As I’m dreaming of my dream school, I’m thinking about how we teach history. We start with us, thinking kids can only understand things by beginning with themselves. We talk about our neighborhoods, our cities. We move out – and it appears that we do so in no particular order – studying history and social studies without any overarching narrative. In North Dakota, in fourth grade we study North Dakota history. In sixth, we jump back and study the middle ages and build castles and forts. What??
That’s not how we engage with story. And kids do want stories – we long for them from the very beginning, toddling over to our parents, board books in sticky hands, demanding Winnie the Pooh and The Three Little Pigs. Kids have an amazing interest in narrative and context. So why not begin history with the beginning? What is better suited for 5 and 6 year olds than the almost cartoon-like images of the ancient Egyptians? What 7 or 8 year old wouldn’t want to dress up in togas and talk about ancient Greek architecture, inventions, and ideas? Instead of teaching these periods out of context and out of order, we could move through the narrative, always tying in new stories to the old, making connections as to why things unfolded as they did, and how one period of history impacts the next.
This is not a novel idea, by the way. Take a moment and google “elementary history narrative” and you’ll be flooded with research and discussion on this approach. Here’s a good place to start. I also have personal experience as I’ve enjoyed teaching my own kids with this narrative approach. Instead of social studies and history being a disconnected list of names, dates, and events, history for us is a piece of literature – our human story – that we uncover and explore together. How can we possibly study and understand the American Revolution without the context of Greek philosophy and the ideas of the Renaissance and the European Enlightenment (and all that great and sometimes chaotic stuff in between)? And what better way to learn about monarchies and democracies than to study them as they unfold and develop?
I mention history and social studies as two separate topics, the former being the study of the past, the latter focusing on our present. I’d now like to introduce you to John Hunter, a remarkable public school teacher who lets 4th grade kids explore and solve world problems through creative exploration, negotiation, strategy building, and sometimes warfare. His methods reflect another aspect of education I’d like to see brought back into the schools: hands-on, messy, exploratory learning.
What do you think? How do you want your children to learn our human story?