Saturday, February 18, 2017

Making Time for History

Why don't we teach more history in elementary school?

Oh, we teach history on Dr. King's birthday and President's Day. We cover a few historical figures during Black History month, Women's History month, and Hispanic Heritage month. Maybe students at your school might do a biography project or study important inventors. But many of us don't really teach about more than a handful of important people.

Black History month and Women's History month were both started in order to combat generations of teaching about the history of "old, white men." And I guess that when I was growing up, that's who we mostly learned about.

George Washington and his cherry tree (pure fiction by the way). 

Abraham Lincoln and the log cabin. 

Benjamin Franklin and his kite. 

Thomas Edison and the light bulb. 

Henry Ford's car. 

Alexander Graham Bell's telephone.

So how did I come to know the names Clara Barton, Helen Keller, Elizabeth Blackwell, Molly Pitcher, Jane Addams, Florence Nightingale, Amelia Earhart, and Abigail Adams? How did I grow up with a love of history and a fascination with the men and women whose stories I read?

Was it the library with its wonderful wall of (somewhat fictionalized) biographies?

Was it a teacher (or two) who taught history with an air of fascination and wonder?

Or was it just me, longing to be like these people who overcame hardship to make a difference in the world?

I honestly don't know.

I do know that when I ask young children today to name people in history, I generally hear four names: Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, George Washington, and Abraham Lincoln.

In my state, our standards do require us to teach history, but how many of us go beyond those four names mentioned above? 

How many of us effectively help children to grasp ways in which the past has influenced the present? 

How many of us have made an effort to find historical role models to whom our children would relate?

We have no knowledge-base or interest. We "don't know much about history..." as the song says. We find history dry and boring, filled with dates and battles and documents to memorize.

We have no resources. We don't have a social studies textbook in our district. Our social studies resources consist of geography materials, a few trade books, and a teacher's guide. History isn't a major priority, so the resources are simply not available.

We have no time. Our schedule is tight. We have to have two hours of balanced literacy instruction, at least an hour of math instruction, an intervention block, and just thirty minutes a day for the teaching of science or social studies. We dedicate three weeks to social studies, then switch to science for three weeks, and then back to social studies. Oh, and for the record, I don't know anyone who is always able to stay on schedule. And if we run out of time, guess what gets left out?

That needs to change.

Children need role models and history is full of them.  They need to see representations of themselves in successful historical figures so they can realize the unlimited possibilities of their own lives. They need to know that what is, wasn't always. They need to know what used to be so that they become convinced that change is possible. They need to know that one individual can be a powerful agent of that change. And to embrace the idea that maybe, one day, they could be that agent.

So how do we make time for history in our classrooms?

Expanding our personal knowledge base

In the age of the internet, learning about history has never been easier.  You can sign up for daily emails from This Day in History or check out the Today in History page from the Library of Congress. You can like and follow Facebook pages such as A Mighty Girl, the History Channel, or the National Museum of American History. You can tour local monuments and historic sites or visit a history museum. You can listen to stories on StoryCorps.

If you're not a history fan, that may be because your experience in learning history was filled with memorization of dates, battles, and documents. While some of us find this aspect of history fascinating, others find the stories and personalities more relatable. Focus on people if dates make your eyes glaze over. You can always google the dates things happened.

Finding the resources

There are a wealth of resources for teaching about history. Here are just a few:

Biographies - Create a section of your library that is dedicated to biographies. Seek out some of the lesser-known names. Make sure you have books about people from all races and backgrounds, especially those that reflect the diversity in your own classroom.

Here are just a few of the biographies I encourage students to read during
Black History Month (and all year long)

I try to include a variety of biographies in my library.
Here are just a few.

Historical Fiction - This often-overlooked genre brings history alive for some kids. I know it did (and does) for me. Look for books that are historically accurate with relatable, realistic characters.

I put these historical fiction titles in a basket to celebrate Black History Month.

Here are a few of the historical fiction texts in my classroom library.

Primary Sources and Realia - Whenever possible, expose students to real images and objects from history. For objects, think about bringing in old coins, invite families to "show and tell" their family heirlooms, or visit local history museums to observe artifacts. When I go on vacations, I love to explore historical sites. Their gift shops often have replicas of historical objects for sale. Build a collection for the units you teach and create a display in your classroom.

The internet has a  wealth of historical images. One of my favorite resources is the Library of Congress. They have an amazing collection of historical documents and photographs that bring history to life.

Your local public library is a great source for books, audio, digital images, and even artifacts. Ask a librarian to help you gather materials for your unit.

Teachers pay Teachers - There are many quality resources available for free and for sale on TpT. Use the search bar to find resources on historical figures or events. You can build your unit around a poem or non-fiction resource.

You may be interested in my newest freebie, Do You Know Her Name? Shirley Chisholm. It's the first of a new series of historical poems and activities featuring famous women in history.

Making the time

This is the hard one. Trying to teach all of our social studies objectives in the time we have available is difficult, so adding anything else seems impossible. It's not. We just have to be creative in our use of the time available to us.

One of the easiest ways to add the teaching of history to your instructional day is by incorporating it into your reading instruction. We need to teach students how to read non-fiction, right? Why not include a few biographies or biographical articles in your plans? If you're teaching a unit on realistic fiction, include some historical fiction. You can teach the same reading skills as students learn a little bit about the way things used to be.

Another great way to add history to your curriculum is through student research projects. In my school, we teach students to research topics of their own interests and share the information with their peers.  If you have a student who is interested in math, you can encourage him/her to research a famous mathematician such as Paul Erdos or Katherine Johnson. A student who loves science may be interested in the life of George Washington Carver, Marie Curie, or Louis Pasteur. Students who love art might want to find out about Frida Kahlo, Faith Ringgold, or Pablo Picasso. I could go on, but you get the idea. Don't know who to research? Do a simple Google search, and you will come up with quite a few names to get you started.

These are just a few ideas to get you started. Do you teach history in your elementary classroom? What are some of the resources you use? How do you make time for it? Please share your ideas in the comments.

Thanks for reading!