Sometimes I do go on (remember this five-or-so-homeschooling-posts-within-a-post?).
Today I will give you one little thing to ponder when it comes to teaching history.
[I’ve had to go through and add edits, because apparently writing a quick post is not going to fly with you, my dear readers!! Whom I love!]
Disclaimer: I learned this very late, after a long struggle with my own failed education in history.
[edited to say: By this I mean that *I* did not learn history in all my elite education, partially because at a crucial time it was replaced by the progressive idea of social studies.]
So I can’t say that my older children, at least, benefitted a ton from these musings [because, not knowing much about the subject, it took me a good long time to think out my approach]… 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.
The style now in classical curricula is to adhere to a “cyclical” method of teaching history.
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.
It has its appeal for the overwhelmed homeschooling mother, no doubt about it.
[Another edit, as I find that this post seems discouraging to the relaxed, history-oriented homeschooling parent, when it’s meant to feel liberating to the anxious, frustrated, compliant homeschooling parent.
I love the cyclical method of teaching history and endorse it.
I am convinced that history is the hardest subject to teach all the way through to high school, because a curriculum is always going to feel too constraining to the person who sees the varied pageant of man’s story. In particular, I feel that imposing the start of the cycle on the very young (K or first grader) is counterproductive.
Note the verb “imposing.” If your preschoolers are building Lego ziggurats or writing their names in hieroglyphics, then your work is done — go get an ice cream cone and put your feet up! But if you are stressing out because they want to run and jump and can’t really remember the names of the months, then I would like to say, “Don’t worry.”]
The cyclical approach 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.
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. [Talking here about how a dry study can make a child feel! Not about how it can be in your homeschool.]
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.
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. (Listen, if you have a child who spontaneously needs to know about these things, fine. I’m talking about a method.)
[Again, I’m not saying that it’s bad! It’s fun! Except the “making him” part… but if he’s doing it because he likes it, then awesome.
I’m just saying you aren’t getting the product you signed up for, which is a child of the age of 7, let’s say, who is getting the first step of history down pat. So if it seems a bit of a pointless drag to you to have to do these lessons– and believe me, I’ve been there — then there are other things to do!]
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.
[By this I really meant that I am not sure the purveyors of these curricula themselves understand that these are the reasons we are so vitally interested in ancient times. One issue I had as a child was that I simply wasn’t interested in ancient Egypt (ironically!) or Sumer and couldn’t be made to be… until I found this out. Warren Carroll made this point about history in his comprehensive History of Christendom, and his wife, Anne Carroll, developed a version for high school called Christ The King Lord Of History: A Catholic World History from Ancient to Modern Times. I wouldn’t recommend it as a text, because it’s better to have original sources and what Charlotte Mason called living books, but I do as background and a sort of outline for you, the teacher!
I question whether, if the maker of the curriculum doesn’t understand this larger point, and I find that most of them do not, you or your child will get it either when you use their products. So, although pointing this out may stray from my point that the very young child’s imagination may not be ready for a study of such distant times, I think that knowing the overall importance of the time period will help us when we are deciding when to introduce it.]
So, mostly a waste of time, and certainly a bit frustrating, in most cases, for you.
[The excited poring over books about the Nile — or whatever your lively child is doing to drink in ancient culture — isn’t a waste of time, but the program is. And doing the formal part of it at the age of 8 or 9 will be much simpler.
Also, there is a certain opportunity cost. If what your child needs is large motor skill development and better awareness of his immediate surroundings, then I maintain that introducing the Nile Delta is going to impede his progress. There is a limited time that a child before the age of about 8 or 9 will sit still. Don’t sabotage your efforts by adhering to an unrealistic curriculum.
Again, that said, if your young one is captivated by a tale of ancient Rome, then go for it.]
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. [This can be as simple as getting to know the calendar!] Have him delve into the tales of “olden days” that his grandparents can tell him. Have him make maps of your block.
Start from what he knows and go outwards from there. Start with some simple aspect of state history in first grade and the American colonial period to the Founding in second. If you live near Civil War sites, then start there. If you live near pioneer trails, start there. A timeline that is flexible (binder-style) will help you impose the order you so crave. [A Kindergartener can make a timeline of his own life, but it’s not necessary. Here again I strayed a bit from talking about very young children.]
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.
[Now we are back on the cyclical approach! You are doing great and your children will let you know when they are ready to study big sweeping subjects, so don’t get discouraged if your very young child isn’t ready for Mesopotamia.]