Monday, November 5, 2012

What is History?

What do young students know about history? Find out by first providing each student with an index card and asking them to complete the sentence, "History is...." Read the cards together and create a list of their ideas.

Virginia Lee Burton's, The Little House, is a picture book that works well to introduce the concept of history. It tells the story of a house built on a hill far out in the country. Eventually a road is built in front of a house and, bit by bit, the far away city expands to encompass the house. 

Read the book to the students then hand out to pairs of students photocopies of the major illustrations in the book. Create a picture viewer for each pair by cutting a 1" square in the center of a piece of paper. Have students slide their viewer over the picture and create a list of details in the picture.  Once finished, have students come up to the front of the room and put the pictures in order. Have someone narrate the story based on the pictures on the wall.

As a class discuss what they think the main ideas of the book might be. What specific details illustrate these ideas?

What information did they need to tell the story of the house? They needed to activate their prior knowledge of the story and they needed lots of details from the pictures. From a literacy perspective they have just worked on understanding the narrative structure of the book and summarizing the main idea. We have also just modeled how closely historians look at evidence.

For our larger question about what is history we now add to our list. Some new ideas about history might be: Chronology, change over time, landscape changes, technology changes landscape, historians tell stories, and historians use details to tell stories.

Now--go to your local antique mall and buy some old postcards, preferably postcards that have been mailed and have stamps and postmarks.  Using old postcards gives students the opportunity to actually handle "old stuff."  Create a graphic organizer that asks them to list what they see on the front of the postcard. They should be good at this because they just did it with The Little House. 

They should make a map of the back of the postcard. By doing this, they will notice everything from the address to the postmark to the publisher. Finish by having students list at least 3 questions.

Postcards like this force students to identify some of the first details any historian asks of a primary source--who wrote it? who was the audience? when was it written?

Share the postcards. If you're lucky, you've found a collection written/sent by the same person and that tells a bit of a story.

Now add more to their definitions of history. They might add that history is about real people and places, it can be personal, it is interpretive, and it is about asking questions.

If you're really lucky, you now have a crowd of kids who are desperate to be historians and to find out more!

Here's a book where you can find some answers to all those questions your students now have about postcards:

  Allen Davis, Postcards from Vermont: A Social History 1905 - 1945 (2002)

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