Friday, October 9, 2009

Of Local Interest

“Long ago and far away” might be the opening line in a fairy tale, but it might also be the beginning of a story of real people in a time in the distant past. Closer to home, “long ago and right down the street” could open a history lesson in (and out of ) Mrs. Moriarty’s classroom this year. As they began their social studies curriculum, the third graders considered examples of incidents and people from the past, and shared their thoughts about what it means to study events that happened long ago. After awhile, Mrs. Moriarty raised an interesting question: What is the difference between studying general history and local history? Her question was prompted by an exciting development in the 3rd grade social studies program, which entails a detailed study of the history of Massachusetts. A new textbook, new field labs, and new activities will be featured this year, providing our students with a wide range of learning opportunities.

Mrs. Moriarty introduced a list of terms related to the study of local history. Given the proximity of many historic sites, the children can look forward to visits to nearby locations where important events occurred. They will also investigate the biographies of individuals who made significant contributions to our state. One interesting heroine was Deborah Samson, a woman who fought in the Revolutionary War (disguised as a man!). After the war, her friend Paul Revere made sure that Ms. Samson received an army pension to pay her for her service to the country.

A few weeks ago, when the 5th graders visited the Minuteman Trail and the Battle Road, I wrote about the access we have here in Massachusetts to so many locations where the children can be told “something important happened right here.” The immediacy of such an experience is, of course, quite powerful, but I don’t think it’s limited to just those of us who live in the northeast. The bigger idea that emerges from Mrs. Moriarty’s lesson is really about defining history in a way that children can begin to think about their own neighborhoods and communities as places in constant flux. Wherever you are, something happened many years ago. Finding ways of bringing local history alive is the challenge and the fun for us as teachers.

Museums are additional sources of information in a study of local history, and they house vast collections of artifacts—items left behind from years ago. By investigating these objects, we can learn about jobs, customs, interests, skills, and the details of everyday life. To demonstrate the kind of thinking and analysis required to examine a historic artifact, Mrs. Moriarty supplied one of her own. From a beautifully polished box, she brought out a wooden tool that resembled a pair of tongs. What could it be? The children suggested many possibilities: it could be used for picking up small items, as a pair of chopsticks, or a clip to hold objects together. Next, Mrs. Moriarty removed several pairs of elegant kid-leather gloves from the box. These, she explained, would have been worn by ladies of a previous generation. She then described the careful way that these gloves needed to be cleaned, and explained how the leather would shrink and wrinkle as it dried. The wooden tool is a finger stretcher, a necessary item for re-shaping the gloves and smoothing them to be worn again. Back in the time that it was used regularly, it was not seen as a treasured relic; it was a daily tool like a fork or a knitting needle.

Could a knitting needle become a tool for teaching history? In 50 years, I wonder if people will still knit by hand. This summer we rented a vacation house that had a rotary phone. My 11-year-old had never seen one “in person,” and he was stymied when it came time for him to place a call. In our lifetimes, commonplace objects become so outmoded as to seem quaint. Mrs. Moriarty’s glove stretcher made me think about the items from my childhood that would seem strange to my child—my “close-and-play” record player that spun 45 rpm records, my pogo stick, and even my brother’s LEGO™ bricks, which I recently heard my son describing as “old-fashioned.”

Much of history is really about the daily life of people in the past, not about battles and famous people. The third graders’ foray into local history is a great reminder of this approach to the subject…No doubt our students will encounter many other curious and useful items as they learn about what happened long ago and quite nearby.

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