Developing a Love of History

By Mary Hood, Ph.D.

 

When I was starting to get my thoughts together for this article, my 33-year-old son, who has always loved history, came in and asked me what I was working on. When I told him it was an article about helping children learn to love history, he said: “History can be so dull when you focus on places, dates, and names. To get someone to love it, you have to help them learn to walk in the shoes of the people who lived back then.”

So true . . . but how, exactly, do you accomplish that?

It has been almost fifty years since I was in seventh grade, but I still remember like yesterday how my social studies teacher inspired a whole classroom of students to love the study of history. She gave up many of her weekends to travel all over the state of Wisconsin with us, teaching us about various historical sites and telling us stories of the people who had lived in the area before we did. She told us about Solomon Juneau, who founded the city of Milwaukee. She shared the story of the first kindergarten in the United States and took us to see it. She walked around the state capitol building with us and helped us learn the names of the important state legislators from years past, as well as meet with some of the current men who worked there.     

Besides all of the hands-on field trips, she also made us each do what she called a “big project” each semester. We would each choose one historical site or figure and give a ten-minute talk about the person or site, supplemented with dioramas, poetry we had written, or whatever we could come up with. To this day, I remember one of the poems I wrote.  I won’t share the entire poem, but it started with these words: “Only an Indian village stood, a circle of huts, a fire of wood. Only an Indian village lay, when Solomon Juneau decided to stay.”

Not exactly Longfellow, but apparently my teacher achieved her goal, because I learned to love history and can still remember the poem in its entirety fifty years later. In fact, I remember the beginning of my best friend’s poem too: “When I walk through Whitnall Park, I wonder if, perhaps, the Indians of long ago had it on their maps.”

Neither of us became poets.

However, many years later, when my family had access to a resource center for homeschoolers in the Atlanta area, I did follow my teacher’s lead and started a program called “Georgia History Adventures.” I went on numerous field trips with our students. We went to Savannah and learned about Oglethorpe and the founding of the Georgia colony. We explored the gold mine up in Dahlonega, and we learned about Georgia having the first gold rush in the country. We stood on top of Kennesaw Mountain, next to the cannons, and pictured in our minds what the start of the Battle of Atlanta may have looked like. We tromped around on top of the Etowah Indian Mounds and pretended to be Indians who were there before the white man arrived.

Like my son said, history can be dull and boring, especially when learned from a textbook. However, there are many methods that make history alive and exciting. One of the best methods is learning through firsthand experiences as we did back in seventh grade. However, vicarious experiences, such as reading real “living” books written by people who experienced history firsthand, reading interesting biographies of the people who traveled this land before our time, or watching carefully chosen videos or documentaries that supplement instruction are also great choices. One of the many productions we watched with our children was the mini-series “Centennial,” which focused on the founding of a town in Colorado, taking the viewer from the days of the Indians to the present.

History doesn’t have to suddenly become dull and boring when a student hits high school either. You can still avoid the use of textbooks by simply making a list of topics to cover and then going to the library and getting good books and videos and supplementing when possible with real-life experiences.

As part of a high school U.S History class that covered World War II, to tell the story of the fateful day when the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, we borrowed from the library a video about the pilot who carried out the mission. We spent an hour glued to the television set, hanging on every word. In a textbook, a study of that event would have occupied a single paragraph.

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