Little Windows to the Past

Amy Thompson Leigh
Tina Ossege Reynolds

How can we help fourth graders appreciate and understand history? As team teachers in a suburban school we found that our fourth graders needed more than names and dates to make history real. They could memorize information in their history book, but that didn't seem to help them understand the people and events that shape our world. During our seven years in the intermediate classroom, we have attempted to transform history from an accumulation of names and dates in textbooks to a series of windows on the past. In this article, we share some of the instructional ideas that have worked for us. We are not suggesting that you use our ideas as is; instead, we invite you to adapt them to your own situation and your own students' interests and needs.

Yes, I Am A Part of History
Each year we begin by asking "What is history?" Our students generally respond with a name- "George Washington"- or with "I don't know... maybe something to do with a long time ago?" The word history is so abstract that our students struggle to make sense out of it. They also fail to understand that history has anything to do with their own lives. We like to start by connecting children to their own past. Once they can see that they have a personal and a family history (and have grasped the concreteness of history), they can reach beyond themselves and understand how people from history are connected to us. One of our main thrusts is to help children discover that history is not based on every event in the past, but on significant events that have somehow influenced people's lives. We make this connection in the following ways:

Bring A Piece of History to School
Once children have an interest in history and realize it is about real people, they are naturally curious about other people from the past. At the conclusion of the family history projects, children overwhelmingly ask questions that begin "Why did they-?"
Regardless of what historic topic is taught next, we capitalize on student curiosity about the past by introducing authentic material from that era. Through "experiencing" items from the past, children develop an appreciation for the social values, beliefs, and lifestyles of our predecessors. Though there are limitless approaches, materials, and experiences available, we will focus on some used during a study of the hundred year period from 1895 to 1995.

Historical Fiction: A Secondary Resource With a Primary Flare
After children use primary sources such as those described above, some secondary sources can seem dry and uninteresting. Historical fiction and non-fiction, and historically accurate movies, provide an exciting transition to other types of secondary sources. While much has been written about the benefits of using historical fiction and non-fiction with students, we want to emphasize one aspect that is sometimes overlooked. As we mentioned earlier, our students were very interested in why people in the past behaved as they did. Because our study of change over time began with the students' grandparents' lives, they really wanted to understand these changes, and were less likely to dismiss the differences by assuming that their grandparents were simply ignorant. Literature helped them see that historic figures, whether their grandparents or George Washington or Rosa Parks, made decisions according to the beliefs and values of their time and particular circumstances. Literature also provided a foundation for a variety of other empathy building activities.

Step into Someone Else's Shoes
One of the reasons that literature is such a potent source for developing historical understanding is its "participant" perspective. Having students explore important events in the past is more intriguing for them when viewed from the perspective of the participants. To capitalize on this response, we use a number of perspective-taking activities based on historical sources. Many involve extended written work. These activities include:

Decision Making. As we reach a decision point in the study of a topic, we stop and ask students to make a political decision-for example, should Kentucky join the Confederacy or stay in the Union-and be prepared to defend their position. We also ask students to go one step further and explain how their decision will affect all the parties involved. Students, working alone or as partners, write a public notice announcing their decision and explaining what influenced it. Once they have taken a stand, we go on to study what actually happened next.

Role Play. A variation on this activity involves writing a persuasive letter to a political decision-maker of the era. For example, during the Revolutionary era, between the Boston Massacre and the Boston Tea Party, "No Taxation Without Representation" was chanted by New England Whigs. Although not everyone agreed with this point-of-view, most contemporary New Englanders had strong feelings about how the situation should be handled. We divide the class into three groups playing the roles of Whigs, Tories, and soldiers based in New England. Each group writes to King George III of England trying to convince him to make a decision in its favor.

Debate. We use the same topic and the same three groups to teach debate skills. Each group elects a speaker, and develops both arguments for its own position, and responses to anticipated remarks by opponents. Obviously, this activity cannot be completed in a one hour session. The groups need time to research, analyze information, and draw conclusions, with the bulk of their learning coming from the process leading to the debate. Typically, we allow each team to present their arguments one day, followed by group work to develop a rebuttal the next day, with the debate concluding on the third day.

Mock Trial. This option incorporates elements from each of the other decision-making activities. Again, we begin with an actual event from history, the Salem Witch Trials, for instance. Children have the opportunity to analyze our judicial system (actually, that of 1690s England, the law in force in New England at the time). Writing depositions provides all students with the chance to influence the proceedings. Students role play to the extent that they develop their character's personality and wear appropriate period clothing. The actual trial makes use of all the concept development experienced by students during their preparation.
In order for these activities to be successful, it helps to tell students at the beginning what perspectives and roles they will undertake. Becoming involved from a first-person perspective can result in a burning desire to know the order of events leading up to and following from an historic happening. Thus, children take ownership of the situation and develop an empathy for our ancestors that other children only read about in textbooks.

Amy Thompson Leigh teaches at Samuel Woodfill Elementary School in Ft. Thomas, Kentucky. She received her M.A. in Education from Northern Kentucky University and her B.A. in Elementary Education from the University of Kentucky.
Tina Ossege Reynolds also teaches at Samuel Woodfill Elementary. She received her B.A. in Elementary Education and M.A. in Education from Northern Kentucky University.