This was never my own experience in the history classroom. “Learning” was to take place by reading the assigned chapters and answering the often inane questions at the close of the chapter. Memorizing dates, names, places. And no, I do not remember the dates of all the battles of the Civil War, as I was tested on one day in history during high school. Not one primary document crossed my line of sight until years after I finished college.
I had to take a U.S. history survey course about a year ago, as a prerequisite for certification. Much to my disappointment, I found myself once again in a classroom curriculum chained to the textbook. No primary documents. No questions. No real discussion.
I had finally become interested in history on my own, through genealogy research and luck in who I met and worked with. Certain pieces of history, sometimes lost in the cracks, tended to interest me the most. The hunt of family research, the frustration of the brick wall (What in the world possessed the Irish to burn their records?), the looking for answers and finding them, and sometimes NOT finding them. The digging through census records and military files and old photographs and immigration records. What finally drew me in to a subject I had long abhorred? The inquiry, of course. The process, the discovery, the joy in finding some hidden tidbit and the ever-growing list of questions that accompanied each discovery. This is of course, how history learning should look.
I’m still working out how this will look in my classroom, and don’t expect to ever have a definite answer. It’s hard to decide what works best before being in the classroom, of course, but even once there I suspect I will be tweaking my methods for years to come. The plan, as it stands now, is to have an integrated classroom that teaches across disciplines using social studies as the anchor. A big part of this means making resources available to my students to explore, and I’ve actually started doing that already: compiling my own resources, book lists, websites, primary documents, articles, lesson ideas, lists of good digital archives, and so on. The materials of exploration.
All of this requires our expectations for our students to be high. Sometimes, out of a desire to protect our society's children, as parents and teachers, our expectations are much to low, in the name of "protecting them," or based on a too stringent view of "developmental appropriateness." I can't tell you how many times I've heard, "They're not ready for that," "That was an exceptional group of students that did that, wouldn't work with most kids," "They can't handle it." Simple self-fulfilling prophecy at work here. And yet we lament the lack of critical thought or reflection. How will they develop those skills with no practice? It's as foolish as waiting till your kid is 10 before putting him on a bike. Surely, he's "ready" now, yes? And then being surprised when he can't just pick up and ride off.
Take a look at this site, CUNY's "Investigating U.S. History." It's a series of lesson modules into American history designed for college level students. Take a look at some of the objectives under each section. Why couldn't these objectives be the same for elementary students? In the lesson on labor unrest during the Depression, for example, the objectives include:
"To stimulate an analysis of issues and events from a variety of perspectives."
"To provide an opportunity to investigate the rise of organized labor and spread of industrial democracy as both a response and a spur to Roosevelt's New Deal."
"To offer a structured way to interrogate and utilize primary sources."
Sounds good to me. The results will be different (hopefully!) between a college level lesson and a fifth grade lesson on it, but there's no real reason why elementary students can't engage in this higher level of thinking.
As I see it, this is one of the most important skills we can give our kids. You'd never know it by looking at how students and schools are held accountable, or by observing the all-too-common sidelining of social studies in elementary classrooms. Historicalthinkingmatters.org lays out pretty well why this is so important. (Click link on that page for pop-up video introduction.)