HM - June 2017 - Nokes
"Why Don't We Do This More Often?"
Discussions of History in the Elementary Classroom
Jeffery D. Nokes
Brigham Young University
Gina P. Nokes
Jordan School District
Last February, at the end of a discussion comparing the important contributions of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, Zach, a little boy in my wife, Gina’s, second grade class called out, “This was fun! Why don’t we do this more often?” As Gina and I talked about their class discussion, and with an awareness of the lack of history teaching that is taking place in elementary classrooms,1 I couldn’t help but wonder the same thing: Why don’t we do this—discuss historical events, conditions, and people with elementary students—more often? My intent in this article is to relate the story of this discussion in Gina’s class in order to lead the reader to the same question and to draw some conclusions about why history should be discussed in elementary classrooms.
First, a little about the discussion in Gina’s class…
Gina did not intend for the class discussion to be a history lesson, but rather a writing lesson that involved historical characters. One of the standards for second graders in Utah is that they be able to form an opinion and support their opinion with reasons. Expressing and defending an opinion in writing is no easy task for seven- and eight-year-olds like those in Gina’s class—children who are in the earliest stages of learning to read and write. Gina thought that with both President’s Day and a standardized test approaching, she might be able to have the 23 youngsters in her class form an opinion about which of the two presidents, Lincoln or Washington, was better. She gave all of the students two one-page expository texts that were prepared for early readers, one detailing Lincoln’s contributions to the United States and the other describing Washington’s.
A day after giving the students some time to read about the presidents, Gina had them brainstorm the things they had learned about each of them. On one side of the whiteboard in the front of the classroom she listed in a big circle what they had learned about Lincoln. The children recalled from the reading that he was a great leader, got rid of slavery, was tall and honest, was a good friend, but he wasn’t very popular during the war. Students remembered that he kept important papers in his hat. On the other side of the whiteboard, in a circle dedicated to Washington, the students remembered that he was a general in the Revolutionary War, that he helped start the country, and that he was smart and rich. They recalled that he was a farmer, a great leader, and the United States’ first president. In this early stage of the activity the students were primarily repeating back the information that they had read about the presidents. There was nothing particularly interesting going on up to this point in the activity—it had the look of the conventional history lesson, with information given to students and then repeated back by them.
However, once the students had exhausted everything they had learned from the readings, and Gina called for more information about these presidents, the students came up with all kinds of things. Gina recognized the enthusiasm, curiosity, and authenticity of the students’ engagement, so she gave them some time and space to explore their ideas. She quickly observed that they were not “blank slates,” but that they came into her class with a delightful array of background knowledge that included both profound and erroneous information. The class discussion became a free-flowing conversation, with these children, the tiniest of Americans, expressing their ideas and the questions that sprang from their hearts. Some researchers have called elementary children “history sponges,”2 and it became obvious to Gina that these children had soaked up historical information throughout the experiences of their short lives, and they were eager to soak up more.
For instance, Isaac explained to his peers that Lincoln had been shot in the head. This was new and surprising information to most of the students. But not to Joey, who added that Lincoln had been shot by a sniper from the roof of a nearby building. A clearer understanding of the hodge podge of ideas in students’ minds was beginning to take shape for Gina. She thanked Isaac and Joey for sharing their ideas, then told the class about her trip to Washington DC where she visited the theater where Lincoln was shot by someone right behind him. She told about the small home where he passed away. The students, most of whom were unaware of Lincoln’s assassination, were shocked that this could happen to the “great leader” that they had read about.
Lincoln’s assassination reminded Marcus of the assassination of another great leader. He asked whether Martin Luther King was a president, noting that he had been shot too. “Didn’t he end slavery?” he followed up. Gina talked briefly with the class about the great contributions of Dr. King, confirming that he too had been shot. This led to questions and answers about the challenges faced by African Americans during King’s time—something that most of these suburban Utah children had never heard much about before.
When their attention turned to Washington and the Revolutionary War, the discussion was reenergized. Mandy commented three times that the Americans didn’t have money for uniforms during the Revolutionary War—she seemed especially pleased to know something that made her stand out from her peers. Her comment led to others talking about the fighting during the Revolutionary War. When Ross erupted into an explanation of his tactics for attacking the British—hiding and sneaking up with a sniper rifle, the entire class burst into side conversations about the brightest military strategies that these second graders could concoct.
Throughout this free-flowing discussion one question led to another as these “history sponges” soaked up ideas from their peers and teacher. Gina’s announcement that it was time to get back to the writing task, forming and defending an opinion about Lincoln or Washington, prompted Zach’s plea “Why don’t we do this more often?”
Now, what lessons can we learn from this spontaneous discussion?
First, as Fillpot claims, elementary-aged students are history sponges, soaking up correct and incorrect ideas as they try to make sense of their world, including its history.3 From the time that young people watch their first animated movie set in a historical context, dress as a hippie for Halloween, visit a war memorial, view an iconic photograph of a historical event, or eavesdrop during adults’ conversations about the historical roots of contemporary issues, they begin to soak in history. The second graders in Gina’s class, at seven or eight years old, already knew a little bit about Lincoln and Washington, uniformless Revolutionary War soldiers, Martin Luther King’s assassination, and a rooftop sniper who shot a president. Students were soaking in historical information and misinformation, whether or not it was being taught at elementary schools.
Ignoring the natural curiosity of elementary students by reducing the amount of time spent studying history hurts our young people. If the truth is to be told, Gina’s lesson started out as a writing lesson that happened to be related to two historical characters. That the lesson evolved into a history discussion was based entirely on her willingness to allow the discussion to follow its natural course. It’s noteworthy that students didn’t ask questions about how to formulate their opinion in writing or how to best list the support for their opinion. Their questions revolved around historical events, people, battles, and fairness. Jeff Passe claimed that “the way to the curriculum’s heart is through social studies.”4 The students in Gina’s class wanted to discuss history.
Gina’s lesson showed how simple it can be to integrate history into the elementary curriculum. Sure, the pressure of impending standardized tests that measure students’ ability to read and write loom over teachers. But students need to read and write about something, and Gina’s discussion demonstrates the intrinsic motivation associated with reading and writing about historical topics. History instruction not only engages young students, but it can support school-wide literacy goals. A great deal of research shows that when older students are taught specialized strategies for reading historical texts, their general reading comprehension improves.5
Second, elementary and secondary teachers must take into consideration the background knowledge and experiences that students bring into their classrooms. The latest learning theories show that background knowledge can facilitate learning by allowing new information to be connected to what is already known.6 The free-flowing nature of the discussion in Gina’s class served to illustrate how students made connections, moving from a discussion of Lincoln to Lincoln’s assassination to King’s assassination to the Civil Rights movement. Because students were driving the discussion, Gina could observe their collective efforts to try to make connections. Research also shows that background knowledge may instead impede learning, with misconceptions stubbornly resistant to instruction. It would not be surprising if Joey went home after school and told his mom that he had learned that Lincoln had been shot in the head by a sniper from the roof of a nearby building. Misconceptions, like accurate background knowledge, form a stubborn foundation for future learning. Wineburg and his colleagues explained the situation well: “Once educators become acquainted with the shape of the narratives students bring to class, they are better equipped to engage and stretch these stories—and call them into question when necessary."7
Third, young students engage in one aspect of historical thinking perhaps even better than their older peers: namely asking historical questions. Historians’ work springs out of sincere historical questions. And the children in Gina’s class were full of questions—why would someone shoot great leaders like Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King, Jr.? Why were African Americans treated unfairly in a segregated South? Which battle tactics led to an American victory in the Revolutionary War? It would be a shame to miss an opportunity to develop lessons that revolve around these types of sincere questions—an opportunity that disappears as aging students become less willing to express their wonder.
Gina tapped into this natural curiosity through the free-flowing nature of the discussion. However, there is no question that a more systematic approach to teaching history produces more substantial learning in a more efficient manner. Still, there is something to be said about the importance of giving students the opportunity to seek answers to spontaneous questions, to allow them to make their own connections between historical events, and to build off of one another’s historical background knowledge.
Finally, young people’s worlds revolve around their own experiences. They are surprised to learn of others whose lives differ significantly from theirs—people like the Africans Americans in a segregated society during Martin Luther King’s day. In a world where interactions are becoming more common between individuals from different cultures, religions, races, and ethnicities, more must be done to introduce young people to the experiences of others. History provides unlimited topics of study that demand that students think about the world from other perspectives, imagine diverse contexts, and engage in historical empathy by seeking to understand how people’s actions are generally rational from their way of seeing the world. These historical thinking strategies are not just beloved by elementary students, but are becoming increasingly important for citizens in communities, nations, and our world. Teaching and discussing history is a way to prepare young people for the responsibilities of citizenship. Why don’t we do this more often?
1. Phillip J. VanFossen, “‘Reading and Math Take So Much of the Time…’: An Overview of Social Studies Instruction in Elementary Classrooms in Indiana,” Theory and Research in Social Education 33 (2005), 376-403.
2. Elise Fillpot, “It’s Elementary: Focusing on History Teaching, K-5,” Perspectives on History 47 (2009), 37.
4. Jeff Passe, “Social Studies: The Heart of the Curriculum,” Social Education 70 (2006), 6-10.
5. Avishag Reisman, “Reading Like a Historian: A Document-Based History Curriculum Intervention in Urban High Schools,” Cognition and Instruction 30 (2012), 86-112.
6. M. Susanne Donovan and John D. Bransford, eds. How Students Learn: History in the Classroom (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2005).
7. Sam Wineburg, et al., “Forrest Gump and the Future of Teaching the Past,” Phi Delta Kappan 89 (2007), 168-177.