Teaching History

History done right:

After reading an introductory biography [the students] discussed Carnegie’s accomplishments, and then considered his labor practices.

“If he had so much money, why didn’t he pay his workers better?” one student asked.

“The new workers taking the strikers’ places is like what happened with Lowell and at the Triangle factory,” another chimed in.

“I bet the men that fought back got blacklisted.”

The class reached no conclusions about Carnegie’s legacy.  The exploration wrapped up with everyone considering which aspects of steel production they had studied that week were generally positive and which were generally negative for society.

The scene above was described by Professor Elise Fillpot in “It’s Elementary: Focusing on History Teaching, K-5,” from Perspectives on History, 47:8, November 2009.  The “they” were a bunch of 3rd graders at Prairie Ridge School in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.  These weren’t gifted or elite students — they were ordinary eight- and nine-year-old kids with reading abilities that ranged from below-average to above-average, and yet they were engaged in discussions at a level I have yet to see in my 7th grader.  The difference is that the school has chosen to give them “a rigorous immersion in history study” every year they have been in school.  And how wonderful is that!

More from Professor Fillpot:

[I]n this country, we systematically squander the years when our young are, by nature, history sponges.  We ignore the opportunity to encourage historically literate, questioning minds.  We neglect the chance to develop in children the habit to inform their understandings of the present with understandings of the past.

I’m pretty sure none of The Kid’s teachers have ever inflicted the term labor practices — or, for that matter, Industrial Revolution (Lowell?  Triangle factory?  I can only dream …)  — on her.  Poster board presentations, on the other hand …  that’s one concept she completely “gets.” The Kid does not have a history class this year; what she does have is geography.  One of her latest assignment is a poster board presentation on a Middle East country — she chose Syria.  As usual, she spent the bulk of the time making the board pretty, with “Syria” written in glitter ink, and various “facts” done bullet point style.  DH asked her why she didn’t talk about the link between geography and empire(s), religion(s), and the present-day Middle East …  “Because this is geography, not history.”  As if her teachers have ever talked about how to go about making those connections.  Silly Dad.

Puddling Furnace (Image courtesy of WITF, Inc.)


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