Tuesday, July 9, 2013

History isn't always G-rated

by Nicole Griffetts

As Education Coordinator at The History Center, I talk to thousands of students a year about history and our museum.  Their perspectives can sometimes leave me thinking about history in ways that I hadn’t previously known.  Their observations can be insightful, creative, and humorous.  More importantly, though, are the questions they ask and the knowledge they wish to seek.

Most of the time, the questions are rather basic and can be answered quickly.  Several weeks ago, however, I was confronted with a question that required some thought. As we wrapped up discussion, a student asked, “What happened to the Native Americans?”

For historians and even those who took American history in high school know, Native Americans were eventually pushed off of their native lands onto reservations.  Those who protested or stood in the way of the settlers’ territorial interests were killed.  Conveying this to students can be tricky and controversial, but it is critical to have this conversation with students in order to create a more concrete understanding of history.  History isn’t always G-rated, and opening up the conversation helps students learn about history, race, gender, class, and privilege. Here are some tips for talking to students about the harsh realities of history:

  •  Do not lie or create an alternate ending.  Doing so only creates confusion later on as students begin to build upon their earlier foundation.  For example, telling students that Native Americans willingly walked away from their homes and gave them to Anthony Wayne would ultimately lead to an interesting perception of history.  It’s okay to not want to share horrific accounts of violence, scalping, and pillaging, but there are ways to approach the facts with honesty and age-appropriate language.

  • Ask for their opinions.  When I talk to students at the museum, they love sharing their thoughts on historical events with the group. Letting students know that their opinion matters encourages them to want to learn more.  Similarly, asking how students feel is just as critical when talking about history.  How would they feel if they were told that they had to leave their home tomorrow?  How would it feel to see their friends and family hurt by strange people? These interpretive questions can often open up the conversation by using empathy as a driving force. 

  • Have students discuss how they would have done things differently.  This can be done through a group discussion, writing assignment, or an art project.  While being creative, students get to critically analyze important issues.  For example, ask them to write as Anthony Wayne and re-imagine his plans for conquest. Would they still take the same actions that he did? More than anything, this exercise also helps students to begin forming their own interpretations of history rather than merely reciting facts and dates.

These tips are only just a few of the ways to engage students in more meaningful ways.  How do you talk to your young historians about tough topics? Share your thoughts with us in the comments or on our Facebook page or on our Twitter page.

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