My father is a history buff. When he discusses history, it comes to life. His passion is contagious and I learn more than I ever did from a text book or a history class in high school or college.
I'm familiar with all the reasons everyone spouts about how those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it. And so with the heavy obligation of preventing my son from repeating regrettable history we dutifully studied it in our homeschooling.
I've read more philosophies of education in my college career and in my quest to be the best home educator possible than I can count. Some say history should be studied in chronological order, creating a time line for the children to gain perspective. Others say one should start social studies by exploring out from the child's own experiences, moving from families to neighborhoods to city to state to American history and eventually world history.
I didn't have to do all this research to teach my children to read. I ADORE reading, so I did what came naturally, I read to my children. Later we've danced between whole language and phonics using moves from both as was dictated by the learning styles and needs of my children.
History is different for me. It is a study I embarked upon with reluctance and foreboding and, dare I say, great ignorance. I can not tell you how many times I've approached a new history lesson and have been amazed at how little I know.
The reason I am so baffled by this is because I was an exceptional student, yes, even in history. I was a National Merit Finalist which meant the state university I attended was eager to grant me a full academic scholarship. I don't say that to brag. I say that to make a point. In theory, that puts me in the category of students who got the most out of their educational experiences. I was not a slacker who didn't pay attention.
I'm not faulting teachers, I'm faulting the way education as a whole perceives the study of history and then projects that to the students. I viewed it as a collection of trivial information which had no impact on my current life. As an A student in my middle school history class, I embarked on a personal study of the Ancient Olympics for my history fair project. I did it well. I learned a lot. I also learned, after I submitted the project, that the class I had been taking for months was American history therefore my project was disqualified. How does a student with an A in a class not even know what the class was about?
In high school, I had a combined studies class that endeavored to combine the time periods of history and literature. They had fantastic aspirations but those studies were never combined. The history teacher had a love of Chinese dynasties and the literature teacher a love of Shakespeare.
As I've escaped the need to ensure progress with tests and my special needs child has helped me to remember to tailor education to the individual, I've tried to redeem the combined studies program's lofty goals. We study literature from the time period in history or historical fiction about that period as we study the history. We also travel with my husband on his business trips and try to cement the information by visiting historical sites like we did this month when we visited Boston and reviewed our Revolutionary War studies.
I recall from my teacher training that children (and adults, for that matter) need to be able to connect new information to prior learning in order to retain that information. I look at John's interests and experiences as a framework for attaching new information. I've come to see history as a way of making connections.
He recently expressed an interest in the atomic bomb. Part of me recoiled, thinking it was too macabre a subject. But the other part of me said this was a chance to attach a lot of other learning. Since then, we've studied WWII, read some great historical fiction, discussed the human aspect and effects of the bombs, the decisions which led to the bombings, the Holocaust and on and on. John keeps a journal in the form of writing only one sentence a day of something important he remembers from what we've read together. Much like a test, it doesn't really demonstrate what he has actually learned. That comes out in meaningful conversations and connections that have impressed me and made me so glad I'm finally understanding the importance of history.
In Boston, we visited a haunting Holocaust memorial. It was the same week John was finishing reading Number the Stars. The memorial consisted of six glass towers which represent the six death camps. Each column has one million numbers etched in the glass representing a Jew who was killed.
We had an amazing time, especially as we were there on the anniversary of 9/11. We talked about both events as we used multiplication to find an area of numbers which was roughly equivalent to 3,000. It was such a small place for so many numbers. We talked about the horrible loss of life on 9/11 and how many people that was. Then I stood with my hands blocking out that space and we tried to view it in comparison to the enormity represented by all six towers. I found it difficult to breathe.
We read the quotes of survivors inscribed on the towers and discussed the tiny lights that looked like stars coming up through the grates below each column. We noted how the columns were beautiful but reminded us somewhat eerily of chimneys.
It has been obvious to me that I'm much better for having studied history with my son. I always have the impression that John is learning and making these connections as well. Today, we discussed Japan's bombing of Pearl Harbor as well as their invasion of the Philippines. We talked about the death march of 80,000 people. a very sober John remarked about the similarity to the Trail of Tears, recognizing the evil despite the difference of time periods and continents.
A chill runs down my spine as I finally realize for myself just how important and fascinating a study of history truly is. I no longer consider it a burdensome obligation to teach my children to learn from history. I consider it an honor and a privilege to learn right alongside them. And any insight we might glean by taking a detour to explore the Holocaust on a field trip intended to study the Revolution certainly won't be disqualified just because it wasn't on the syllabus.