Leila has a post up about the kind of history we do. She explains it thusly, and her description is apt as to the basic outline:
This is how it goes: Start a young child — in Kindergarten, say — with something like “cradle of civilization” (another name for what we used to call “pre-history” to “ancient history”). Divide the eras up roughly into four, and continue with each era. In fourth grade, start again, sort of spiraling up in complexity for your older child, but efficiently bringing your new Kindergartener along for the ride. Continue in this way until you are done, incorporating each child somewhere in the cycle.
She’s not a fan, to say the least. While I generally love Leila’s down to earth approach and I bow to her greater experience, I don’t think she really speaks to my own experience as I embark on my third year of this plan. True, I’m only at the beginning and I don’t have the experience of having completed the course. But it’s been working fine for us thus far and thus far I see no reasons to change nor do I think Leila offers a compelling argument for why I should do anything different.
However, I do think that many of her objections raise very good points worthy of consideration and I’d like to address them one by one. Though I will say at the outset that I think she doesn’t really understand what it is we are doing and why we are doing it. All of her objections are factors I considered when choosing this curriculum and are in fact part of the very reason that I chose the curriculum I did.
I obviously can’t speak for all homeschooling mothers who choose this approach. All I can do is explain my own choices and hope that they resonate with others. And I’m hoping to generate a useful conversation. So please feel free to chime in and please do disagree. I promise I’ll be civil, though I do enjoy a good meaty discussion.
First, Leila’s disclaimer is the most fascinating part of her post and I really wish she’d developed this a bit more. She writes:
Disclaimer: I learned this very late, after a long struggle with my own failed education in history. So I can’t say that my older children, at least, benefitted a ton from these musings… at least, not from the more focused aspects of them. Still, there is room for “what I would do knowing what I know now” in the advice business.
Sadly, this is all she says about her own experience teaching history. I would love to know what it was she did do and how and why she felt it failed. What books or materials did she use? How did the children respond? Did she, as teacher, dislike the materials she was teaching as she went along?
I rather feel like I’d prefer to know the method that she followed and where it went wrong rather than her critique of a method that, well, it’s not clear if she’s tried it this way or not.
Next, Leila argues:
It doesn’t take into consideration the young child’s innocence of experience. By using this method, you are attempting to jump-start his understanding of events using those literally furthest from his time and place (unless you happen to live in Mesopotamia, in which case, go for it once you have fulfilled the other conditions).
It’s my strong belief, and I am happily backed up by Aristotle (yes, he is happy to back me up, that helpful old Greek fellow), that we should begin with what the child knows. What he knows is his family and his town. The latter only a little bit.
A commenter on her blog makes an excellent rebuttal:
To a first or second grader the way people lived in the US colonial period or the Civil War is just as foreign to them as the Ancient Egyptians or knights of the Middle Ages. To a child growing up in CA, the tobacco fields and plantations of VA are as mysterious as Mesopotamia. Aristotle’s idea of moving from the more know to the less know is proper to the study of natural knowledge, because it’s always based in sense. [. . .] History is based on records of the past; it’s not something you come to through reasoning or the senses. It builds upon men’s discovery of the past and the causes of events start way in the past and move forward, not backward. [. . .] The study of history is more than just an accumulation of dates and VIP’s, it’s also an understanding of our culture and the how’s and why’s. The grammar stage is not up to the deeper ideas, but it is important for them to become familiar with characters of history so they will become part of their cultural memory and help them with their studies later on. The cyclical approach makes a lot of sense.
I’m a little insulted by this because I most certainly did take the child’s innocence of experience into account when I set out on this path. And so does the Story of the World series. It is written precisely for the fist grader who is encountering the distant past for the first time as a story. It is true that Mesopotamia and Egypt and Greece and Rome are somewhat insubstantial to a child, but… so what? They are populated with people who are just like the people he knows. I also read them Bible stories, which are scarcely more real.
This objection rests on a false premise: that the kind of history we are trying to teach them at this stage is the kind of history we will teach them at later stages. But that is not the case at all. My aim at this stage is precisely to allow my children to encounter history as story, it’s about people and places that are exciting and exotic. And yet no more so than fairy tales and fables. Is Mesopotamia any more strange than Brambley Hedge or Narnia or 19th century England? Is Odysseus stranger than talking cars? At least in the case of Bella, I’ve found she has a taste for the exotic. She gobbles up these stories and when I let it slide too long, she brings the book to me and begs me to read more.
What I’m trying to do at this point is to build the foundation of a relationship. Charlotte Mason says that education is the science of relationships. The whole goal of education is not to drill a child with facts, but to help him form connections with the world around him. But Leila asserts he cannot feel connection with the past. Well, all I have to offer is my own experience of watching Bella make lively connections with the idea of the past. She loves history. She loves Egypt. Does she understand them as an older child would? Of course not. But when we come back to them in a few years I do not doubt that affection will linger and color the way she experiences history at a higher level.
In the same way I help my baby to make the Sign of the Cross and to say the name of Jesus, not because I think she’s capable of understanding the Godhead in full but because I want her to have a relationship to her Creator, to Jesus her friend, and to the Spirit who already dwells within her. My goal is to introduce her to the past in a gentle way, with stories that now, it is true, seem no different than fables. Just as God may seem insubstantial at this point too. And so too her grandparents who live far away and visit only yearly. But her slight knowledge now will give her a familiarity when she meets them again. It will be like meeting that childhood friend and though you are both adults– and perhaps even radically different people– still there is the memory of that friendship, that warmth of affection that can rekindle a spark and make the adults move toward friendship much more quickly than two strangers.
And maybe Bella is a special case. Perhaps her connection with Egypt is really founded on that picture book of Egyptian life that she used to spend hours poring over when she was three and giving up her nap while I desperately needed to collapse with Sophie and Ben. That book was her favorite not because she understood it but because it was pretty. And when we finally got to read it in context with her history text, well, it came alive. She received that book as a great gift, gold poured out into her lap. She rejoiced to finally know the real story and not the stories she’d been spinning. Had she not had those stories as a foundation, would she have been so excited? I don’t know. Maybe she’s just an odd kid, the exception who can make connections with things far away in the same way she got obsessed with penguins, of all things, as a five year old, even though they live far, far away at the end of the earth.
All I know is we do our best to make history come alive. It’s the stories we are introducing them to at this stage not the facts and not the whys and wherefores. Just the interesting stories of people who are different than us but also similar too.
But back to Leila:
It’s much better to help the child begin an inquiry into events that have taken place as near to him as you possibly can, than to wrestle with his undeveloped consciousness of vast expanses of years and of ways of living, so substantially different from anything he’s ever encountered as to resemble fiction. Boring fiction.
As I’ve said, yes it appears as fiction. But I just don’t see that as a fault. And why does she say it’s boring? I’d love to know how this played out in her house. What stories were they reading? What versions of history? Was Leila bored? Is that why her kids failed to make a connection? Me, I was fascinated and I’ve found my children to be fascinated too They have never yet complained about a history reading being boring. They like fiction. They like stories about Pooh and Rabbit and talking mice and pharaohs and nomads and knights and princesses and genies and all sorts of things. So I wonder. If it’s boring, are you just using the wrong books? Or is mom bored and communicating that boredom to her kids in subtle or not so subtle ways? I agree that if a teacher is bored, then she’s not going to help the subject come alive to the students. She’d be better off for now looking for some other introduction that will capture her imagination as well as her child’s.
He can be made to assimilate facts about ancient cultures, flooding rivers, early forms of communication, and primitive tools, but they won’t be differentiated in his mind from things that are actually unreal.
But who ever said they would be? Or should be? This objection seems so very odd to me. Of course they seem like stories. But we use stories all the time with children to engage their attention in all sorts of ways. It’s how they learn. Really, it’s how all of us learn. We make connections. We tell ourselves stories about the world. So what if the line between reality and fiction is a little blurry. That’s precisely why you revisit the subject in four years when the child is ready to begin to discern fact from fiction. As long as you help him at that stage to understand, where is the harm in a little blurriness early on?
That is, you might want to tell me about a preschooler of yours who truly loved hieroglyphics or spouted off about hanging gardens, but I maintain that to him, such things are no different from Legos or army guys. His imagination is working in a certain way, appropriate to his age, that doesn’t include a strong distinction between real and unreal.
Yes! That is precisely how my children interact with history at this age. It’s grist for the imaginative play. It’s paper dolls and army men and dress up clothes and Lego castles and Lego pueblos and Lego churches and Lego Pyramids. It’s appropriate for their age to seek out interesting stories that turn into play. And why not feed their imagination with rich, deep beautiful material that also happens to be true and real? Why should it be populated only by myth and fairies and talking animals? Why not Odysseus and Jason and the Argonauts and Beowulf and Richard the Lionheart? Let his imagination run free!
Most importantly, he won’t grasp the significance of these things — that man has everywhere and always made laws — laws that we find recognizable, that ancient cultures formed in a certain particular place, that the origins of civilization uniquely prepared the world for its turning point of the birth of Christ — until about the third go-round.
Yes. He probably won’t understand the fullness of that until the third go round. But as his eager little pattern-seeking mind tries to paint a picture of how the world works, knowing the history of the world seems to my mind to give him the tools to lay the foundation. Already my 8 year-old Bella and I are discussing the whys of Protestantism and separate churches. Already the stories she’s absorbed have begun to give her a framework for understanding the world. One I truly wish I’d had long before I hit that high school stage when I encountered many of these stories and ideas for the very first time. I had to try to piece together the story of the world in high school, the first time I’d ever encountered a narrative of World History. And that was the whole history of the world crammed into two semesters of study. We only scratched the surface in our dry, boring text book. And I had little connection with what I was reading about. I was in college before I realized that the Bible was full of real, historical stories. That we know where and when many of them took place. That archaeologists have dug up these places. That we know for sure where Jesus walked. That the Bible stories fit into a narrative of history along with all the other “real” history in text books. So yes, this is very much the curriculum I wish I’d had in school That’s why I leapt at it when I first read about it. My heart went pitter-pat: yes! This! This is how I wish I’d learned history!
Bella is already understanding in part what I didn’t understand till adulthood. That they all form a single narrative, Bible stories and ancient history and modern history. She’s looked at the Dead Sea Scrolls in person, touched a stone from the wall of the Temple in Jerusalem, seen artifacts of ancient Hebrew culture. (Thank you, Museum of Science!) She’s examined lions from Babylon, pottery and gold from Assyria. Ceramics from Greece. Statues and coins and sarcophagi from Rome. Medieval paintings and sculptures. They are real, tangible connections with the past. And some day I hope when she comes to the narrative of history at a mature level they will be there as vivid touchstones in her memory for her to really make the connections and understand the whys and the wherefores and the laws and the pattern with Christ at the center. And I hope it will all be much more real than a fairy story, which is what it was for me when I didn’t have the foundation she is getting. The foundation of history as a ripping good story.
So, mostly a waste of time, and certainly a bit frustrating, in most cases, for you.
Is this the voice of personal experience? If so, it rather seems like projection. So far it hasn’t felt like time wasted nor frustrating for any of us involved. So we’ll just keep on keeping on. But, again, I’ll agree with Leila. If you try this method and are bored stiff instead of fascinated by the stories, if you and your child see history as a chore to be dealt with, if it’s frustrating, then by all means skip it. I’m not trying to convince you otherwise. At this level it’s not necessary except as a means to create enthusiasm and love for the subject and if that is lacking, if you don’t enjoy it, it is most certainly a waste of your time.
Instead, I encourage you to tell the young child stories about the place you live and the people who lived there. Help him to see the timeline of his own life and that of your family. Have him delve into the tales of “olden days” that his grandparents can tell him. Have him make maps of your block.
Instead. Instead? No, no, I’m simply not seeing this as an either-or proposition. You can map the neighborhood one day and then look at a map of Egypt the next. (And then peruse at a Google Earth satellite pictures of contemporary Egypt the next.) You can tell him stories about the grandparents at breakfast and then read about Rome at lunch and then take a walk around the block and learn about the history of the town in the afternoon. You don’t have to choose one instead of the other!
We’ve chosen to do both/and. We’ve visited local archaeology sites and learned about what was happening right here, visited graveyards and historical sites and local shrines and churches and the Cathedral, and done nature walks and toured old houses. When we went to Virginia we toured George Washington’s boyhood farm and the hook was the archaeological dig and the garden. But Bella then acquired a connection to Washington which has helped her to make more hooks in the chain as we’ve read story books that refer to the Revolution. We’re getting the local and the ancient and they work together and not in opposition. The local helps her to understand the ancient and vice versa. We’ve gone to the art museum to look at the ancient art collections, then gone home to read piles and piles of picture books about the things we looked at. We’ve looked at images of art online, read children’s versions of great literature like the Children’s Homer and Beowulf for Children, which were loved by all my kids. It’s all a great tapestry of connections. It’s relationships. It’s enthusiasm. Maybe even geekery. Is this all because Bella is an exceptional child or I’m an exceptional teacher? It’s possible. But I think Leila is selling kids short. I think they can make connections to the distant past. Real ones. And I’ve found that even first graders are starting to try to sort out what is fact and what is fiction. They don’t have it down, but they do have the mental categories.
By third grade you can introduce the larger themes of eras and great movements — always tied as much as possible to stories about people who made them.
Yes, that’s our methodology. Looking at the stories, noting the themes of eras and movements, knowing well that they will mostly go over her head, but they are there, luring her on. And now in third grade she’s already able to look backward at what she’s already learned to see some of the themes, to see the movements. The time wasn’t wasted because she made the material her own and it dwells in her memory and she can pull it out and reexamine it in new ways. And hopefully will continue to do so for a lifetime.
Now certainly this spiraling cycle method could be done badly. Parents could put undue emphasis on testing memory of facts and dates. That would certainly be wrongheaded at an early age. I do not endorse doing all the Story of the World activities or administering tests or doing worksheets or really anything but reading stories. My kids have never taken a test or been quizzed on what we’ve read or memorized anything more challenging than a poem. In fact, Bella didn’t even categorize history as “school” until I explained it to her at some point this past summer when I was explaining that I’d rather like it if Sophie joined us for our reading now that she’s officially school age.
At this stage I don’t treat history as a subject the same way I will do for middle schoolers or high schoolers. It’s just fun stories we enjoy as a family. It’s a key to understanding those artifacts in the museum, it’s a lark, not a dull, boring chore. And perhaps that delight is what Leila has failed to grasp. I wish I understood why.
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