Never Too Early to Cultivate History Geeks

While I always identify myself as a primary grade teacher, many people who know me well are often saying stuff like, “You should be teaching high school history,” because I love history so much.  I’m actually certified to teach through 9th grade in social studies, which means if I ever did move to the 7th-9th grade level, I would get to teach history all the time.

But you know what? I do get to teach history all time, despite the fact that my students are 7 and 8 years old.

Now, I know what you’re probably thinking. What kind of history could possibly be taught at the 2nd grade level?  Well, on the most basic level, you would be correct in assuming that there is very little to no history (American, world, or otherwise) in the NYS second grade social studies curriculum.  I mean, the general curriculum standards look at things like community and basic map skills, and being able to identify, say, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr.

You’d be surprised how many kids think MLK was a president.  Which is awesome, but often requires some lengthy explanations.

A couple years ago, my school started using a program called Studies Weekly, which is like those good old Weekly Readers you and I used as kids (which is still in existence by the way), except nothing but social studies.  The program covers everything from school responsibilities to the Constitution, to historical figures like Frederick Douglass, to how money and markets work.  You try explaining to a 2nd grader that when you use a credit card to buy stuff at Walmart, you still have to pay somebody something at some point.

Anyway, this program is, in my book, officially awesome.  Mostly because it has given me a launch point to hold dozens of in depth discussions about various topics in history.  The little magazines cover the most basic aspects of history, geography, and economics, but I don’t stop there.

Want to know why?  Because, my God, the QUESTIONS these kids ask!

They ask fantastic questions.  They ask me for books about the people, places, and historical events we learn about.  They want to see pictures – I’ve shown them everything from a video of a Civil War artillery demonstration to different photography collections on the Library of Congress website.

Want to know what’s even better? They remember and make connections between what we’ve talked about at different points in the year.  For example, because of the yearly calendar, we learn about MLK before we learn about Abraham Lincoln.  And we study them about a month apart.  (Well, this year was a little different – we did some Lincoln learning in September when the draft of the Emancipation Proclamation was in Syracuse.)  One of my students made a very astute observation. “Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King were kinda the same because they both thought there were laws that were unfair and they tried to change them.”

Very simple, yes, and perhaps not a particularly accurate comparison.  But remember, this came from a 7 year old.

So I must now proudly admit that, over the past three years, I have manged to turn three classes of students into little budding history geeks.  There are some topics that I have to sort of simplify – I get asked every year when we talk about Abraham Lincoln, “Why did the Civil War start?”  Then that leads into showing some maps and discussing slavery, which in turn leads to lots of little horrified gasps at the idea that people were once treated like property.  Echoes and echoes of, “But that’s not fair!” ring through all those discussions.  And there’s visual relief on their faces when they discover that slavery was made illegal, even though it took a hundred more years for all people to start getting treated equally in this country.

But even though it’s sometimes necessary to “tidy up” very complex historical issues, the fact that the kids are so interested and ask about stuff in history proves that they can and should be taught about history. I’ve never believed in dumbing down instruction in case a student doesn’t understand a word or two.  When I read a book about MLK that talks about segregation, I just pause and explain what the word means.  Fortunately, many fantastic books, and other materials, have become available in recent years that offer instruction on topics in history while still being kid friendly.  It piques their curiosity.

This week, I just wrapped up my President Biography project with my class.  Each student had to choose one president (except George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, since we learn so much about them in class) to study and write a very brief biography about.  They were so excited to choose their presidents, and during reading station time and free time, they looked through the books and information about other presidents by choice.

I can’t wait to do the women’s history project at the end of this month.

Now, I do realize that most 2nd graders are naturally curious, which is why they get just as excited about finishing all 100 addition or subtraction problems on their weekly timed test as they do when I break out the magnets or read about George Washington.  And I also realize that in just a few short years, that curiosity will be stunted by the general apathy that accompanies the onset of puberty.

But maybe, just maybe, someday I’ll stumble across a former student at a Civil War reenactment who will tell me, “Mrs. Rowan, you made me love history.”

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