Doing History: Investigating with Children in Elementary and Middle Schools

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

Tell Me About Yourself
Chapter 5
Linking Children to the Past Through Family Histories

After students have completed their personal history projects, Tina Reynolds begins a unit on family history by reading The Patchwork Quilt, a book in which a girl and her mother discover meaning in the way a grandmother's quilt "tells stories" about the family's past. Tina asks students whether their relatives have ever told them about the past, and nearly every hand is raised: One boy tells about his uncle who was in "the war"; a girl relates how her grandmother talks about the old things she owns; another student explains that his grandmother's World War II factory badge is in an exhibit at a nearby museum. The rest of the lesson focuses on the concept of "generation"--which relatives are in their own generation, which in their parents', and so on. The next day, Tina introduces students to a new assignment, creating a family history based on interviews with their grandparents. Although students can do a "Family History Chart" as an optional assignment, their primary task is to give a presentation which focuses on the differences between their grandparents' lives and their own. Tina assigns several questions for students to ask in their interviews and works with them to develop several more of their own. She also spends an entire lesson modeling how to conduct an interview, as well as how to take notes. Sharing the results of these interviews takes several days, as students feel compelled to share as many of the things they've learned as possible.

Rebecca Valbuena begins a unit on immigration by portraying her grandfather, a Latvian who immigrated to New York as a 10-year-old in 1910. She places photographs of him around the room, plays Latvian music on a tape recorder, and explains why he came to the United States and what he found here. After answering questions about his life, she asks students why their own families--almost all of whom are recent immigrants--came to the United States. They quickly produce a list with a variety of reasons--to find work, to be with relatives, for political freedom, to get away from war, and (the most common), "for a better life." This discussion leads into the first assignment of the unit: interview an immigrant. Working together as a class, they develop a list of questions that would be important to ask an immigrant--What country did you come from? Why did you immigrate? What difficulties did you have when you first arrived? Was the United States what you expected? And, at students' insistence, How much did it cost? Over the next few days, students develop written and oral reports based on their interviews, and then compare their findings to the experience of other immigrants in history--such as the Irish on the East coast in the mid-1800s and the Chinese on the West coast in the late 1800s. At the end of each day's lesson, Rebecca reads aloud a different book about immigrants, such as Who Belongs Here? and Where the River Runs, and students discuss the feelings and experiences of immigrants.

One of the most crucial challenges in teaching history to children lies in linking the subject to their prior knowledge. As we discussed in chapter 2, people can only make sense of new experiences when they compare them to what they already know. Without such a connection, children are unlikely to understand the history they encounter at school. Yet it's not always obvious just how to make that connection; certainly many of the topics traditionally covered in history textbooks have no dear relation to students' own experiences, and texts rarely suggest how such topics might be relevant. The challenge for the teacher, then, lies in deciding what aspects of important historical content match up with elements of students' lives. Finding that link is the key to broadening students' understanding of history beyond their own experience, and family histories provide one of

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