Friday, November 14, 2014

Creative Ways to Connect Students to the Past

Creative Ways to Connect Students to the Past
By Jill Jenkins
            Growing up in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s, I had a strong sense of history.  My father had served in the Sea Bees during World War II and my mother came from a pioneer family who had settled the western city in which I lived and the family had grown generation after generation.  My father’s passion for history meant our house was filled with books about the war, the ancient Mayan and Aztec Civilization, European History and archeology books.  When I began to teach, I was shocked to discover that most students had little or no sense of history or even life before their 12 to 14 year existence. Over time working with the history department at my school, we created some projects to help students have a wider historic view of the world. Without a sense of history, students will find it difficult to understand most pieces of literature and the world that they live in.
To Whom Are You Related?
            To help students understand that history was not just something you read about in your textbooks, students research one of their ancestors and learn at least three events from that person’s life.  They are asked to interview parents or grandparents to learn their ancestor’s life story. The students should be describing three events or stories from the ancestor’s life, not just facts about the person.  If the student has no family to interview, I suggested they adopt a family by interviewing a neighbor or an elderly person in a retirement home.  They dress as their ancestor to present a mono-act of their ancestor’s story as though they were that person.  Each student has to provide each class member with a handout.  That handout could be a fact sheet, or something more creative.  One of my former students was related to Milton Hershey, so she passed out Hershey’s kisses glued to a piece of paper with details about Milton Hershey’s life. Another one of my students was from Viet Nam and his grandfather had been an officer in the North Vietnamese army.  The story of his grandfather’s life helped students understand the human connections that unite all people making this a great learning experience for everyone.
            My daughter’s teacher assigned a variation of this assignment.  He wanted his students to appreciate a veteran for Veteran’s Day, so he asked student to find a family member or a neighbor who was a veteran and had served during a war and interview him.  My daughter interviewed my father who served in World War II.   Each student presented his/her findings with a picture of the veteran giving the students a face and a story. 
Anne Frank and the Other Victims of the Holocaust
            To teach The Diary of Anne Frank, I use a variety of activities to help the students relate to events that seem very foreign to them.  First, many teachers choose to teach the play instead of the actual diary, but I feel that students need to read a primary historical source, even if it is more difficult to read.  Second, students need to know that Anne Frank’s situation was not unique.  Many people were in hiding during World War II.   One wonderful resource is the United States Holocaust Museum at I have my students each select three victims who were about their age.  Each student creates a poster with the names, picture (if available) and story of three victims of the Holocaust.  My former in-laws were both in hiding in Holland during World War II.  Although I was never able to convince them to talk to my classes, I was able to tell their story and show them pictures of them.  My hope is to make history the story of real people to my students, not just a lot of facts, dates and foreign places as it was presented to me in middle school.
            Another great project is to use the sources on The United State Holocaust Museum webpage and ask students to research another example of genocide.  They need to create a Power Point Presentation about their example of genocide and create a plan for stopping destructive behavior.  Each student presents his/her Power Point to the class, so the students continue to learn from one another.
Connecting the Past with Parents
            Another way to help the students connect with the past and their parents is to give students a list of books on the time period that you are teaching.  Students are given two copies of the book and ask to take one home.  The student reads the book and the parent (grandparent or neighbor) reads the same book.  As they read the book, they discuss it together.  After they finish reading the book, the parent comes to school with his/her son/daughter to discuss the book.  The teacher, of course, has to supply the discussion questions during the reading and after the reading.  Since the other students watch the discussions given by the other parents and students, they are exposed to other books.  Hopefully, this will motivate them to read other books and expand their exposure.
            A few books that could be used in conjunction with The Diary of Anne Frank include:
·         Night by Elie Wiesel
Using Songs
As a teacher, you could introduce one or two songs to you class and then assign each student to find a song that bests reflects the time period.  He or she should present his/her song to the class and justify why he/she selected it.  Another idea is to have your students work in pairs and write their own song for that time period.

            To take it a step further, you could have student write their own song about their lives.   One by Monte Selby has some excellent examples of songs about the lives of students.

·         “Dixie”

·          It's a Long Way to Tipperary

·           Over There

             I find the songs of Woody Guthrie invaluable. One excellent choice appears on Nanci Griffith’s CD, Other Voices Too, "Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)" which was based on a newspaper article that Woody Guthrie found describing  the plight of a group migrant workers who were killed in an airplane accident when they were being deported.  The story is relevant today.  Another one of Wood Guthrie songs appears on Nanci Griffith’s CD, Other Voices, Other Rooms. Woody Guthrie’s song,   "Do-Re-Mi"  tells the story of the victims the dust bowl arrival in California.  If you were teaching The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, it would be invaluable.  Others include:

·         Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?

·         Happy Days Are Here Again

·         This Is the Army, Mr. Jones

·         "Eve of Destruction" by Barry McGuire
·         "Give Peace a Chance" by John Lennon


            Since these activities are student-centered project students will be more motivated to do them and more likely to learn from them.  Students who have a sense of history will increase their comprehension of literature and nonfiction reading.  Activating prior knowledge has proven invaluable to increasing reading comprehension; however, when students have limited background knowledge, students have low comprehension levels.  By increasing students connection to history and their basis knowledge on historic events, their reading comprehension grows.

 Note: all of the colored text is linked to the song, books or web-pages that can give you information.