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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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Agree with much of the conversation, but...

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I also teach 11th grade US History and have my students read all of Zinn and plenty of documents. My students actually, for the first time, do not like Zinn. They find him to be just pitching the "typical anti-white man rhetoric." To their credit, they have challenged me to present both sides of the history by presenting the anti-Zinn. This is frustrating for me because the typical history book is the anti-Zinn. So, here is my dilemma...there are too many standards and things that need to be taught in a year-long course so it is nearly impossible to genuinely present both sides of the issues consistently while still teaching what is required to be taught. It becomes naturally biased towards the Zinn way or the traditional way. If the end-goal is to help students become better analyzers of their realities and highly functioning citizens AND teach everything in the book (and on the AP test for my situation) it becomes a nearly lost cause. Something has to give!

Agreement and dissent

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I have to agree with the concepts you push. I'd like to point out that states have to improve their standards with more clarity on the topics. Text books and many other resources take the easy routes to focus on these specifics as well, though I have no idea of the standards of your school or the resources. It frustrates me as a teacher that we are mandated standards and then expected to choose the most important of those standards for actual instruction....this is often the case (see Reeves). What, then, is the point of standards?

But my question is this: Have you presented these concerns to your child's teacher? Or did you just get frustrated and write an article here to bash the teacher? For the sake of the profession I hope you spoke with her about it.

I agree that we need to focus on critical analysis. As a middle school teacher it frustrates me to have students who have been raised through a system of teachers who have instructed kids to have the same background your child has been exposed to.

Senior Manager of Video Programming, Production, & Curation at Edutopia

Hear, hear!

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Thanks so much for writing this, Elena.

I myself was fortunate enough to be the daughter of a progressive elementary school teacher who taught me to think critically early on, and I had a history teacher in high school who assigned Zinn's "People's History" - but many kids don't have access to such resources. When I got to college, other students were shocked and amazed that I had read Zinn's classic in high school.

You can see Elena and some of her colleagues teaching critical thinking through current events to middle school students, in our video from 2003 about expeditionary learning at ASCEND school in Oakland, CA.

Does anyone have more ideas of resources you can use, particularly in the lower grades, to teach history from a more inclusive perspective?

History As A "Numb" Subject

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Elena,

I can completely relate to your conversation with your son as well as the frustration you feel when it comes to the way that history is taught. I'm an 11th grade AP History teacher, and every year, I start with a group of students that have been instructed in what I call "tunnel vision history” where they have no understanding of what it means to think historically, analyze information, or form an opinion and are left with the belief that the subject is “numb” or emotionless. I also have a love of Howard Zinn and my kids enjoy reading it, but I always remind them that this is one interpretation of the facts; not doctrine.

I can't comment much on the elementary grades because it isn't my area of expertise, but I can provide some suggestions for expanding minds in high school. The first thing every teacher needs to do is throw out the textbook and curriculum guide. These tend to be the MOST emotionless (or wrong) materials and provide no ambiguity because someone believes that everything needs to be "right" and "wrong" for the sake of giving some multiple-choice test.

I also believe in giving kids as many primary source documents as possible and having them give their own interpretation of what is being said. We rely too much on secondary and tertiary sources to teach kids history. As time progresses, much of these become melded together and offer one biased opinion.

I also think that it is every teacher's role to supply kids with viewpoints that provide direct contrast to each other. For instance, every kid reads the Declaration of Independence, but how many teachers are giving their kids "Strictures Upon The Declaration" by Thomas Hutchinson (http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/index.asp?document=2429)?

This is just one example of what history teachers need to do to engage kids, and there are millions more.

Thanks for a great article!

Director of Social Media Strategy and Marketing @Edutopia, edcamp organizer

Right on Elena!

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We need to teach our next generation to think critically and question things.

I was going to mention "A People’s History of the United States," by Howard Zinn, but you already did :)

Great job.

English teacher; Assoc. Dir. of Accomplished California Teachers

Elena, One of the core

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Elena,
One of the core principles I took away from my teacher training was that any topic, any content or concept, can be presented in an intellectually honest and academic way, for any age student. Thanks for reminding me of that idea - not only as a teacher, but also as the parent of two sons in the early elementary grades.

His Story...

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Wow. I am stunned. I think that our younger students are incredibly sensitive and open (I speak as a kindergarten teacher). I wish more parents were like you. It makes me sad that "history" is still being taught like this. I remember being taught along the same lines when I was a child in the 1970's. I think even then I could smell a rat. It just never related to me or my life. Children are more perceptive than we give them credit for. Honestly, I do not place much emphasis on teaching Lincoln or Washington yet. It is in our social studies curriculum, but in a barely touched sort of way and also with literature that is not age appropriate, not to mention the ridiculous one sided view that is presented.

I agree with what you are saying that kinders should learn about their own history first. That is a beautiful observation and something that I regretfully do not do enough of.

I do teach about Martin Luther King Jr. however and it never ceases to amaze me how much my students take to heart that history. I feel like it applies to now in so many ways and it is very relevant and real for my students. How can we be fair? What does injustice look like? How do we stand by our beliefs and stand up against injustice? What is bravery? What does it look like to fight for what you believe in? What does "real" violence look like and what is the cost? To my students, guns and violence is so glorified in video games but after learning about how Martin Luther Kind Jr. was killed, they want to talk about it. It begins to make a connection for them. I hope that I give my students a base from which they can work from to deconstruct all the mainstream history and injustices they are going to be force fed. I hope I give them a foundation of being able to stand up for themselves and for others. It is a small start, but a start.

Teaching and Learning Consultant in Southend, Essex, U.K.

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I think there are a lot of important points made by Elena. What we need to do for the children is to show them as many sources as possible and as many different stories about these sources as well.

The idea is that history, as she says, is written by the winners and the victims are often ignored or just seen as an incidental aside to the main show. I remember reading "Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee" and feeling my blood boil because I could empathise for the way that the native Americans were treated. Maybe there was another point-of-view of the white settlers searching for their "manifest destiny" and that would be the most difficult thing for children to get a handle on. But the idea of presenting the white settlers as human beings and not monsters from outer space (or hell) who somehow felt justified for treating the Indians in the way that they did is to see the picture of the history of the American West as it happened and not to take sides.

As much as I agree with her about Washington who is presented as the "great American hero" I also feel it is important to try and get an understanding of just how he could live with himself as the owner of 300 slaves and how he could justify the dreadful transportation and ill treatment of the slaves.Because, in his mind, I suppose he did not feel that this was a crime against humanity or indeed his God.

My contention is that we must try and get children to understand history as a complex set of events that does not have a simple "right or wrong" answer. In this way we will get children to start to develop their own point of view on the events and an understanding of the complexity of human nature.

One further point is that history needs to be seen "in the round" i.e. looking at the wars, the treaties, the assassinations but also understanding how oridinary people lived and what motivated them and how they fit in to the times they lived in.

A last point I will make is that in these days of massive resources available from the internet, I feel that we must get our children to examine as much material as possible... there is a lot of amazing stuff out there.

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