To improve the future, we must learn about the past. Five strategies to make teaching history more successful.
So often within our curriculum, we ask students to explore topics and cultures that are so foreign to their own lives that they cannot understand them. They don't have the background knowledge to grasp them. This happens a lot in Social Studies, but also in literature with historical settings or diverse characters.
I also see this often happen with Holidays Around the World programs. Kids "visit" a country, learn very little because they have no way to connect what they are learning to their previous knowledge, and then walk out with very odd misunderstandings about that country. For my part in Holidays Around the World, I always taught students about Ramadan and Eid al Adha in Morocco. The one year we were asked to have the kids create a craft, so we designed prayer rugs. Many, many kids drew crosses on their prayer rugs because in our 30 minute "class" we hadn't had time to really explain the religion of Morocco wasn't the religion they practiced. So these kids had this misunderstanding in their heads about what a prayer rug in Morocco would look like. (There are many other problems with Christmas Around the World programs, which you can read in my previous blog post - Christmas Around the World is Harmful to Students.)
Now, please don't misunderstand me, kids need to be exposed to these topics and books that are way outside of their understanding. However we, as teachers, need to reassess HOW we are teaching these topics. Without building their understanding and background knowledge, we set our kids up for failure, or we give them barely a skin deep understanding of the topic which leads to large misunderstandings. These misunderstandings can have serious consequences.
So what's the key to helping students understand historical and cultural topics? Well, ideally it would be lots and lots of time and exposure to different people and places. But I live in the real world, where we're often lucky to have an hour a week for Social Studies and we're asked to rush through a historical fiction book in a matter of a couple of weeks. So here are a few tips that can be used in any classroom.
Teaching History Strategy #1 - Use Those Pictures and Videos!
When we see a picture or watch a video we give students multisensory input that aid in the imagination process when they are later reading an article or story. Often, we ask kids to visualize the story, but they are limited by a lack of experiences. I used to do an experiment with my students where I would read them 2 similar stories - one about dinner in the USA and one about dinner in Morocco. I would ask the students to draw a picture of each story. Then, I would show them pictures of the reality. We would talk about how the picture of dinner in the USA was much easier for them because they had the background knowledge to understand it.
A students' imagination will always be dictated by their own experiences (including books they've read and videos they've seen). If they've never seen a camel or a manatee in person, they will struggle to understand a description. However, show them a picture or video of a camel or a manatee and ask you will increase their understanding. Of course, in person learning is best, but none of us are Ms. Frizzle, so pictures and videos (along with books and stories) are the best way to give our students background knowledge on a variety of topics.
Teaching History Strategy #2 - Try It Out!
If you're learning about Native American kids or frontier kids being expected to do chores like grinding corn or making butter, then take the time for kids to try those things out. They'll be able to understand much better why the characters are tired! If students are learning about kids in Alaska making and eating dried fish, perhaps tried some smoked fish as a class. Even if they hate it, they'll have a better understanding of the smell and taste. If kids are reading about kids who learned by candle light, turn out the classroom lights and light some candles. Kids need experiences! They cannot imagine a world without every modern convenience because that is all they've ever known. It is our jobs to give them as many chances to try it out as possible.
Teaching History Strategy #3 - Use Historical Fiction
There are so many amazing books that will put the kids in the shoes of the characters living in different time periods or different countries. Use these books to their fullest. Choose 2 or more books for each topic so that students can "feel" what it was like to be in the shoes of different people during that time period. If you can't read the entire book, share a section or a chapter with the whole class and then make the book accessible to kids to read on their own.
For example, when learning about the American Revolution, you might sample from the books: Felicity, American Girl 1774, George Washington's Socks and Chains. Or you could bring in an even larger sample of books and allow students to each choose their own book (or a book per group or pair) about the time period, and complete a Historical Fiction Book Report on the topic. As they share their projects, students can compare and contrast the viewpoints of the various books they read.
Teaching History Strategy #4 - The Devil is in the Details
Because we all come at life from our own point of view, students will often gloss over details that would never occur to them. That is why I use my Time Machine Presentations to introduce time periods. In each Time Machine Presentation, I talk about things like not having bathroom facilities indoors for the majority of American History and how people would get from place to place. It wouldn't even occur to students to consider things like chamber pots being used or whether rail roads were in use during this time. However, these things come up sometimes in stories. So bringing up these details helps students better understand the reality of a time period.
Teaching History Strategy #5 - Connect, connect, connect!
One of my favorite memes talks about the fact that Ann Frank, Martin Luther King and Dianne Sawyer were all born in the same year. The reason this meme blows our minds is that people in general will compartmentalize facts, especially about history. So helping students to find connections is very important. When I taught in Georgia, we taught about 8 different people who were important in American History. It felt very disconnected to my students, so we built a life size timeline around our classroom. Every time we learned about a person, we added important events from their life to our timeline, so that students could see who lived at the same time and who didn't. They could see overlaps and progression. (I then made this into a handy printable for their interactive notebooks that they could refer back to. You can download this from my Teachers Pay Teacher Store.)
Maps are another important way to show connections. Having students label maps with the names of people (or groups of people) that were there can help them see why some people interacted and others didn't. History is the story of people interacting. We need to teach kids how to see that.
I know that Social Studies isn't very high on the priority list when it comes to most curriculums. But over and over we talk about how we need to understand history in order to prevent from repeating it. In order for our children to learn history, they have to build their background knowledge and understanding of Social Studies. Our future and theirs will be better if we can get them to understand history and what they can learn from it.
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