We Should be Teaching our Kids More History in School
My ten-year-old granddaughter and her peers have moved on from Harry Potter to Hamilton. Although she hasn’t seen the play, she loves the music and the story behind it. And this has motivated her to ask questions and read more about American history. Right now, she and her friends can’t learn about our country’s past quickly enough. Unfortunately, most of that learning will not take place in school.
So far, the school curriculum has devoted limited time to the study of history. In third grade, they spent two days learning about Colonial Times, and my granddaughter's main memory was making butter. She has no recollection of what they studied for a few days as part of the fourth grade curriculum. This year, by a happy coincidence, the American Revolution is part of a brief historical unit for fifth graders. The children get to write a research report on someone involved with the revolution, and she asked to write about Alexander Hamilton.
Aside from these brief units, our current emphasis on math and reading seems to have relegated the study of history to a celebration of national holidays like Labor Day, Veterans’ Day, King’s Birthday, Presidents’ Day, and Memorial Day. The way my granddaughter’s school district teaches students about these special days is usually with an assembly followed by no school. At Cherry Preschool, the early childhood program I directed before retiring, we called this a tourist approach to learning. It was our belief that whatever we taught our very young children should be reflective of whom they are, more in depth, and include a yearlong commitment.
Unfortunately, the elementary school students who came from this approach to early childhood education have not had the opportunity to study history in any meaningful way. Nor do they study what we used to call civics, so their understanding of citizenship and how our government works is sketchy at best. Children knew the 2016 Presidential election upset many family members but most could not explain how we select our leaders or the three branches of our federal government.
I grew up in a far different era. In many ways, my education was inferior to what my grandkids learn. And yet, in other important ways like learning history, civics, writing, and reading classic literature, it was far superior. By the time I was ten, I had a rudimentary understanding of America’s history and government.
The creative genius of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton has captured the minds of many children who are now thirsty for knowledge of the history of our country. This is the teachable moment. Again, remembering my days as director of Cherry Preschool, we took our cues from the children and built units of study around them. In early childhood, this is known as the project approach.
By a lucky coincidence, my granddaughter’s fifth grade curriculum spends a few days studying the American Revolution. I’m hoping the teachers capitalize on the popularity of Hamilton. It could be an amazing springboard into the history, with research, and writing following naturally. And they could be covering some music and drama as well. A unit of study like this would ignite the minds of the children who are highly motivated to learn more. The teachers could use Hamilton as a launching point for an in depth study of how our country was founded. Or they could simply follow the standard curriculum, have the children write the research paper, and move on to learning about the math and reading that will appear on the numerous standardized tests coming up.
My father was a huge history buff and I grew up with a great respect for and appreciation of the lessons of the past. School rewarded my interest by including history in the curriculum from as early as I can remember. Like the many scholars, statesmen, and writers who have voiced versions of George Santayana’s words, I strongly believe that, “Those who don't learn history are doomed to repeat it.”
Thanks to Lin-Manuel Miranda for creating the spark in so many children that leads them to want to learn more about our nation’s founders. I hope teachers will find the time to nurture and grow this teachable moment.