Thursday, September 2, 2010

History Alive!

I wrote this as a guest post for my homeschool group's blog, and I am re-posting it here with permission. ♥

A few months ago, I was talking to a lady who said her son strongly disliked History. She was using a textbook-like history program, which her son was not enjoying. However, she showed me some books on Abraham Lincoln that her son had checked out from the library, and told me how interested he was in those. What do you think was the difference? Why was this child who was so uninterested in his history curriculum eating up the Abraham Lincoln (*history*) books? What is the difference?

I would like to propose that the difference was not in the subject ("history"), but in the manner in which it was presented. The textbook-style history was presented in a dry, state-the-facts sort of way, while the books from the library were presented in the style of a story. And isn't that was history is? The story of everything that has happened? Look at the following example of a textbook-style writing about Abraham Lincoln:

Abraham Lincoln (February 12, 1809 – April 15, 1865) served as the 16th President of the United States from March 1861 until his assassination in April 1865. He successfully led the United States through its greatest internal crisis, the American Civil War, preserving the Union and ending slavery.

Does this tell us anything about Abraham Lincoln personally? Does it draw us in? Often, history that is presented in this way is read by the child like this:

Abraham Lincoln (blah blah 12, 1809 – blah blah 15, 1865) blah blah blah 16th President of the United States from blah blah assassination blah blah 1865. Blah blah blah United States blah crisis, the American Civil War, blah blah slavery. *snore*

Now that I have clawed a bit at history textbooks (*hee hee*), I present this disclaimer, and the point of this whole article: I'm not here to judge any particular curriculum or teaching style, but I want to share some ways that history has come alive for me, and can come alive for you as well! I believe there is a place for hard-core facts, but supplemented with the right mediums, history can be much more than just a bunch of numbers, names, and "blah blahs".

Here are some different ways history has come alive for me.

  • Through the Medium of Drama - My first encounter with "living" history was through a 1940's/World War II play I wrote. I was about 9 years old, and my friend, sister, and I all decided to do a play in our dilapidated garage. (I'll talk more about the garage in a moment.) I dove head-first into our local library's books on WWII/1940's life (for the script), and fashion (for the costumes). My co-actresses and I created characters, and built a set in our garage that included a cardboard "house" suspended from the rafters (that barely squeaked by my mom's safety regulations), and our very own "victory garden", which was constructed out of a sheet of cardboard covered in grass that we had dug up from our own back yard (roots and all....). It was wonderful, and we all felt like stars when our audience (of exactly one... my mom...) gave us a standing ovation. WWII became really real to me through the power of acting, and because it was disguised as something fun (a play) the research was fun as well!

  • Through the Medium of Playing and Hands-on - I said I was going to talk a little more about the garage we had in Michigan, so here I go. That garage, though it was not fit to hold any car with even a shred of dignity, was a true blessing to me and my friends. We spent many hours turning it into a theater, a pioneer school, a western general store, and more! The second way history came alive to me was through the provision of space to play, and my mom encouraging us with books and giving us hands-on activities to do! I remember a particular time when my friend and I wanted our own prairie outfits. My mom helped us sew simple skirts (mine was made out of a floral print fabric, and my friend's was a red fabric with little white flowers on it) and bonnets. This hands-on activity helped to again bring history alive for us. Suddenly, we were Laura Ingalls Wilder running through the green prairie grasses (or our un-mowed, uncontrollable weed patch that grew far in the back of the yard....) Playing and making with your hands is a powerful tool that can really bring history home for kids!
  • Through the Medium of Media - Provide kids with movies and books that introduce them to different eras and events in history. I don't just mean documentaries and informational movies, although those can be fun and educational as well. I am talking about stories and movies that present history as an adventure - and it IS an adventure!! When your kids are interested in a novel or movie, encourage them to research it further. They will learn so much this way! A very recent example of movies/TV shows inspiring me to learn more is the BBC TV Show "Robin Hood" that my mom, sister, and I have been watching. It got me interested in the Medieval time period, and I, in turn, was able to go to the library and get some books that referenced things from the show-- i.e. The Crusades, Medieval Life, Medieval Social Classes...etc. Surround your kids with movies and story books that have elements of history incorporated in them, and they will have a natural interest in it.

Basically, If I had to sum all this up in one central thought, it would be this : History isn't all about Names and Numbers, it's about a story. Your kids will respond to a story, and they will remember so much more if it is presented in such a way as to get to know the who, the what, the when and the why. Be creative, and hands-on! Make the people of history your friends, and you will have a successful experience. ♥


  1. So true! Great post, Allison! Thanks for posting it. :)

  2. Very nice! I completely agree. :)
    I can't tell you how many hours my sisters and I spent playing pioneer when we were little. Lol!

  3. Great article Allison... as a homeschool grad myself, I still enjoy learning about history in all the ways you listed! History is definitely about more than dates and wars (booooring...) One remembers so much better too, by seeing, acting, or living with the characters through a well written book. I'll have to check out that Robin Hood show!

  4. ~You know, I still remember that play, and I think that house, with its Meijer bag curtains was totally awesome!!!! I thought it was great when your grandparents said how accurate we were, especially for our ages.

    Also, I still have that skirt and bonnet. Sad, I know.

    And, you know, even for someone like me who likes history in any way, shape or form, I found that I not only liked it, but I loved it, enjoyed it, and wanted to know more, which is, I suppose, what it's all about. And all those methods can work with other subjects as well. I am the "hands-on" expert for anything when it comes to math, which I detest with a passion. This differs with many learning styles, but for me, the visual/oral learner, I found that if my mom just told me what 2+2 equals, it didn't quite click. I would know the answer, without really understanding the answer. So(and this is when it gets good) my mom brought out the M&Ms, and would show me the math problems with them.(I especially liked learning how to subtract, because I got to eat what was taken away) But the point is, it stuck.

    Well, that's my little(ha!) schpeal. A very well-written post, and one that brings back so many wonderful memories! Thank you~

  5. Great article, Allison! I completely agree about boring textbook vs. other fascinating ways of learning history. Reading fictional books about a certain time period is one of my favorite ways to actually learn more about the people that lived at that time.