Originally Published: May 1998
This is the subject most abused in the public school system. Chunks of facts are fed students only to be repeated tediously year after year, with a bit more added—as if that will make it meaningful! The intent, believe it or not, is to make students aware of a variety of people and places so that they can apply knowledge to current events. Instead, information is memorized long enough to fill out exams and happily avoided ever after. Nor does all that repetition seem to increase understanding. When my husband taught high school, a discussion about a situation in the early 1800s prompted one student to ask why the people didn’t just turn on the television to get the necessary information!
If you want your children to benefit from studies in history, geography, government, and economics, you must make the people, the place, and the problems real and meaningful. Take time to get to know the customs, and the values that motivate behavior. Names and dates can always be checked in reference materials if forgotten. Instead, help students develop a mental picture of the people as a whole, and, using labels, place those people in a time frame (ancient world, middle ages, depression-era, etc.).
Making the change does not have to be difficult. First, decrease either the length of time covered, or the number of cultures studied during a year. Now you’ll have time for activities to increase both enjoyment and understanding. Next, whenever possible, supplement nonfiction resources with historical fiction, biographies, and/or movies with the action set in the same time frame. These will pull together bits of information into a setting that can be visualized. It will also increase an awareness of both the struggles faced by individuals as they survive day to day, and the difficulties faced by the people as they interact with other nations. Finally, get students into the habit of asking why. Why is something a problem? Why is one thing a possible solution but not another? Why did the people make the choices they did?
This subject is much too important to “just get through it.” When children are young they should be listening to stories about children in other countries and other time periods. They should eat the food, listen to the music, and make things that will bring all they’ve heard to life. That interest, once created, should never be squelched. Take the time to make the lives of the people being studied real. Put their actions into a context and let your students decide what they would do. Then, hopefully, we will finally have a nation of leaders that won’t be doomed to repeat the mistakes of history.
For more help, use Guides to History Plus. It provides an easy to use framework for pulling everything together. It also allows you to buy time for history by suggesting activity ideas that cover objectives in other subject areas as you relate them to your historical study. Guides to History Plus is now available, as well. It contains a supplement that focuses on grades 6-12. Discussion and composition questions that encourage practice in making connections are included, along with lists of fiction and movies that can be used to enhance each period studied.