Teaching history can be one of the greatest challenges we face as educators. Most school subjects have a fairly clear goal. We see our math skills at work every day. English and language classes help us communicate with each other. Science helps us understand how the world works. Phys Ed keeps us in shape, etc.
But what about History?
It's not an obvious answer. What are we even trying to teach here?
It's usually at this point that we begin to resort to that age-old tactic, memorize and regurgitate. If the students can remember the sequence of events, the names, the dates, maybe it will somehow help us learn something. Or at least it will give us something we can measure and put a letter grade on. (Don't get me started on letter grading…)
But seriously, is this all that history boils down to? A bunch of memorized information that goes in one ear and then out the other, upsetting and alienating students from what should be one of the most fun and compelling subjects of them all?
Let me just say right here that the answer is No. A resounding, No.
This is not the point. History is so much more than that! And when we allow ourselves to be sidetracked into force-feeding the facts to our students, it does little more than lead to that oft repeated scene with students and teachers alike crying (literally) in desperation and frustration.
So what do we do? How do we teach this tricky subject? What are we even supposed to be teaching if not the names and the dates?
To start with the last question first, if we can detach ourselves from the compulsive need to read and memorize as much as possible, we can begin to relax and look around at what else history has to offer. For one, we must understand that history is a very incomplete subject. When you open up a history book you are reading a tiny part of a story that has been 1) preserved in part, 2) rediscovered (again often in part), and 3) reassembled and interpreted through historians who, regardless of whether they wish to or not, have biases and opinions that natural shape the narrative. This means that we must treat the stories as a private eye treats one witnesses' version of a crime. It is a valuable part, but not complete story.
And here we run into one of the natural skills history lets us teach. We can use history to challenge the students themselves to come to their own conclusions. Look at the big picture and see if you can decipher the greater story going on. It is an acquired and often overlooked skill that we can get out of history. There are others if we look for them. For example, morals, ethics, justice, injustice, consequences, etc., are constantly on display in history. We can use these to teach as well. However, these are things that we teach over time, as our students mature along with their school. For the earlier years teaching history really boils down to some pretty basic elements, one of the most important of which is the story.
We must remember that we are not teaching a bunch of disjointed and unrelated information. All of history (past, present, and future) is part of one continual, flowing narrative. It is one story with a beginning, middle, and end. Armed with this thought, let’s show the students that the story of history in and of itself is worth pursuing in the first place. And have fun with it!
That is where a company like Home School in the Woods comes in really handy. Their curriculum revolves around a hands-on approach to teaching history that really helps keep the students' interest piqued. Whether you're studying modern, ancient, American, European, world or most any other time in history, don't just read a textbook. You can use Home School in the Wood's products (many of which do come with short and concise text lessons designed not to overwhelm the students but to allow you to use it as a stand alone product) to get hands-on projects like lapbooks and notebooking pages, timelines and maps to keep track of everything, 3D projects and era recipes, basically anything that helps make the study more meaningful. It brings home to the students the fact that you are studying a real time and place where people once ate, drank, slept, and lived their lives.
These are the things that we all remember doing in school, aren't they? The projects, the visuals, the “get up out of your seats” moments. And while all of the options may not work with all of your students, that's O.K. Tailor it to fit your needs! Pick and choose the activities that each particular student will enjoy, while you move together through the study. The point is, make history an experience. There is no reason that a story so big it had to be written by the finger of God must be reduced to a pile of dry facts and dates. History, as imperfect and fragile a subject as it is, is our lifeline to the most beautiful, complete, dramatic, explosive, moving, incredible story ever written. Let's teach it that way!
P.S. If you're interested in more of Home School in the Wood's curriculum either to use as your very own history curriculum or even just to supplement your current history program (although, come on, you know you want to make the switch!), you can check out their product lines at homeschoolinthewoods.com/products.html. Their history curriculum has been impacting the educational world for over a decade, opening children's and teachers' eyes alike to the wonder, fun, and meaning of history.