Sunday, July 7, 2013

History Lessons From the Field

As we stood in line at the George Spangler Farm in Gettysburg National Battlefield Park we listened to a local volunteer talk about giving tours to buses of school children during the month of May. About these children he said:

"Many of these kids don't even know when the Civil War happened. They think that it happened in the 20th century, not as long ago as the 19th century. But they leave here interested and asking questions."

I guess this paraphrased comment brings up a couple important points. One, depending on their age, kids have no concept of time. But that's just something that I know and realize as both a mom of a four and two-year-old and as a teacher of high school students who are just starting to realize time. And for me it is hard to remember that the older I get, the more likely it is that my students were either not alive when something happened or don't remember when something happened because they were too young at the time. In fact, when we were at the Flight 93 memorial my husband asked if any of my students were alive when 9/11 happened. It was 12 years ago and I teach juniors. The reality is that in four to five years, they will not have been alive when it happened and I am getting to the point where most of them will not remember the day at all even if they were alive. Two, the elderly volunteer inadvertently highlighted the importance of both knowing our history and experiencing history first hand.

Going through college there was a small core group of us girls who were both English and history majors. We supported each other through the excessive reading and writing that we all had to do to survive our four to five years in both programs. And English aside, those of us in the history department were pretty close because there really weren't that many of us. We all loved history, saw the importance of knowing our history, and we saw the direct relationship between literature study and historical knowledge. It is this belief in the importance of history that drives Sarah the English teacher. It drives my students crazy. "This is English class, Mrs. Styf. Why do we need to know all of this history?" Why? Because how can one read The Crucible without understanding both the impact of the McCarthy hearings on Miller's composition of the play and the background of the Puritan people who were responsible for the witchcraft trials in the first place? How can one read Night without understanding the background of the causes of the Holocaust and what was happening around Europe during WWII? How can one read Animal Farm without understanding the Russian Revolution and formation of communism that Orwell was allegorizing? Ok, so they can read them without the background, but when they have the background it makes more sense. The works have a purpose. The author's intent is clear. I have difficulty separating Sarah the historian and Sarah the English teacher because I feel that the former makes the latter better at her job. I don't want to separate the two.

I also don't see anything wrong with reiterating or expanding on what students have learned in their history classes, mostly because I believe that students need history, and the more they learn it the more likely they are to remember it. I also believe that when they see that what they have learned in their history classes relates to what they are studying in English it emphasizes the fact that they are not learning in a vacuum. Again, students need to know their history. I remember one of my college history professors once saying that he hated the saying "Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it." We hear that saying a lot, but he had a point. History doesn't exactly repeat itself. Each event has its own causes and no two events are the same. They can be similar, but they are not the same. However, there is a lot to be learned from history. Knowing our history helps us adjust strategies, question proposed plans, and see the potential for problems. History doesn't give us a crystal ball. It gives us a rough road map on how we should proceed if we want to avoid similar pitfalls.

History also helps us understand who we are as a people and where we come from. A friend and former colleague posted something on her Facebook page related to language that led to a long discussion about first "bad" language and then gradually, somehow, led to discussion of the "N-word". It was fascinating to see the discussion as it unfolded, and I was able to throw out some recent knowledge from taking History of the English Langauge. But this is where history is important. Much has been made of racism and the "N-word," a word that I personally have issue with anyone using, regardless of race. But that is because I know its history and its role in OUR history, the history of race relations in the United States. If people really understood it and the pain and suffering that has been caused by not only a word but an entire attitude surrounding the word then maybe we wouldn't be so quick to dismiss it. Maybe we wouldn't be so quick to dismiss Paula Dean as just being a product of the South and a specific time. And maybe we wouldn't be so quick to dismiss its use in a community that is trying to reclaim as acceptable when used solely in that community. This is only a relatively small example (as I feel this could be discussed when looking at many slurs in the English language), but it highlights why history lessons are so important.

The final point made by the volunteer at the National Park was the importance of experiencing history. When I was student teaching the school I taught at was using a program called History Alive. To be perfectly honest, I hated the program. It scratched the surface, focused on making history fun as opposed to really learning history, and didn't give the teacher much room for personal creativity. One of the lessons I was instructed to teach was a role play during which students created trenches with desks and I would read to them an excerpt from All's Quiet on the Western Front while they sat between their desks. It was supposed to teach them what it was like to fight in the trenches during WWI. I would have to grade the lesson an epic failure. Why? Because that isn't experiencing history. You want students to understand trench warfare? Show them pictures, have them read eyewitness accounts, and if you have the chance, take them to see an actual trench. If students are to really appreciate the importance of history, they need to experience history. The reason why students who visit Gettysburg leave asking questions and are suddenly interested is because they have seen it. They have seen the battlefields. They have seen the buildings that were hit by stray fire. They have heard stories from costumed experts who have studied and really know their stuff. Nothing was more powerful for me as a student of Holocaust studies than to hear two survivors tell their story while I was at a conference or to actually walk through the buildings in Dachau, Germany as I toured the very first concentration camp built by the Nazis. Maybe it's time we do everything possible to get kids out of the classroom and into the field.

It's not easy to get kids out. It costs money and takes resources, but we need kids who both know and understand the importance of their history, and from my own experience seeing it brings it to life. And we need to do this for more than just the select few who get to go on special school trips. Often it's the students who are either not financially capable or academically inclined who need the experience most. I don't have a solution for the problem, but once again I return from a trip back in time with a renewed sense of the importance of helping my students not just learn a lot of facts but experience it for themselves. Now I just have to figure out how to do that on a budget.

Here I am writing with a quill. I can't imagine writing long letters with ink and a quill, but people did it ALL the time.

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