Doing History: Investigating with Children in Elementary and Middle Schools

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

In My Opinion, It Could Happen Again Chapter 11 How Attitudes and Beliefs Have Changed Over Time

Throughout the year, Amy Leigh draws her fourth-graders' attention to the way ideas, attitudes, values, and beliefs have changed over time. Near the beginning of the year, for example, the class investigates changes in names. After talking about their own first names, students collect information on names in their own, their parents', and their grandparents' generations--which names have become more or less common, how the length of names has changed, and how the reason for choosing names has changed. Students work in groups to record and analyze the data they collect, and they make presentations on their findings to the rest of the class. Afterward, they visit a nearby cemetery to collect information on names further back in time and examine 19th-century census records of Cherokee Indians and enslaved Africans for information on naming patterns among those populations.

Later in the year, Amy begins a unit on how social relations have changed over time. The class reads and discusses several works of children's literature that focus on attitudes toward racial, religious, and gender differences--works like Teammates, The Number on my Grandfather's Arm, The Bracelet, and Bloomers!--and students respond through activities such as simulated journals and written dialogues. Throughout this unit, Amy's focus is on the way people treat those different than themselves and the attitudes that underlie such treatment.

Later in the year, during a unit on life in Colonial America, students study the Salem witch trials. Amy begins by explaining how villagers' religious beliefs and their ideas about work and community influenced their attitudes toward each other. Over the next two weeks, students take on the roles of villagers and plan a simulated trial of a woman accused of witchcraft. Students have to plan their actions and statements based on the beliefs of people at the time. For example, witnesses decide what evidence would have been convincing to people at the time, and jurors decide what evidence would have convinced people then--not people today.

Being able to take the perspective of people in the past is a requirement for meaningful historical understanding. To understand why people acted as they did, it's necessary to be familiar with the cultural context that shaped their thoughts. Without the ideas, attitudes, values, and beliefs of people in history, their actions have no meaning. The development of racial slavery in British North America, for example, can only be understood with reference to Englishmen's ideas about the differences between themselves and Africans; the conquest of Native Americans by reference to ideas about what constituted civilization. Although advocates of a purely "factual" approach to the teaching of history sometimes claim that getting into the minds of people in the past is impossible--and therefore has no place in school--nothing could be further from the truth. Most historical interpretations take into account people's motivations, and historians are careful to distinguish between those ideas that are based on contemporary attitudes and those that may have influenced people in the past. "Reading the present into the past"--explaining historic events by referring to contemporary standards--is a cardinal sin among historians; one cannot explain the actions of a medieval serf or lord, an 18th-century Japanese merchant, or a Texas farmwoman in 1890 by pretending that they're all middle-class European Americans of the late 20th century. Their worldviews, mentalities, and ide-

Historians avoid attributing contemporary attitudes to people in the past.

Historical thinking involves understanding the perspectives of people in the past. Lee ( 1978), Lee & Asbby ( 2000), Portal ( 1987, 1990), Schemilt ( 1984) Jennings ( 1975), Jordan ( 1968)

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