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Why History?

Why bother studying history? What's passed is past. It's all just memorizing names and dates! You've probably heard someone say "those who don't understand their history are condemned to repeat it".
To me, it history is a way to help learn where we've come from, to determine how and why, and to help us see where we are headed. It is a way to learn our identities--as earthlings, as mammals, as humans, as Canadians (or whichever nationality you happen to be), and so on. It is a way to learn about arts, sciences and technology by reviewing discoveries and developments in the quest to take previous learning further in each successive generation.

History is our GPS through time.

Here I will share with you some of the more interesting ways I've found to learn about history. I hope you find something here that sparks your imagination and makes you want to learn more.

Timelines

Timelines are a good way to map historical events and compare the timing of different aspects of history, such as the rise and fall of civilizations, technological advances, scientific discoveries, artistic developments, etc. Timelines can take many forms from large wall charts to small notebooks. You can make your own fairly easily. First you will need to determine your starting point and use this along with your available space to determine your scale. Draw your main line and measure out time intervals to mark with the year.
You can look up pictures of historical figures and events on the internet to print out and use to label your timeline, or just write the information in by hand. If you intend to label your line with different types of information, decide on a way to colour code your entries, or put them on a given vertical space that is consistent throughout (or horizontal if your timeline runs vertically). You may wish to categorize your entries by country, continent, subject matter, etc. Colour coding makes it easier to find and compare information quickly.

Personal Timeline

A great first timeline project is to have the child do a timeline of his/her own life. Some events to mark: their birth; the birth or adoption of any siblings; when they lost their first tooth; when they started school, sports, arts programs or youth groups; moving to a new home; the arrival of a new pet; when they learned to read. Add other events as desired.

Making Connections

In the 1970s, the BBC produced a television series hosted by James Burke entitled "Connections". This was revived again twice in the 1990s. The series can be found online by searching Connections + James Burke--I haven't linked because I am unsure if there are copyright violations involved in these videos.

In each episode, James Burke would start with an invention or technology and challenge the viewer to connect that with another seemingly unrelated one. Through the show he would mark the path of its discovery and development through unlikely but relevant places throughout history, and finish by arriving at the newer invention or technology.

Instead of saying that "person A" invented, developed or discovered something, the viewer was shown how successive people working from each other's smaller work contributed to the development of something together. Although the last person generally gets the credit for an invention or discovery, most new breakthroughs build on previous knowledge, often from a variety of countries, cultures and walks of life. Many times, the new item relies on mistakes or serendipity from earlier people.

A challenge for students is to watch a couple of episodes of the program, then develop their own program following the same sort of methodology. They may wish to start with the ending "item" and work their way backwards, trying to take the most interesting path back to an essential precursor to their "item". Of course, they can also start with the earlier item and work forward. Students who really want a challenge can start with two seemingly unrelated "items" and see if they can make a plausible connection between them. This will not always work, but may be worth trying to see where in fact the items do take them.

Living History

Time Travel

Many museums offer a glimpse of the past, but you can take this a step further. Try living for a full day or longer completely immersed in the time and culture you are studying. Pay attention to the details: what clothing did they wear, what work did they do, what ammenities were available, what did they eat--where did it come from and how was it prepared, what did they do for entertainment. Try and sample as much of the culture as possible including the music, stories, language, customs, religious practices, commonly held world views at the time, etc. If there are aspects of the people that are unknown, speculate as to what they might have been or done based on the available evidence. Try using similar tools for the jobs they did. How did they meet their needs? How does this compare to other people in different parts of the world at the time? What items from afar might they have obtained through trade? What sorts of personal history might they have had? What sort of education? What sort of communication networks were in place? Pretend it is reality TV, without the TV.

Interviewing Those Who Remember

We often overlook the most valuable sources for more recent history. Taking the time to talk to an elder can bring a great deal of reality to historical events. Hearing first-hand accounts of events helps make them real and put them into perspective. Do you have a grandparent or great grandparent who remembers Vietnam? Martin Luther King? Pierre Trudeau and the FLQ Kidnappings? The building and falling of the Berlin Wall? Don't forget to ask about your own personal family history once you have them talking! You may wish to ask them if you can record the session so you can remember names, dates and other details.

If you don't have an older relative to interview, try different retirement homes in your area. Many residents are happy to share their stories. Also consider asking local First Nations Elders about their history and oral traditions. For many generations, many North American First Nations followed (and some still do) a tradition of passing down their history orally, that is, by telling younger family members the events that made up their history. The histories in many cases could be traced back for hundreds and even thousands of years. A great companion study to this would be to share Alex Haley's Roots (the book and/or the mini-series).

As well as our elders, others in your community may have true stories to share about recent/current events, particularly those that happened in other areas or countries. Hearing their versions of what happened and comparing it to media accounts can be enlightening, and can open up a whole new discussion about biases and interpretations of events. It has been said that the history books are written by the "winners" or those who conquered and won, and that because of this, most histories carry some inaccuracies. What do you think?

Recommended History and Social Studies Book Resources





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