A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

The Basics of History

The Meanings of History

If you look for the meaning of "history" in the dictionary you may be surprised to find that history is not simply the past itself. The first meaning of history is "tale, story," and the second meaning is "a chronological record of significant past events." The opening of tales for children--"Once upon a time"--captures both the story and time nature of history.

When we study history we are involved in a branch of knowledge that records and explains past events. Many would say that history is not just one branch of knowledge among others, but that it is the most essential one because it is the complete story of human endeavor. It happens that the word "history" comes from the Greek "to know."

The activities in this book are organized according to the two meanings of history as story and time in order to help you explore these meanings with your child.

The Story in History

The work of doing history is to consider people and events that are no longer in our presence. Unlike doing science, we do history without being able to observe behavior and its results.

This work is fun when we make the past meaningful. We do this by weaving together various pieces of information about the past. In doing this we create a pattern that gives shape to "just a bunch of facts." Doing history is a way of bringing the past to life, in the best tradition of the storyteller.

But not just any story will do. While there are many possible tales of the same event, good history is based on evidence and several perspectives.

The history with which we are most familiar is political history-- the story of wars, peace treaties, and changes of government. But anything that has a past has a history. This includes the history of ideas, for example the concept of freedom, and cultural history, for example the history of music.

The story of history is interesting to us because it tells us about real people who had ideas and beliefs, worked and struggled to put them in action, and shaped the present in which we find ourselves.

Time in History

Human events take place in time, one after the other. It is important to learn the sequence of events in order to trace them, reconstruct them, and weave the stories that tell of their connections. Children need to learn the measures of time, such as year, decade, generation, and century. When they hear "Once upon a time in history" they need to be able to ask "When did that happen?," and to know how to find the answer.

Time in history is a kind of relationship. We can look at several events that all happened at the same time, and that together tell a story about that period. Or we can look at the development of an idea over time, and learn how and why it changed. And we can consider the relationship between the past and the present, or the future and the past (which is today!). The present is the result of choices that people made and the beliefs they held in the past, while the past, in being retold, is in some way remade in the present. The future will be the result of the coming together of several areas developing today.

The main focus of history is the relationship between continuity and change, and it is important that our children understand the difference between them. For example, the population of the United States has changed dramatically over time with each wave of immigration. With the entry of these new groups into American society, bringing their own ideas, beliefs, and cultures, American democracy has continued and grown stronger. It continues to function according to its original purpose of safeguarding our basic values of freedom and equality, even as the meanings and effects of these values change.

A New Look at History

History is now understood to be more than memorizing names and dates. While being able to recall the details of great people and events is important, the enjoyment of history is enhanced by engaging in activities and experiencing history as a "story well told."

Original sources and literature are real experiences. Reading the actual words that changed the course of history, and stories that focus on the details of time and place help children know that history is about real people in real places who made real choices that had some real consequences, and that they could have made different choices.

Less can mean more. "A well-formed mind is better than a well-stuffed mind," says an old proverb. Trying to learn the entire history of the world is not only impossible, it feels too hard and reduces our enthusiasm for history. In-depth study of a few important events gives us a chance to understand the many sides of a story. We can always add new facts.

History is hands-on work. Learning history is best done in the same way we learn to use a new language, or to play basketball: we do it as well as read about it.

Doing history means asking questions about events and characters; searching our towns for signs of its history; talking with others about current events and issues; writing our own stories about the past.

There is no final word on history. There are good storytellers and less good storytellers. And there are many stories. But very rarely does any one storyteller "get it right," or one story say it all. A good student of history will always look for other points of view, knowing that our understanding of history changes over time.

Your children do well to ask "So What?" Much that we take for granted is not so obvious to our children. We should invite them to clear up doubts they have about the reasons for remembering certain things, getting the facts right, getting facts right, and collecting and judging evidence. At each step, asking "so what?" helps to explain what is important and worth knowing, and to take the next step with confidence.

Asking Questions

At the end of each activity in this book, you will find a series of questions that can help develop the critical thinking skills children need to participate well in society, learn history, and learn from history. The questions help them know the difference between what is real, fantasy, and ideal, and make the activity more fun.

Critical thinking is judging the value of historical evidence; judging claims about what is true or good; deciding what information is important to have; looking at a topic from different points of view; being curious enough to look further into an event or topic; being skeptical enough to look for more than one account of an event or life; and being aware that our vision and thinking are often limited by our biases and opinions.

The following two sections contain a sampling of history activities, organized by the meanings of history as story and time. Each group of activities is preceded by a review of three elements of story and time from the perspective of history. The review is meant to inform and support conversation between you and your child, which is the most important step in each activity by far.

[History Education Begins at Home] [Table of Contents] [Activities: History as Story]