Thursday, April 7, 2016

History and Young People

Making history relevant
Last week's blog, "The Historian's Responsibility," (Blog Archives 3-3-2016) dealt with the challenges of competing for attention in a world filled with distractions.  That blog generated some interesting replies from followers.  E.R. from Kansas recommended two books on the subject, Overload Syndrome and Digital Invasion and added from his own experience the value of his parents' having removed the television from their home environment, replacing it with "weekly trips to the library to load up on books."  

J.S., a small town librarian whose wisdom I have referenced in the past, shared a fun dialogue between herself and a young boy who had visited the library to use the computer.

J.S. (scooting a group of computer users out at closing time):  "Does anybody want to check out books before you leave?"
Boy:  "Yeah, but I didn't bring any money."
J.S.:  "You don't need can take home library books for FREE!"
Boy (looking at me like I was Out of My Mind):  "Are you SERIOUS?!"
J.S.:  "Yes--Check them out; take them home; read them; then bring them back and get some more!"
Boy:  "ALRIGHT!!!  Where are the basketball books?!"

While that story might seem a bit discouraging with reference to what children choose "to attend to," she also shared a story about a young girl who asked for "animal books."  The girl explained, "I think I want to be a veterinarian when I grow up..."  J.S. added that the girl left with a dozen or so books about animals.

J.S. took particular pleasure when a 9-year-old dropped by to see her 5 years after his family had moved and told her "I sure miss coming to this library..."

Conversations like these should make all of us hopeful that children are still curious about ideas to be gained from books.  Unfortunately, L.K. from Missouri thought of an old rhyme as she read the blog:  You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink.  You can give a person information but you can't make him think.

Some of you may have read the comment left at last week's blog from an international follower, which concluded:  "How does one understand history without having read a great deal of it?" 

It seems that much of my own history reading is triggered by something, and I read voraciously about the subject because that random event or bit of information tweaked my curiosity.  Each thing I read prompts me toward further reading.  For example, studying the US Constitution in law school made me want to visit Philadelphia, and although it took me several decades to get there, the visit expanded my reading about the American Revolution, our Founding Fathers, military history, and other issues of the late 1700s.  

Titles Isaac Werner's Library Contained
Isaac's Journal has led me to read and research the early history of his (and my) community, the Progressive Movement of the late 1800s, early farming methods on the prairie, and other subjects that would not otherwise have attracted my attention, many of which I have blogged about.    

Finding the toy W.W. I soldier led to more intense reading about that historic time, including Churchill biographies, W.W. I war poets, soldiers from the English village of my ancestors, the influenza pandemic, and other topics about which I knew little or nothing, information I have also shared in my blog.

If you were to reflect on your own reading habits, you might also recognize triggers of your own.  So, how can a teacher of history create triggers for his or her students that will make history of interest to young people?  An interesting article written by Ann White, a teacher of European history in Washington, D.C. suggests that the key is for teachers to allow their own passions for what they are teaching to be the trigger for their students' interest.  

In her own case, she showed her class how she, as a history writer, proceeds once she has a thesis for a paper.  "...I taught by doing--writing, before their eyes, the same paper they were writing.  Why?  Because I myself write history.  It is my passion.  ...I want to show them how I weigh evidence in my mind and how I weigh words.  Does my tentative thesis genuinely express my understanding...Should I use a more vivid verb?"  White stopped giving tests and began requiring her students to write essays, and she discovered that they responded to her enthusiasm by mirroring her process.  "...they criticize each other's thesis statements.  They recognize statements that describe but do not assert, they find each other's lapses in historical reasoning.  Questions about thesis statements produce more intense classroom conversations than my test preparation ever evoked."

However, she also recognized that other teachers taught history in entirely different ways that also excited their students.  The common factor was "impassioned teachers."  She concluded that the teachers' "passionate involvement with history" is more important that methodology.  (You may read more at "Teaching High School History:  The Power of the Personal, Ann White, May 1998.)

Isaac's Journal
When I was teaching high school English before attending law school, my classes opened their minds to poetry when I used the lyrics of popular songs or assigned the sports section of the newspaper to search for similes, metaphors, and other poetry techniques.  Not by abandoning the text book but by opening their eyes to the poetry around them, I was able to awaken their interest.  Or, as William James said in last week's post, I was able to bring poetry into their own experience.

I hope more of you will share your comments this week about your own triggers for exploring subjects that had not previously been part of your experience, about teachers that shared their passions for subjects in a way that captured your interest, and about reading adventures you took after something triggered your curiosity.  I look forward to hearing from you!     



The Blog Fodder said...

Teaching history would be such a joy for me. But I could not have started any younger and even now am not sure I am knowledgeable enough. Some places I am an inch wide and a mile deep but in too many, still a mile wide and an inch deep. I want to be a mile wide AND a mile deep. Then I would feel qualified to teach others.

Lynda Beck Fenwick said...

You would be a great teacher! I have been inventorying our books, and there are so many that I want to read NEXT. I've hardly done any reading in 2016--too many projects. I've read a lot more W.W. I poems!! and I reread "One of Ours." I have another stack of half-read books... We just don't live long enough to read and to learn everything that intrigues us, do we?! I have only given up on two books in my life, but I think I have reached the age where if I don't like a book I should give myself permission to close the cover and read something I enjoy. Of course, each book I read leads me to more titles I think I must read!