Doing History: Investigating with Children in Elementary and Middle Schools

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

Past, Present, and Future

Chapter 1
The Sociocultural Context for Studying History

We learn [in history] . . . how people's views change over time. A lot of people's views change, but not everybody. We still have things like the KKK around . . . so obviously their views haven't changed since like the Civil War and stuff, but I think most people's have. Not necessarily everybody. . . . There's definitely still prejudice around, not necessarily just about Blacks and Hispanics, either.

--Caitlyn, Grade 6

You may remember a very different history from the one Caitlyn describes. Too often history instruction is simply a march through time that never quite connects to the present. History becomes, as one second grader explains, "a main date." The dates may mark interesting stories, but the stories are finished--beginnings and middles established, climaxes identified, and endings predictable. Figures from a pantheon of heroes and villains step forward briefly, take their bows in stories that often fail to distinguish between myth and history, and disappear back into the pictures displayed above chalkboards. George Washington was the first president, had wooden teeth, and chopped down a cherry tree. Abraham Lincoln was honest, read by firelight, and walked a mile to return a nickel. It is little wonder that children sometimes ask what the point in all this storytelling might be.

Consider the kind of history Caitlyn's comments suggest. She clearly struggles to make sense of the prejudice she sees around her--both to explain how it is that prejudice exists and to separate herself from it. She uses her study of history to identify prejudice as an enduring human dilemma and to understand that "a lot of people's views change, but not everybody. . . . There's still prejudice around." In other words, we are still in the middle of the story. The ending isn't predictable, and the story unfolds in our own time and in our own lives. The point of history is that this is, after all, an enormous family drama. Each of us develops the plot twists with which future generations will have to cope. From this perspective, history forces us to consider what it means to be a participant in this human drama.


HISTORY HELPS US THINK ABOUT WHO WE ARE

"You have Aunt Eliza's laugh," a father tells a child, "and a stubborn streak just like your grandmother!" A second child excitedly investigates a box that is "an old, old, old thing that's crumbling it's so old. [My grandmother] said it's older than her grandmother, so my grandmother's grandmother. It's an old jewelry box from France. We pulled out these old doors and one almost crumbled when we pulled it out." In one classroom, a girl explains that her mother often talks about leaving school as a child in El Salvador to help support her family; a classmate has learned that his uncle was once

Families pass on stories about the past.

-1-

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