Sunday, March 27, 2011

Making History

So as adults, I ask how much of what you learned in History lessons do you use today? I'll say I use more of it in helping my children with their classwork -- and that's the be-all and end-all of the facts and details I was spoon-fed in K-12. In SPITE of the fact that I've done historical re-enactment! In other words, absolutely NOTHING I learned in K-12 classes helped me EVEN with my hobby of historical re-enactment! Shame on the school system!

What DID help me was things I read on my own. Listening to people. Watching films & documentaries -- whether historically accurate, and sometimes when not so accurate (such as historical fiction). I LOVE historical fiction! I love re-tellings of old historical tales with some embellishment, such as stories of Sappho, the fall of Troy, medieval England, the Papacy. I could name a half-dozen off the top of my head (check out Judith Tarr and Marion Zimmer Bradley for a few dozen), worth reading and re-reading, that enhance interest and love for a specific time-period. The interest it engenders leads to wanting to know which parts and true, and which were embellishment -- well worth picking up something a little dryer after-the-fact for the sake of curiosity. Heck, you can tie history interest with some Shakespeare, such as King Lear, Julius Caesar. These all incited a love of history, well after my K-12 years.
If you're a history teacher, what do you love about history? What brought you to that love? Did you love history in K-12? What inspired you? If you're a homeschooling parent and have no love of history, it won't rub off on your children.
The basic problem is that history is taught to children without an anchor to a child's present life. We pour all these abstract facts into their head without making it come to life for them, or tying it to their current interests. Out of self-defense for being overwhelmed with abstract nonsense, they automatically dismiss the bulk of the information given to them as irrelevant. What does this have to do with being a child in the here-and-now? Basically NOTHING. There's not a shred of what is taught that they care about or that has a real and relevant impact on their daily life. However, if you look carefully there are some good fact-driven books out there such as Life in a Medieval Castle, Life in a Medieval City, etc. The difference is that you're not cramming numbers and facts into a child's head -- you're making it real and relevant for the child. You're giving it life, a real face, a basis for comparing the time period to what they know about real life in the here-and-now. What was life like for a child during the Civil War? What was life like on the Mayflower? "If you had been born in that area at that time, this is the life you would have had." It gives them a basis for comparing their current circumstances to the reality of a child in another time. Perhaps their own ancestor.
To be honest, the lessons -- the important lessons -- I got from social studies were ALL between the lines and nothing to do with facts. Basically what I read between the lines as I was growing up told me that us European-descent bastards moved forcibly into another people's country, killed, raped, stole, planted our flag here then imported another people here to be our slaves, mis-treated them, and continued being true bastards to them in the name of Europe being bastards to us. What I learned in history class was to be ashamed of being a white woman of European descent. Good job! If they wanted to mould me into being "Proud to be an American" they failed miserably. The price of being an American is all that pain, misery, death -- the subjugation of Native Americans and African Americans that STILL CONTINUES TO THIS DAY, the indenture of even our own women, and a whole lot of dying all-around in defense of our HOLIER THAN THOU ideals. To boot, in more modern American history, and keeping an eye on current events, I've become convinced that our current government took the original ideas of the founding fathers of America who basically had their hearts and minds in the right place, even if they may have had slaves and pointed their guns at the wrong people, and have moved from that original and pure democracy into bureaucracy, political-ism simply to be political, and capitalism. Everything I've learned in 12 years of American History (plus post-secondary learning in college) makes me sad--and angry--at our current state of affairs. If the whole point of 12 years of cramming all that into my head was to make me an active and angry citizen who goes to the voting booth they could have stopped when I was 10 years old.
So in teaching and homeschooling on the subject of history, I think it should always be child-led whenever possible. I suggest finding good films -- fiction first -- simply to spark some interest. For example Troy (2004) with Brad Pitt is a fair representation, with a tie-in at the end with a more medically plausible reason for Achilles to have seemingly died from a single arrow through the heel. Or you could start for a girl with Helen of Troy (2003) (there's a pretty violent rape scene in this one, and some nudity -- you may want to educate around this point!). This could then be contrasted with the myth, perhaps some reading from Homer's Illyad or The Firebrand (fiction/fantasy based on the myth of Troy following Cassandra whom is entirely omitted from the Brad Pitt Troy), and the facts of the times of the Roman Empire, and a documentary about Troy (I have one and it discusses an archeological dig where they believe the real Troy was...).

Once you make history REAL -- the way only movies and great stories can -- then you can study the FACTS. Most social studies courses tackle this inside-out. Incite interest, then let the children dig up more information from a variety of resources, and sift fact from fantasy.

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