Friday, May 14, 2010

Another chance to learn U.S. history, thanks to my fifth grader

Most parents know that asking their kids what happened in school on any given day tends to be a losing proposition. If they answer at all, they’re likely to tell us about a recess game or possibly a bit of lunchroom drama, but seldom anything from the classroom.

This is definitely true of my fifth grader, which is why it’s such a surprise to me lately when I browse through the pile of papers he sometimes removes from his backpack and leaves in a heap on the kitchen table. This isn’t his subtle way of asking me to admire his work; he’s just cleaning out his backpack to lighten the load and never seems to make it as far as the recycling bin with his old homework papers and tests. But it still gives me a welcome opportunity to look through his classwork, and lately it’s been so eye-opening to see how much he’s been learning, especially in social studies. His class has been studying the early years of U.S. history this year, and I honestly think he knows more about U.S. history at this point than I do. He knows specifics about the founding fathers and their individual approaches to government. He knows about all of those second-tier historical figures whose significance I tend to draw a blank on: Roger Williams, Patrick Henry. Today he went on a brief discourse about the sentiment behind Benjamin Franklin's oratory “We hang together or we will hang separately,” only he acted it out for me, pronouncing the first half but then pantomiming strangulation for the second part. It’s definitely not a quote I’ll ever forget again, after hearing Tim’s rendition, ending with “or…gaaaahhhk!”

I don’t remember learning anything nearly so substantive at his age. I went to the same school, but the approach was so different back then. Without the curricular benchmarks that characterize public school education today, it never seemed like anyone put that much importance into the specific content of what we learned. The classroom was much more process-oriented. We did a lot of writing, and reading, and discussion of concepts like what it means to be a civilization. Though process is important, I’m certain I didn’t leave fifth grade with the tangible body of knowledge Tim will carry with him. Some of it he’ll no doubt forget – every now and then I wonder how it is that we discussed the layers of the earth over the course of four consecutive grades in elementary school and I still can’t name them – but of course, American history will come up again and again in his years of education, so I tend to think what he’s learning now will form a solid foundation for future curricular units.

And he understands so much about what he’s studying. Sometimes I forget just how much historical detail he has assimilated. Last month when we were in D.C., we came across a poster that showed a picture of every U.S. president and identified them by party. “Wow, Millard Filmore was a wig?” I heard Tim say. I chuckled indulgently, ready to explain to Tim that it didn’t mean we actually had a hairpiece for president back in 1850. But Tim continued before I had a chance to say anything. “I’m just so surprised that seventy-five years after achieving independence from Britain, political figures were still identifying themselves with the Whig party.” Oops. My mistake.

Although to me it seems he’s learned an astonishing amount of tangible information about American history, I also remember how his social studies teacher described her approach to teaching when we met with her on Parents’ Night back in September. “What we talk about in fifth grade social studies is essentially two questions,” she said. “One, What is worth fighting for? And two, Why do people leave their homes? I teach the kids that one of those two questions lies at the heart of nearly everything we’ll study in social studies this year.”

I really like those two questions, as social studies guideposts but also as writing prompts and as questions for thinking about life. What is worth fighting for? What is worth leaving home for? It seems to me that Tim’s teacher is right: those questions lie at the heart of so much that explains who people are and why they do what they do. It’s a good way to look at what has happened, and to think about what could happen still. Tim still has years of school ahead to learn about so many things, some of which I knew and have forgotten and some of which it seems I never quite got to. I’ll keep browsing through his homework, because I’m finding there’s a lot I can learn within those tattered and marked-up sheets of paper.

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