Backyard History

Musings on a different (for me) approach to teaching history and my plan for doing it this year.

My youngest is a history fiend. He loves history. He loves alternate history. He knows folks I’ve never heard of in history. (I was a history major in my undergrad.) And at the ripe old age of 13 he’s completed 11th grade American history.

My eldest thinks history is boring. History is useless. There is no point to history.

But he was excited about taking psychology at the college because “everyone needs psychology.”

Now, I grew up with a love of history. My father was a history major undergrad. (He didn’t recommend it. Said all you could do with it was become a bank teller or a lawyer.) And he loved history. He shared that love through stories and odd facts.

I want my eldest son to love history and as he prepares to leave the family nest and head out into the cliffs of college, I only have a year or two left to share my love for it.

So I have decided that we are going to try something new and different, for us, in our history class. We’re going to go backwards through time, first of all. I’ve never tried that before.

And we’re going to research things that happened in a certain ten years by asking people who were involved or alive then what they thought at the time. (I have done this before as a student. One of my teachers gave us an assignment on this. I found out that my dad had some contact with the shooter at the UT tower, a huge story in Texas, even if no where else.)

We’ll start with their parents. Surely there is something newsworthy we were involved in. And hopefully we can point them to other people we know who were involved. Maybe I’ll have them read the Mudville Gazette or one of the other military blogs I enjoy to help give them a sense of the Afghanistan and Iraqi wars. They could even write an email to several different bloggers asking the same question (which one I don’t know. They would have to formulate it.) and see what kinds of answers they might get.

Okay, maybe we’ll start with their Uncle M who saw the shuttle explosion on his way to work one Saturday.

They’ll have to interview their grandparents on both sides. My folks were in school when they brought tanks to campus to quell riots. (I was there, but I don’t remember that.)

One set of great-grandparents is left. They’ve agreed to be interviewed by email. One was a member of the Civilian Conservation Corps. One they could ask what she sees are the differences between growing up as she did and growing up for children now. Or something else. Their great-grandfather wrote a self-published book, so they’ll need to read that to prep for the interview.

Then several of my aunts and uncles are older (into their 70s) and can be contacted about the family history. I have several geneaology crazy relatives. (Ours is even up on the net in two different places. One per side of the family.)

I’m related to Sgt. York from WWI. We can rent the movie, read the newspapers of the time, and do research. It’ll also be interesting to see if we can figure out just how we are related. (I’ve been told we are, but no one has told me how.)

There are several older people at our church who, I believe, would be inclined to give interviews if we knew the right things to ask them. (We’ll have to research those.) And it would be fun to visit with the older people. They leave our lives so quickly.

So we are going to look at history as it was lived by people we know. They can interview my uncle about occupied Japan. And AB’s mother, who is Japanese, and the same age or a bit older than my uncle. My other uncle was in Korea. I don’t know if they can interview him, but we’ll see.

Maybe we could, if I am braver than usual, go to the VFW post and talk to people there. But I’d want to learn about the wars with the boys first.

My Oma is 96. She’s been around a long time. If we get to it soon enough we could interview her about her life. Maybe we should start with her.

And her daughter visited all around the world with her first husband. She remembers when Lebanon was a beautiful country and had some of the best universities in the world and she was thinking they could stay there and raise their children.

I don’t know if we know anyone who chased Chinese spies, or if the internet blogger we have heard of who did that would be appropriate to contact because of his blog content, but we could widen our study of history that way.

Maybe, if we go far enough back, we could watch Monty Python and the whole “Bring out your dead” skit for the black plague. “Ring around the rosie” anyone?

What is my philosophy of history when it comes to education?

It’s not just dates and numbers. Real people lived their lives and left their marks on the world in those dates and numbers. If the people become real to you, the events will live in your mind. Explore the things that you find interesting in much more depth. And then put it in perspective with some simple study of the times around it.

Maybe things we’ll touch on:
what were people doing then for leisure?
What were people eating then that we don’t eat now?
When did the person you are interviewing first notice that the world it was a changing?
What household item was introduced during their lifetime? (My dad remembers refrigerators. My great-grandparents-in-law remember running water inside.)

If you have any suggestions that you’ve tried in this arena that worked well, I would love to know about them.