If I could only choose one subject to try and convince people to teach without the hindrance/help of textbooks, it would be history. History out of a textbook is generally just about memorizing dates and names long enough to take a test. (The regurgitation method I mentioned in the previous blog post, Teaching Curriculum vs. Learning Curriculum.) But how much of that is actually learned? From my personal experience, I would have to say very little.
Dates and Names?
Are the dates and names really that important? Why do we want our students to memorize things that are (a) so quickly forgotten and (b) so easily looked up?
When I think of history and what’s important about it, the first thing I think of is the stories. Isn’t it the stories of people and events that matter? It’s not just those long lists of names, whether they be presidents or kings or explorers. No, it’s what those men and women (and occasionally, children) did that make them worthy of being on a list in the first place. If we stick to the stories of history, much of the remembrance will come. And again, what we don’t remember, we should at least know how to look up.
Flow of History
The other important part of history we shouldn’t neglect is the flow of history. I didn’t necessarily need my students to memorize the dates of the important events – but I did want them to have a sense of what came before what. Many, many years ago I read an insightful book, What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know? The statistics in the book were rather startling. The majority of high school juniors and seniors couldn’t place things like the Civil War in the right half century – on a multiple choice test. While I may not think that every student should be able to tell you without hesitation that those dates were 1861 to 1865, I think they should all have an idea that it was fought in the second half of the 19th century and that World Wars I and II were fought in the first half of the 20th century.
So, when we are choosing our educational packages for our students for the upcoming year(s), what should we take into consideration in our decisions for history? Can we look beyond what the curriculum companies package together for us and consider what might be a better “learning curriculum” instead?
Should We Cover Hundreds or Thousands of Years?
First, I would recommend asking whether it’s really necessary to study such a long period of history in such a short amount of time. It is amazing to me that almost every American History curriculum insists on a study that covers hundreds of years, and of course, World History curriculums are generally worse, covering thousands of years.
At what point did we decide that history should be taught that way? Who can really make sense of that many events in such a short time? Why not choose a portion of American or World History to teach – and go into it in more depth? Many homeschoolers hesitate to stray away from canned curriculum because they might miss something. But, as I’ve always said, covering something is not the same thing as learning it. (Go back to that difference between Teaching Curriculums and Learning Curriculums.) Shouldn’t we be more concerned about what actually gets learned?
Another common fear I heard often was “What about tests?” When we’re not using the packaged curriculum, we’re giving up those nice, neat tests they generally provide. But since I don’t see a real value in tests in a homeschool situation, I never really missed them myself. And if you really need a test, you can always write one yourself. Or better yet, have the student(s) write it! What a great way for a student to show they have learned about a particular topic – if they can write the test that shows what the most important things were that they just studied.
Where do I begin?
So, you might be asking, if I’m going to teach something smaller, like say, the Civil War, and I’m not going to use a curriculum, what am I going to use? There is an endless supply of resources for teaching history – from field trips to movies to “real” books – both fiction and non-fiction. My family spent an entire school year studying the Civil War. (I put our favorite resources in my book, Civil War Topical Study.) We visited battlefields in a number of places, including Shiloh, Chattanooga, and Gettysburg. We watched several movies, including the Great Locomotive Chase, Gettysburg and Glory. (The first one is a family movie and the other two are great movies – minus the bad language and some typical battle violence – as with all such things – preview before you show!) And we read countless books, from the public library and from our own personal library. For older students and adults, Jeff Shaara is my absolute favorite history author. (And he has written historical novels on a fairly large number of American wars besides the Civil War – including the Mexican War, the Revolutionary War, and both World Wars I and II.)
As I’ve said before, games are another great way to learn and reinforce topics like history. Timeline games are one of our favorite tools for increasing history learning. I talked about those more on my other blog in Writing Timeline Games. But if you are unfamiliar with the concept, they are basically what they sound like – a timeline in a game format. In keeping with the priority of learning the flow of history without memorizing specific dates, the games can be played and won without having any of the dates memorized. You don’t have to know exact dates – you just have to know which events came before and after the other events in your timeline.
Options Outside of Textbooks
Hopefully you are getting the idea that there are lots of history options outside of textbooks. Choose a time period or a war and start learning together with your student(s). You don’t have to have it all figured out in advance and you don’t have to have all the answers!