Academic journal article Childhood Education

Echoes of the Past

Academic journal article Childhood Education

Echoes of the Past

Article excerpt

Jackdaws and Historical Fiction Bring History to Life

What are your earliest memories of learning history? When preservice teachers in my children's literature class are asked this question, they often answer with a groan and such comments as: "We had to memorize dates!" "I remember answering hundreds of questions about history at the end of each chapter." "I hated history!" In an effort to share the richness of historical fiction and to motivate my students to think beyond the "facts and dates" approach to teaching history, I began to use jackdaws as a way to make history come alive in a very concrete way.

What Is a Jackdaw?

A jackdaw, also known as a grackle, is a black and gray bird indigenous to Europe and Asia that can mimic the human voice, and that gathers brightly colored objects with which to line its nest. In the context of children's literature, Huck, Hepler, and Hickman (1987) define jackdaws as collections of artifacts based on a historical event or period. Jackdaws may include such items as maps, a time line, diary entries, recipes, biographical sketches, newspaper clippings, music, clothing, artwork, letters, or advertisements. The jackdaw generates a visual representation of a time period that captures the imagination while offering unique opportunities for a greater understanding of history. Jackdaws may focus on a specific work of historical fiction, or they may represent period themes from a text set.

The process of gathering and arranging jackdaw artifacts for display facilitates children's active involvement. As they collect family and community stories and memorabilia from the past, children begin to gain a sense of history that is relevant to their lives. Among the many resources to use for locating jackdaw items are: commercial jackdaw kits, which are available from some educational publishing houses (Dudley, 1992; Greenberg & Carey, 1985); "heritage trunks," created by museums, historical societies, and cultural institutes to pique children's interest in local, state, and regional history (Sunal & Phillips, 1987); historical "communities" - replicas of villages from specific time periods, such as Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia; university history, art, and music departments; and local libraries and genealogical societies. In addition to bringing history to life for young readers, jackdaws have been used to motivate remedial readers (Gibbs, 1997), build background knowledge prior to reading (Gibbs, 1997; Rasinski, 1983), improve preservice teachers' knowledge about teaching history, and encourage family and community members to volunteer in the classroom (Rasinski, 1983).

Jackdaws in the Early Childhood Classroom

I have often assigned university students a historical fiction novel to read, with the requirement that they assemble jackdaws and related children's literature to present in class. It was not until I actually used a jackdaw with young children, however, that I fully understood the way that jackdaws create a sense of fascination and historical relevance. In 1995, as a K-1 teacher in a four-week-long summer program sponsored by our university, I taught a thematic unit on the Okefenokee Swamp, a large wetland area and wildlife refuge in southeast Georgia that was occupied at various times by Native Americans, homesteaders, and cypress loggers. Although several of the children had visited Okefenokee Swamp Park, I needed a concrete way to help them visualize pioneer life in the swamp. Prior to teaching the unit, I visited the park and took numerous photographs of the wildlife and habitats, as well as of the pioneer homestead buildings inside the park.

After our initial exploration of the swamp's animals and wildlife, which formed the basis for most of the unit experiences, we began to discuss how the swamp was settled and to make our own pioneer cabin (see photos). As we planned our cabin and began "construction," based on photos of the Okefenokee homestead, the children readily gathered and brought in objects for our jackdaw: a washboard, a tin pail, a water dipper, a kerosene lamp, a straw broom, butter molds, an iron, a shoe mold, a quilt, a nightdress, old jars, and a small replica of a wood-burning stove [ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]. …

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