The daily musings of a substitute teacher in East Central Illinois.

Living History

Today I was a 5th grade teacher at Robeson Elementary in Champaign. And, due to the student teacher having a rather nasty sinus infection, I was actually teaching today. It was rather nice, even though I had been planning on getting through a few more chapters of my balanced literacy book. The day went pretty well, with the one exception of a boy deciding it would be a good idea to take a spray bottle that once held cleaning chemicals and spray it at his classmates.


The highlight of the day was when we stopped our literacy block early so that we could discuss social studies. This was not part of the plans for the day, but it was something I felt was worthwhile and timely.

I have this philosophy about social studies. It is that social studies isn’t about learning historical data: people, places, events, dates, etc. That is history, which is an important element of social studies, but not all of it. Social studies is about learning why people did the things they did, not just what they did. I try to work this point into each lesson I teach. When we studied World War I and World War II, I asked the students to think about why we fight wars in the first place. And even those these young men and women are barely into the beginning of the second decade of their lives, they understand it. They understand the world around them. I know they do, and they know that I know that they do. I love telling them how awesome it is that they are smart, intelligent, capable people who can and do rule the world. I will set a fire beneath them by telling them that there are naysayers out there who think that 10-year-olds are too dumb, too young, too immature to understand what is going on. Hoo boy, if you ever want to see a class get fired up about what they can and cannot do, just tell them what people say they can’t do!

This whole discussion brought us to our main point: they are living in the midst of great historical moments. I asked them to tell me about some of the great moments in history that they learn about. They talked about things like the signing of the Declaration of Independence, of the Treaty of Versailles, of Pearl Harbor, of 9/11. So then we talked about last night. Most of the class had heard about the death of Osama bin Laden, but some had not. Some had scene President Obama’s address to the nation, but most had not. They all realised that this was an important event. So I asked them: “Would you like to see and hear the President’s address?” The decision was unanimous. So I pulled up the video while two of the boys in the class set up the speakers, another boy turned on the digital projector, and one of the girls pulled down the screen. And this is what we watched:

We watched it on the CBS news site, since YouTube is blocked by the school’s filter. Then we talked about it. Having discussed the idea that they are mature enough to understand the impact of this event, I was interested to see what they really took note of. Surprisingly, at least to me, it was the recognition of the source of the final statement Pres. Obama made: that we are “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” One boy asked why the President said that. So we talked about it. What does the Pledge of Allegiance mean? Do we think about the words when we say them, or are they just something we say each morning? Does it matter? Should it matter? Do we have to say the Pledge?

I don’t recall having any serious discussions like this when I was their age. Not in school, at least. I probably did at home, though. That comes from growing up with five older brothers, the oldest of which was in high school by the time I got to grade school. The majority of these boys and girls showed a remarkable level of understanding and depth of thought. There are some days that I worry about the future of our country. But then I see these young people and I really believe that we’re going to be all right.


4 responses

  1. Alex. What follows is an order to cease and desist. You must hereby cease and desist from defining history as “people, places, events, dates, etc.” and revise your “philosophy about social studies” before you share it with anyone else and do more damage that I will in about a decade have to clean up. History, even by any other name, is nothing less than understanding “why people did the things they did.” In the 200-level methodology classes I teach, the three foundational principles of historical thinking are an understanding of multi-causality, an awareness of continuity and change and a sensitivity to historical context.

    History is social studies writ large. With theology debunked in this modern, secular age, History is the new queen of the sciences, an empathic and hegemonic profession that possesses all that it surveys for there is nothing on this planet that does not have a history. The past is a foreign country, and we are the customs officials, the border patrol, and the tour guides. Admit it: what does anyone know about the human past that they have not learned from a historian? The practitioners of History have more power to shape the minds and hearts of humanity than any religion or political ideology, and yet they are monitored no more than elementary substitute teachers. Obama might claim that he authorized the death of O. b. L., but historians will play with this moment for decades, maybe centuries, and it is we who will ultimately tell the American people, indeed the world, what this moment will mean. Behold our power, Alex, and fear us! Mwa-ha-ha-ha-ha!!!

    May 2, 2011 at 6:18 pm

  2. Okay, so history is what we record of social studies. But, my dear old man, most history books used in schools from kindergarten through universities do not discuss why the events took place–at least, not in any deep, philosophical way. They just touch on the surface. Hence the reason we have people who say things like, “The American Civil War was about slavery” when we know it is much more.

    So I propose a compromise: I will define history as the reason behind why people, places, and events took place in the past if you promise to teach it as such and to write a history book that discusses the reasons instead of just the data.

    Oh, and I will continue to think of history as a subset of social studies because social studies includes things like psychology and predictions of the future.

    May 2, 2011 at 6:22 pm

  3. There are books by the thousands that give reason after reason for everything under the sun. You don’t need my poor offering to find that kind of thing. However you define social studies, the thing you can’t escape is that history is the only truly universal study of humankind, and all its sister disciplines, such as psychology, anthropology, sociology, and even geography, serve the purposes of the historian. Not even medicine or religion can escape some reliance on historical method. Your beloved pedagogy stands like a one-legged man on history’s crutch. Science and engineering both feed at history’s trough. Business and finance in their morally vegetative states rely on historical perception as they clutch at life. We are none of us as individuals worth a dirty nickel without memory, and neither are we anything but lost collectively without a firm grounding in the past and its understanding. That understanding is history.

    May 2, 2011 at 7:01 pm

  4. Spoken as a true historian 🙂

    May 2, 2011 at 7:16 pm

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