Doing History: Investigating with Children in Elementary and Middle Schools

By Linda S. Levstik ; Keith C. Barton | Go to book overview

Rats in the Hospital
Chapter 7 Creating a History Museum

After her fourth-graders had completed family history projects, Amy Leigh introduced them to their next investigation--creating displays on how life has changed over the last hundred years. On the first day of the unit, she showed them an object she explained was a common tool about a hundred years ago. Most students quickly identified it as a hand-held drill, and several volunteered to demonstrate how it was used. After discussing how it differed from modern drills, the class gathered on the floor in front of Amy while she read I Go With My Family to Grandma's, which she explained was also about a time almost a hundred years ago. Amy asked students to point out anything they found in the book that would be different today, and she kept track of their observations on a sheet of chart paper on the wall. After discussing the book, students worked in pairs with historical photographs to make further observations about change over the last century, and at the end of the day reported on these to their classmates and added new items to the chart.

Over the next several days, students examined physical artifacts Amy had brought in--old watches, purses, tools, clothes, and appliances. Guided by "Artifact Think Sheets," they recorded ways these differed from similar objects today. After everyone had worked through all the objects, the class met together again to summarize what they had found and to develop a list of general categories of change--technology, clothes, transportation, etc. Each student then chose two or three categories to find out more about. After several days of exploration with library resources--trade books, CD-ROMs, and encyclopedias--students chose partners and picked a single topic to investigate in more depth. Each group developed a set of specific questions they wanted to answer, and they collected information using not only print and electronic resources but also artifacts, interviews, and photographs. During the research phase of the project, Amy worked with each group to help them locate and use information to prepare reports and displays, and afterward, students created exhibits for a History Museum in their classroom. They explained their exhibits for other classes who toured their museum and for parents and grandparents during a final performance.

One of the most common suggestions for teaching social studies (at any level) is to have students "do research." Yet as we have noted, simply sending students off on their own to engage in that vague activity rarely results in anything positive or productive. Younger children are unlikely to have any idea what they are supposed to do, while older ones will do what nearly all of us did when we were in school--go to the library and copy something out of an encyclopedia. Neither of those strategies helps students learn about the past or about conducting inquiry. In contrast, the students in Amy's classroom learned both: They not only investigated how things have changed over time, but they also learned to ask questions, collect information, draw conclusions, and present their findings.

Sometimes assignments are difficult, and students dislike doing them; other times, students enjoy themselves, but the activities are too easy for them really to team very much. But teachers know they're on to something when students enjoy doing an assignment that does not come easily. The "History Museum" project in Amy's classroom is a perfect example of such an assignment: Students immensely enjoyed it, yet none of it came easily. They spent nearly a month working on the activities described earlier, and nearly every minute of that time involved painstaking efforts by Amy to help students use resources to find information, reach conclusions based on their observations, and transform notes into reports and presentations. Having little or no previous experience with the process, students encountered numerous obstacles along the way. As a result,

Teachers must help students learn how to conduct inquiry.

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