On the first day of school, Tina Reynolds asked her fourth-graders to complete the sentence, "History is . . ." on slips of paper and to discuss their answers. At least half the class wrote, "I don't know," while others gave short answers like "long ago,""antiques and old stuff," or "presidents and other famous people." Tina asked if they had ever learned about history; a few recalled that parents or other relatives had told them about the past, while others couldn't remember having learned anything about the topic.
She then asked if a person could have a history: "Could there be a 'History of Christy,' for example?" Some thought yes, some no, but none could explain why. Tina said that she had a history of herself to show them, and asked what they thought it might look like. Again, students weren't sure. She showed the class a poster she had made with a time line of important events in her life, and students' interest began to pick up; they eagerly volunteered to read out loud each of the milestone in Tina's life--when she was born, started school, got married, and so on. She then told students they were going to make their own time lines to show the most important things that had happened to them, and that they would use these time lines to create a "History of Me" to share with the class.
After a discussion of what they might include, students began working on a list of the five most important things that had happened in their lives. Although they were excited about the topic, writing was difficult for many; making a list like this took a while. Seated at tables of four and five, though, they continually shared their experiences as they wrote--telling each other about siblings being born, vacations their family had taken, or starting a new sport. Tina, meanwhile, talked to students as they worked, asking them to explain why they chose the items they did or helping those who were having trouble. After completing their lists, students were to fill in the dates of each event on a blank time line of the last ten years. Because most had no idea when each thing had happened, they had to take these home to complete with their parents' help. Tina also asked them to add any new events they discovered in talking with their parents.
The next day, it was obvious that students had not only recorded a set of dates but had learned entirely new set of stories from their parents. They were eager to share these in class--the time Martin rolled down the stairs on his tricycle, the time Lisa "almost drowned," and so on. Afterward, students began creating their personal histories. All had to write narrative essays about their lives, but they could present it to the rest of the class in several different ways--by recording a video- or audiotape, making a poster with photographs (or drawings) and captions, or simply reading their essay. One student even acted as a "museum guide" to the important events of his life. The next several days were devoted to this assignment, as students wrote essays, designed posters, and planned scripts for tapes. When the time came to share these products with their classmates, even the shyest were proud to present, and students listened with careful attention to the stories of each others' lives.
In our interviews with children from first grade through middle school, we have found that all of them know something about how things were different in the past. Less often do they have a clear idea what history means. Because students usually don't encounter the subject at school before fourth grade, they sometimes don't even clearly recognize the word; those who have heard it may link it with the past generally ("antiques and old stuff'), or may associate it with famous people or events. But rarely do they realize that they are part of history, or that they have a history of their own. A seventh-grader trying to explain the difference between science and history observed that he and the other students were part of science, because it was about them and the
Barton ( 1994a), Barton & Levstik ( 1996), Levstik & Barton ( 1996), Levstick & Pappas ( 1987); see also Brophy & VanSledright ( 1997)