My mother helped me learn US history in a way that made its connections with our family history, and with current events, clear and interesting. Here are a few suggestions for doing that. The timeline project, and some parts of the others, can be done with young children; some parts will work better with older students.
(by Lorraine) I used a roll of paper that was a couple feet wide and unrolled a section 10 or 12 feet long, but any paper could be used by taping pieces together. I made this for my daughter when she was first interested in history but found the lengths of time confusing. We often visited her great grandmother who was born in 1900 so we started the timeline at 1900 and marked it off to 1986 which was then the present. Then we added life lines for other relatives she knew, starting at their birth year and running to the present. The line just showing the years was in the middle of the paper and the life lines were under it. Then above the center line we added historic events from outside the family. This paper hung along one wall of her room for a year or more. Later we made a longer time line that hung along a hallway and covered American history.
If You Ran The Country…
(by Joanna) When I got to the part of my homeschooling where we first explored the Constitution, my mother started with a thought-experiment. She asked me to imagine that I’d been stranded on an island with a large group of other people who had everything we needed to live, but we’d have to figure out how to live together in a way that worked for everyone. What laws would we need on that island?
I initially proposed a very simple legal code: Everyone can do what they want so long as it doesn’t hurt anybody else. My mother had me write that law down. Then she started asking questions about who got to decide what was hurting people, or what should happen if two people wanted to use the same thing or the same space at once in ways that didn’t work together. I decided my constitution needed a few more details, and I wrote additional laws over the next couple of days. Every time I added a law, my mother proposed a situation that would test that law. This went on for several weeks, as I remember it. My constitution grew much more complicated, and my appreciation for the complex questions the Founders faced grew considerably.
(by Joanna) Some of my older relatives had a passion for family history and genealogy. I asked them questions, listened to their stories, and was particularly intrigued by the places where our family history intersected with the history I read about in books.
One of my mother’s cousins printed up a collection of saved family letters beginning shortly before the Great Depression. Reading my New England relatives’ accounts of traveling ever farther in search of work, or staying home trying to cobble jobs together and waiting for word from the ones who had left, made that time more vivid in my mind. There were also letters home from a cousin who’d served in WWII. My father’s mother, who was Southern, sent me copies of letters exchanged before and during the Civil War between two brothers somewhere back in my ancestral tree: one worked at a strongly pro-Union newspaper up in Ohio, while the other, who’d stayed in the South, was a lieutenant in the Confederate army. Further back we didn’t have documents, but we did have genealogical records. So I know that two of my ancestors were killed for being suspected of witchcraft, and were pardoned posthumously, but that’s all I know about that; reading historical accounts of witch trials gave me a slightly better idea.
I always envied my friends whose families were relatively recent arrivals in the US, who could ask grandparents about what is was like to come to this country and what it was like where they lived before. I didn’t have that, but I learned what I could at secondhand through my friends, and their stories influenced how I read historical debates over immigration or listened to immigrant stories now.
During social isolation when it’s no longer prudent to visit elderly relatives and neighbors, you could ask them over phone or email about memories tied to historical periods that interest you, or about their family stories, photos and documents from earlier times.
And, since today’s letters and journals will be tomorrow’s primary sources for history students, this is a good time to encourage students to write about their experience in quarantine. There are various web resources out there to help you do that.
Democracy and Debate:
For another approach to looking at historical controversies in light of today’s arguments about what is happening or what should be done, see our Critical Thinking page.
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