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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Last week over breakfast, my six-year-old son declared, "George Washington was a good president."

"Why do you say that?" I asked.

Credit: Elena Aguilar

"Because he freed us from England," he said.

"Some people think he was good, others disagree," I said.

"My teacher thinks he was good," my kindergartner responded.

I then explained to my son that I thought he'd done some things that weren't fair. "George Washington owned slaves and one of the reasons he wanted to be free from England was because he wanted to be even richer than he already was," I told him.

My son had no comment and resumed eating his granola. We're pretty anti-slavery in our house, so I imagine he was contemplating that contradiction.

I controlled the tirade that threatened to erupt; I am quiet about my many pedagogical disagreements with my son's teacher. I'm making a big effort to embrace the public schools in the district that I've worked in for 15 years as I send my only child into its classrooms.

The Old Approach

My son's class has been learning about George Washington and Abraham Lincoln for over two weeks -- and the unit is not yet finished. They cut out construction paper faces of Washington and glued on cotton balls for wigs; they memorized lyrics to a song which stated that "Lincoln freed the slaves;" they stapled together paper hats "like the patriots wore" and listened to stories about Revolutionary War battles.

Credit: Elena Aguilar

The George Washington comment had me boiling for two reasons:

First, this is not the way to teach history. This approach -- an uncritical, history-as-true-fact, spoon-fed-hero-worshipping of rich white men and the unquestioned glorification of those who have always had power -- is not acceptable for my kid or any kid.

Secondly, I'm shocked by any teacher's lack of cultural competence. I can't imagine what one might think as they look at students' faces, such as those of my son's classmates (some of whom are African American or recent immigrants), and declare, "George Washington freed us from England." He sure didn't free my people who immigrated in the twentieth century, and he sure didn't free my husband's ancestors who were brought to this country in shackles.

Necessary Standards for Teaching History

In California history classes, along side the content standards, there is a set of standards for teaching historical analysis skills -- starting in kindergarten.

If our schools are going to be successful in preparing our young people to actively participate in a democracy then we need to go far beyond just teaching the content standards in history. Going deeper means this:

Students understand that history is a construction.
This means that students recognize that "there are no truths, only stories," as the Native American poet, Simon Ortiz, says. Students also understand that the history that has been written down is a story told by the victors, the conquerors, those with power who constitute a tiny segment of the population, and that it is a story told often to justify their own power.

Students know how to deconstruct history and re-write it.
This means that children learn how to be historians. They can analyze primary sources and develop their own interpretations. They can identify bias in other people's interpretations and consider how privilege and status impact the way events are recorded. They also look for and listen for stories that have not been told, and they see the value of bringing those stories to light.

Students know their own histories.
A kindergartner should be learning about his own family history before learning about George Washington. He should first learn about how the past affects the present, about the people he comes from, and about the struggles and accomplishments of his ancestors. Maybe such a sequence of instruction would result in more kids enjoying history -- in fact, that should be another standard.

Students enjoy studying history and recognize the value in doing so.
This means that students understand that in order for us to better our world, to fix some of the terrible injustices and perhaps even save our planet, they need to understand the past. They need to understand how we got to where we are and they need to recognize their own power to be able to change the situation. History is the ideal curriculum to allow this to happen, but only if students enjoy the material and see how it can be a tool for empowerment.

A New Approach

I have no problem with kindergartners being taught about George Washington, as long as they are being asked to think critically and consider multiple perspectives, and as long as they are also learning about other people.

Here's what I mean: A teacher could introduce the study of American presidents by reading a picture book that presented an alternate perspective on Washington, perhaps told from the point of view of one of Washington's three-hundred slaves. She could have students consider what makes a hero or what makes someone worthy of respect, asking them to evaluate Washington's actions.

Even when instructing our youngest students, we communicate beliefs and values about people and power. All teachers should be clear about what beliefs they are communicating and should question their appropriateness.

Here are a few resources to think through a framework for teaching history:

What is your philosophy for teaching history? What standards do you think should be added?

Comments (89)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Bonnie Bracey Sutton's picture
Bonnie Bracey Sutton
Teacher Agent of Change, Power of US Foundation

The thing that bothered me in the discussion was the lack of historical accuracy. Too often in this participatory culture people make mistakes, like the Governor of Virginia, and then we spend a week or so
finding out the facts. I grew up in Alexandria and it and Fairfax County were where George Washington lived and died. But the facts about his life are in the Library of Congress, on the internet in many ways, I felt sad to watch a discussion on the wrong facts create chaos in this discussion group.

Bonnie Bracey Sutton

Lori Waas's picture

I am a US and World History teacher as well as the mother of 5 children who came up through the public education system. I also use Zinn and a host of primary documents, but struggle with every US history text i have read. I have recently read a book entitled "The Myth of American Exceptionalism" by Godfrey Hodgson, which centers my struggle in its title. Zinn is good, but somehow we have to extract ourselves from the notion that Americans got it 'right'. All the textbooks i have used or reviewed send that subtle message. James Lowen begins to address this in some of his writings ("Lies My Teacher Told Me" and "Sundown Towns" which is excellent.) Does anyone else have this struggle? I'd love to hear what you think, how you address it in your classes!

CarlyIM's picture
I am a school librarian at an elementary school in North Minneapolis.†

I was shocked when I taught at a suburban middle school a few years ago that most students truly thought that Columbus discovered America. I can't believe that this is still being taught. I had the privilege of being raised in an urban open school where we discussed the topics that Elena brought up, and it was a major surprise to me that not every child was taught the same way.

I think we can do better. Unfortunately I think many teachers do not know better. In this day and age you would assume that teachers have a more mature perspective on historical events, but in truth they do not.

Alf Tupper's picture

I hope that history teachers are not relying primarily on Howard Zinn for a fair and balanced picture of US history. Zinn described himself as "Something of an anarchist, something of a socialist. Maybe a democratic socialist." This is the man that I heard on the radio, telling the host that he thought that the world would have been better off if the United States had never existed.

Ro's picture

Exactly my point - a great history book now published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, America the Last Best Hope, Vol. 1 - 3, W. J. Bennett. There are lesson guides for all levels go to the web site and add this to the list of books to offer a historical view of America. Unlike my education this series go up to 2009. As a parent, get the books for your teacher if the school district won't. As a student, I never learned anything beyond the 1900's when I was in public school. Now as a teacher, I have read the one's Ms. Aguilar mentioned, and I use most of the sources including the standards that are developmentally appropriate for my students in first grade.

Kevin Smith's picture

I'm afraid that most of the original article comes across as far more of an effort on the part of the author to see to it that her own personal political views are taught in school than to see that history is taught properly in school. And quite honestly so do most of the responses that haven't been deleted. At the very least most of those posting here clearly wish to see the majority of the classroom time spent dealing with th Founding Fathers focused on faults and flaws perceived in their characters as sen through a modern lens. While pointing out the warts does deserve some time, the near militant way in which so many of you seem to want to see history taught in such a way that one would assume America is a terrible place to live and is awash in injustice to this very day makes me truly fear for the future of our country. Is it really so bad to admit that the Founding Fathers did achieve some great and historically important things? I think many of you may have to reexamine your own teaching methods if this is truly indicative of how you teach. How many of you have spent much time in ANOTHER country? Ever been to South America? Africa? Southeast Asia? Do you have any idea how much more freedom the average citizen of the US has than almost anywhere else on earth? How many more economica oppurtunities their are for even the poorest of people in the US (black, white, Latino, or Asian) than in any other country? Do you teach the history of other countries in the same hyper-critical way?

Bonnie Bracey Sutton's picture
Bonnie Bracey Sutton
Teacher Agent of Change, Power of US Foundation

These were good questions.

Do you have any idea how much more freedom the average citizen of the US has than almost anywhere else on earth? How many more economica oppurtunities their are for even the poorest of people in the US (black, white, Latino, or Asian) than in any other country? Do you teach the history of other countries in the same hyper-critical way?

Some of this was much ado about nothing since the information given was so wrong in the context of the true history of George Washington.

I like it that children were even THINKING about history.

The idea is to keep them reading, listening, and being curious about it.

Bonnie Bracey Sutton

Richard Michaelson's picture

I'm a little shocked by the comments on here. I haven't read much on Edutopia, but enjoyed Elena's post. It's these comments I can't stomach. What Elena is questioning and discussing is just plain old good teaching. We're in the 21st century, folks. We have to be able to talk about the skeletons in our history, as well as acknowledge the accomplishments. If we continue to deny, cover up, and turn away from the many moments of shame it does us no good.

For those who want to know more about Howard Zinn there's a nice review of his life and accomplishments in this month's Rethinking Schools:

Alf Tupper's picture

[quote]I'm a little shocked by the comments on here. I haven't read much on Edutopia, but enjoyed Elena's post. It's these comments I can't stomach.[/quote]

Oh come on, Richard, get a grip! Is your world so sheltered that you get the vapors when someone dares to criticize Zinn? Maybe Zinn did some good with his works, but his decidedly left-wing views and distaste for the United States hardly warrant hero-worship or blind allegiance.

Dean A. Deardurff's picture

I have heard more about Washington since this artical...In fact that upon his death ( Washington ) that he did free the slaves that he had owed... and that much of the founding fathers, were against slavery, but the south was to strongly apossing freedom... and to this day, democracts are still in giving to much freedom the the black community

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