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How to Engage Young Students in Historical Thinking

| Elena Aguilar

Last week over breakfast, my six-year-old son declared, "George Washington was a good president."

"Why do you say that?" I asked.

Boy with hat and white wig
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.

Art project of George Washington with construction paper and cotton balls
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?

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Comments (88)

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Have I Been Deleted?

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Elena,

I posted a comment yesterday in which I questioned your assertion that Washington wanting to be free from England because "... he wanted to be even richer than he already was." Please provide a source for your assertion so that we, like your son, benefit from your wisdom. Aaron and Robert are also interested in seeing the citation attributing Washington's desires for wealth. By the way - I could not find my post from yesterday . Have I disappeared into the ether?

I couldnt have discovered

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I couldnt have discovered this at a better time! Back to work tomorrow after a great spring break, sitting here trying to do lesson plans for my 3rd graders, and feeling so uninspired. Until I found this blog! I love the suggestion that studnets shold know their own histories first - my standards dictate that I teach local/city history in this grade. I am going to plan a unit where students will interview local characters about our city. I am going to plan for them to visit local cultural instituations, but also for them to bring in their own family history. I think this will also be a good way for them to develop critial thinkign skills as I can design it so they'll encounter different opinions about our city. At least they can start to understnad that people se things differently. I agree that little kids are concrete thinkers, but I also think I can help my studnets to start understanding this idea of everyone sees things differently.

Thank you, Elena. This is really exciting! I was dreading going back but now I feel re-energized.

Fantastic post!

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I will be forwarding this to all of my teachers! I have four K teachers who are very interested in teaching history to their students and have been developing some fantastic critical thinking lesson plans to engage students in understanding history. I think they'll really appreciate this perspective and learn a lot from it.

Elena is courageous in speaking up in this way. As a principal, I have to say that I'm surprised that such traditional instruction is still going on, particularly in such a diverse area as the Bay Area. However, I see teachers approaching content in this way when they lack knowledge of the subject. Elena clearly has deep content knowledge in history, but for a teacher with a multiple subject credential, it can be challenging to access the resources and have the mental framework from which to present complex subject matter. However, that's what teachers have to do! History is so subjective and full of bias that I agree that teachers need to be careful about how they present it.

Great article, Elena. I look forward to talking to my teachers about it.

Irony

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Let's hope that the explanation is benign. Ironic that this should occur in a thread about the benefit of viewing historical events from multiple perspectives.

This Needs An Explanation

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Robert,

I agree. I posted a comment earlier and mine still exists, but I have been tracking comments through my e-mail. I have all of them saved in my e-mail and have compared both sets of comments (posted and e-mailed). I am finding a number of them missing.

This needs an explanation Edutopia. I am going to go with the possibility of some type of server malfunction but...

Please respond ASAP so that we can clear this little problem up.

Edutopia Censoring Comments?

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I posted a comment here two days ago questioning the author's assertion that Washington was motivated in the American Revolution by the desire to get "even richer," an assertion that seems unsupported by facts. In returning to this discussion just now, I see that my original comment, as well as others critical of the author appear to have been deleted (I had subscribed to comments for this thread via email).

Is there an explanation? I certainly hope that Edutopia is not censoring comments that challenge the opinions of its bloggers.

Hmmm...

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I want to begin by saying that I agree with Elena's conclusions concerning the historical analysis skills we need to be teaching our students. They need to understand that "history" is a construction. They need to be able to deconstruct, analyze, and rewrite it. They certainly should know their own histories as well as those of the broader world. We want them to enjoy and value the historical process.

We need, however, to be careful to remember (as Piaget, Kohlberg and others have taught us) that children are not just small adults. Kindergartners do not have the time sequencing and process reversal capabilities to deconstruct history or understand the concept of history as a constructed reality. Nor do they have the concept manipulation and abstraction abilities necessary to evaluate the moral issues posed by the life of Washington. They can learn as a fact (and repeat it when queried) that Washington was both good and bad according to modern majority sensibilities, but they cannot understand that fact. These are not "skills" that can be taught them; they just aren't developmentally ready. Early elementary students are concrete thinkers and we can not "teach" them not to be. What we can teach them are stories, and the California Standards and Benchmarks (which are developmentally appropriate) focus on the use of stories to illustrate basic concepts such as honesty, courage, etc. But whose stories, constructed by whom and for what purpose...that is always the rub.

Inspiring

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Elena, this article was so inspiring! I find myself wanting to teach history more critically but afraid of how other teachers, my principal, and parents will respond. I know the text is awful - doesn't teach anything critical, it's so glorifying - but I'm always nervous. I'm a new teacher, 3rd grade, and honestly just afraid of losing my job in this time. But I really hear you and it's making me aware of my cowardess. I have a lot to think about - THANK YOU!!! I'm excited to discover this blog. I read your other posts and they're also really interesting. Please keep on writing! And the only other thing I would like to say is that I hope your child's teacher reads this - or maybe you've talked to her. Have you? Thank you!

Maybe I did not clearly

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Maybe I did not clearly communicate my message. I try to present multiple perspectives to my students through the traditional textbook (American Pageant) and reading Zinn yet the students feel I am trying to be bias by merely presenting the Zinn. Hence, they ask for the anti-Zinn. Ideally, they would get the traditional textbook, Zinnish readings, and the anti-Zinn readings. That is just not practical for each unit and I resort to doing a little of it all throughout the term.

I am also a US History

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I am also a US History teacher and I find the comment by John very interesting with he writes "they have challenged me to present both sides... this is frustrating for me because the typical history books is the anti-Zinn." This comment causes me to question whether you are really committed to an unbiased and open presentation of history or whether you have your own political agenda for your students. I feel that the students' request for a more balanced presentation shows that they are thinking and trying to figure out their own perspectives of history, and they understand that there are many voices and points of view in the academic analysis of the events they study. The goal in my classroom is to expose my students to as many primary documents and historians' interpretations of history as possible and then allow them to make their own decisions.

I do teach my students historical thinking at the beginning of the year and then design my lessons so that they can practice their newly acquired skills. When preparing for all writing and seminars, I provide my students with a variety of readings and then we have open debate and discussion. Yes, there is so much to teach, but I think that is true in any subject and we must just guard against shallow. In respect to the AP test, I have made the decision to focus on critical thinking and supplement with periodic good, old-fashioned cramming for the multiple choice portion of the test.

And in response to the availability of Zinn's work, the History Channel is offering multiple lessons to any teachers who have access to the internet.

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