perhaps add that they viewed it as being all about dead people a long time ago. 

Seems a sad way to begin a school year.  But the teaching of history does not need to be boring since the topic is so very much alive (even with the deceased) and most relevant to the current generation.

I have long thought I would have made a great history teacher and offer here a few ideas about how to insure students understand the passion that comes with their subject.  First requirement is a good series of texts from which to work.  While I much agree that a good solid textbook with the dates, places, and themes is essential, the class will soon tire if not given other reading sources.  Using modern day historians and recent research found in such captivating reads as Ron Chernow’s “Hamilton” or Joseph Ellis’s “His Excellency” will allow gripping narratives to add flavor and dimension to the topics at hand.  A chapter here and there from books of this type would serve many purposes.  (I understand there are requirements about how much of a book can be used in a classroom setting but all these are able to be accommodated.)

Second, I would use people in my community to tell the story of their lives.  For instance, we still have very energetic and verbal men who fought in World War II who could enliven a discussion on how people felt about the war, being sent over-seas, and about the role they served for their generation.  Recently I ran across this wonderful narrative by a woman who in the 1930’s and early 1940’s attended “huskings’ in Maine.  In plain, down-on-the farm type writing she tells of such a night. 

“We had no electricity.  The barn floor was lit up by kerosene lanterns hanging on nails along the top of the walls.  There were benches on both sides of the long walls for people to sit on.  In the center were high piles of corn to be husked.  They had a special building called a corn crib built with vertical boards spaced apart so air could get in.  They husked the corn in bushel baskets and then they were carried to the corn crib and tossed inside.  Lots of the people had flashlights.  It was very dark outside.  It was also very cold.  I remember wearing heavy jackets when we were outside running around.  I think the husks were used later in the pig pens.  I know Daddy fed the corn on the cob to the pigs.  He also had a machine in the shed chamber that took the corn off the cob.  This corn he fed to the chickens.  He had lots of pigs.  He used to bring the babies in the house to get warm by the wood stove.  Us kids used to play with the little piglets and those little animals could really squeal. 

I guess the event was advertised by signs in the grocery stores and by word of mouth.  The participants would receive a free baked bean supper for helping husk the corn.  I remember helping my mother set the tables.  There was a long one in the summer kitchen and one in the living room.  I was probably about 10-12 years old.  I think my aunts, neighbors and friends helped my mother with the cooking.  There were lots and lots of pies.  There were tall mantle lamps sitting on the tables and folks took turns coming in to eat.  Us kids thought it was all very exciting.  I don’t know how many years they did it.”

Third I would use texts from the past to show how our country has grown and evolved.  For instance, in 1930 Professor Thomas Marshall wrote in “American History” that slaves were usually happy.  He wrote that slaves were fond of the company they kept, liked to sing, dance, and admired bright colors.  He wrote they were loyal to a kind master, never in a hurry, and always ready to put things off until “morrow.’  This type of text can be used for lots of insight and discussion on a range of issues.

Fourth, the computer has made history colorful and accessible.  Goggle Earth is but one great site where history and its ever present companion, geography, are connected and overlapped for students of all ages.  Teachers in many classrooms now have computers for students to learn from and should take advantage of every such opportunity.

There is no reason that a student need dread the teaching of history.  There is also no reason that Jay Leno should ever find anyone for his “Jay Walking” segments that can not name the allies in the World War’s or what the Federalist Papers were.

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