Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Making the Past Seem Real to Children

I was invited to my daughter's school to teach her first -grade class about my occupation. From my 6 year old daughter's enthusiastic recall of other parents' presentations, I know that my talk is following these parents who have already spoken to the class: a police officer, a dentist, and an engineer. Regarding the engineer, my little student reported, "Mommy! He brought us lightbulb key chains!" I am bringing in archives gloves.

I feel a responsibility to my profession related to this upcoming presentation. 1. I fell in love with history in the 5th grade. 2. I indexed the scrapbooks at the Vanderbilt Mansion in Centerport NY as part of an honors project in high school, but I don't recall learning the word "archives" until college. I wonder how many budding archivists whose attention I can capture at a very early age.

In an effort to back up any observations I make in this post with data, I did a little research and ran into this article, Teaching History in the Elementary School http://www.ericdigests.org/pre-928/history.htm . I am troubled by what it seems to tell me, namely that educators don't think students are ready for history in elementary school and that not enough research has been done to support this belief. Am I misinterpreting what the writer is saying?!

My daughter is an American Girl fan. So am I. I have never seen anything that has so effectively opened a young girl's eyes to history. A couple of years ago, my little one discovered the American Girl books before she discovered the dolls. She realized that the people about whom she was reading were different from her -- they wore different clothes, ad different beliefs and experiences. She and I sat down to talk about why. I made a family tree that showed her relatives back to grandma and grandpa. I showed her on our genealogy chart that her grandparents were born a little after the story of the American Girl depression doll, Kit, took place. I told her that my early childhood took place when Julie's story did - in the age of bell bottoms. She understood and was eager to learn more. She could identify with the stories and could relate them back to herself and the people she knows. We then started going back farther and learning about the Victorian doll, Revolutionary era doll and others.

My daughter learned about Native Americans from New Hampshire in school last autumn. We went on a field trip to see a museum about them and a replica of their home. My daughter got to try on an outfit like a girl her age living in the woods a few hundred years ago would have worn. I have not heard about another similar lesson in her classroom since that time. Is teaching history in elementary school lagging? Is teaching history secondary to reading, writing and arithmetic at this point? I hear about her math and reading projects everyday. Should these take precedence? Do we just think that kids won't be able to grasp the concept of history as the aforementioned article seems to suggest?

I am heading into the classroom wondering if I can specifically teach archives and relate it to history. (At least the kids will learn to recognize the word "archives" before I did.) I plan to introduce 5 vocabulary words and concepts: history, archives, archivist, preservation, oral history. I will ask "what is history and how do we know about it?"
- I have a box of old photos of children and families as well as some other interesting old documents that I can show the students. (They can look at little boys in funny dresses and laugh about how even boys once wore dresses.) I carry mementos found on trips to antique stoes in an archives box. I can use them to talk briefly about how to preserve and organize items that are important to their families. They can wear the archives gloves so they can feel like real archivists.
- I will focus on the types of historical materials kids can find around their house and what they tell about their families...they can learn things from these materials such as what their parents were like as kids or even favorite family recipes.!
- I'll also mention how libraries, archives and museums keep records like they have in their home to tell stories about people. These stories are our history.
- I'll talk about how many things that are important to us are not recorded - maybe no one took pictures of that day or wrote an e-mail about an experience. Maybe someone forgot to bring a camera to take a picture of a first soccer goal or recital. When this happens, we can write down something about the event to help us remember -- maybe keep a journal.
- We can also learn about the lives of other people by asking questions and writing down the answers so others can learn about them too. I'll have handouts of questions that the kids can bring home to ask a family member or friend to do an oral history.

I'll report back my own findings at the end of the week. Stay tuned...

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