Thinking Critically About American History
May 22, 2015 by
“History gives us ideas. Let’s say something good happened. We can use it in the future to help people.”
“In American History, there’s been a lot of wars, like the War of 1812 and the American Revolution. We can learn about what happened and say, ‘This was wrong’ and ‘I’ll turn it all around and do this different and make it better.’”
After a trip to the Smithsonian’s American History Museum, Hadasim children realized that history is a powerful tool for improving the present. This field trip came on the heels of deliberating at length over which topic to explore after our investigation of mountain gorillas and successful production of the original play, “Rise of the Mountain Gorillas.” We dedicated time towards arriving at a democratically decided topic, including writing persuasive essays, engaging in spirited debates, and voting on ballots. At last, we decided to explore the broad topic of American History.
Foremost in our minds was the problem of untangling myth from fact in the historical record, as one child aptly pointed out “How do we have any evidence of what we think happened in like, the 1300s? How do we know Francis Scott Key wrote the Star Spangled Banner?” Another child picked up this thread when she pondered, “Adam and Eve were the first people. Did they eat the apple or not? People don’t actually know. They think it’s right, but it may not be true.” These questions led us to a discussion of oral history (“it’s sort of like a rumor – even if some aren’t true, a lot are”) and the types of sources historians rely on when evaluating the “truth.” We examined the legend of Pocahontas and saw that the Disney narrative many of us know is derived from a source written years after the events occurred. These conversations gave us a critical lens that we later used for the next phase of our project.
We narrowed our investigation to looking at the lives of American change-makers. Children selected people from a list (culled from a Smithsonian Magazine article) and created trading cards with “stats” about their achievements and personal history. From Sojourner Truth, Sally Ride, and Steve Jobs (among many others), we dove deeply into the lives of some of America’s most revolutionary citizens. Sensing a natural opportunity to tie their learning to our ongoing Writers Workshop unit, several children suggested writing chapter book biographies of our people.
Many children discovered that their famous Americans have been memorialized in portraits. We examined portraits and saw how artists often embed symbolism within portraits that subtly reveal important clues about the lives of their sitters. We are in the midst of planning portraits of our American change-makers that similarly play with symbolism. Together, we are thinking of the best ways to convey Michael Jordan’s dominance in basketball, Elvis Presley’s musical appeal, and Thomas Edison’s innovations. Our biographies and portraits will be unveiled at our upcoming Author’s Tea.
As we reach the conclusion of our investigation, we are circling back to our original thoughts about how the past can inform the present. Having learned about the struggles and triumphs of some of America’s most successful people, we are thinking about the question, How can another person’s history affect our present? Thomas Edison taught us that we can turn life’s trials into advantages (“he lost his hearing as a young child. Not hearing became an advantage because he said ‘I can work better without distractions!’”). Steve Jobs’ 23 fails before his first big success taught us “never stop, never give up”. Martin Luther King, Jr’s struggle for equality has inspired one child to create world peace by stopping wars.
Throughout this project, our work has been informed by a series of guiding questions. These questions were designed to draw on children’s critical thinking skills and to spur discussion:
- When did American History begin?
- Why do we care about American History?
- How do we know what our history is?
- How can knowing America’s past affect us now?
These guiding questions also enabled us to weave curricular threads into this “Social Studies” project. When learning about the first peoples to arrive in America, we stepped farther back in time and learned about human evolution and migration out of Africa. Tracing our families’ entree to America helped us understand why our nation has been alluring to immigrants for centuries. When debating the nature of truth, children were grappling with one of the oldest philosophical ideas. Over the course of this project, children wrote both persuasive and expository papers. Our American History project has been so much more than rote memorization of dates and key figures; our journey has benefitted from brushes of history, math, the arts, language arts, philosophy, science, and more. And because we have strayed so far beyond the well-beaten path, our children have created rich, meaningful understandings of what American History means to them.