Thursday, November 20, 2008
(As an aside, years ago, as an undergrad, I spent a summer sitting in a superintendent's office in California working on my research project on the history of high school fraternities. Over those few months, I was witness to more inane conversations than I had ever heard in my life among the district administrators: Their main qualification seemed to be being overconfident men: They certainly didn't seem to have much going on up top. One of them, disturbingly, went on to a career in high places.)
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
Merit pay is an extraordinarily bad idea, and the idea stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of the teaching profession. I resigned this year from a tenured job in Georgia as a university historian of early America, after 12 years of misery arising from the toxic atmosphere cultivated in large part by merit pay. It rewards cronyism and cynical tactics (such as teaching to tests, no matter how inane), while demoralizing the very creative people we must attract to teaching.
I have talked to many, many K-12 teachers (including as a presenter at the Georgia Council for Social Studies last month), and I have come away convinced that policymakers won't make a difference until they understand some hard truths:
1. Policies like merit pay often seem to be designed around a mythical figure akin to Reagan's welfare queen: Someone who might resemble the Ben Stein character in Ferris Bueller's Day Off, who bored his students with the monotone recitation of arcane facts.
But most teachers are women, and they don't go into the profession for the money. They consistently spend their own cash on their job, and otherwise go above and beyond, many of them doing the thankless but crucial work of teaching elementary school, where a love of learning must be cultivated if we are to change anything They are experienced, which matters, and they are rightly pissed off at being blamed for the failures of society, families, idiot administrators and senseless curriculum.
2. Policymakers either don't examine or fail to understand curriculum. Have any of you actually looked at the state curricula in subjects like social studies? Everywhere, it favors the pursuit of trivia that only the die-hard old boys favor--it certainly bears no resemblance to the interests and emphases of professional historians, and it doesn't work in elementary school. Teachers are leaving because--heads up--teaching this nonsense to bored kids for the sole purpose of passing a meaningless test is soul-destroying.
3. Policymakers consult idiot administrators, college of education people, and even union heads. They rarely talk with teachers in the trenches, or with the college faculty who have to somehow try to teach the demoralized and apathetic graduates of our public schools.
Thursday, October 30, 2008
At the Georgia Council for Social Studies annual meeting last week, I met dozens of teachers. These are the best and the brightest, the people you should want teaching your kids, who somehow maintain their energy and creativity in an anti-intellectual state, in schools that are generally impoverished. But they are angry and frustrated with a social studies curriculum that is superficial and dull; with tests that make no sense to kids or, frankly, college professors. Disturbingly, I learned that the mediocre teachers--those who would never dream of attending such a meeting, who are more concerned with the next football game than with imbuing kids with a love of the past, who have the intellectual curiosity of a lethargic limpet--simply shrug their shoulders and say, "This is what we have to teach." They then proceed to inflict the state's mindnumbingly tedious interpretation of history on kids, and laud themselves for their "success" in preparing students for college and life.
This complaint was disturbingly familiar to anyone who has taught in a university. Those professors who go along to get along, who mindlessly strive to meet administrators' bogus targets and objectives, not only damage the kids in their own classes: They demoralize their brighter and more energetic colleagues. The difference is that, in college, we still, just barely, have the freedom to ignore the stupidity to at least some extent. What was heartbreaking at this conference was to realize that teachers like these, the very teachers on whom our future depends, are increasingly constrained by red tape.
So what's to be done? I'm giving this subject a lot of thought, starting with an analysis of the fears and concerns that underlie the peculiar Georgia curriculum, and, indeed, all state curricula. I am convinced that, for the elementary grades at least, the social studies curriculum must go out of the window. Yes, I did mean that.
More posts on the way. Meanwhile, here's that NYT editorial.
Tuesday, October 7, 2008
This summer, I resigned from my academic job after twelve years. I was disgusted with my "university" (the quotation marks are well deserved, believe me), and not much more pleased with the direction of the profession in general. Too much, universities have come to reflect the ethos of the last thirty years: An emphasis on personal ambition over public service, a tendency for those at the top --in this case, rapacious college administrators--to make utterly unreasonable demands on those in the front line--faculty--for their own personal aggrandizement. Within my department, the vicious politics of academe had taken a particularly mean-spirited form. Teaching and service were contemptuously dismissed as the preoccupation of mediocre schoolmarm-like professors (read: most women), while research, no matter how poorly-conceived, ill-funded, and inconsequential, was, we were told and told ourselves, of paramount importance. I was witness to the cavalier dismissal of undergraduate education more times than I care to recall, despite the fact that we were a third-rate college with a laughably inadequate graduate program, so that even by the parochial standards of research universities, our efforts in that direction were moot. I loved my work, teaching, service, and, when I had time to do it, research, but it was all too much. Fortunately, unlike too many of my colleagues,I was able to quit.
But now, all the rationalizations that upheld a sick system are no longer in place. With a declining economy, colleges like mine, with pretensions to research grandeur and minimal resources, will either have to back off or will push their faculties past the crisis point. As meaningless make-work jobs disappear, they will take their concomitant vocational degrees (communication studies, anyone?) with them.
The worthlessness of vocational BAs has been a pet peeve of mine since I railed against them as (yes!) a journalism major: Now, it is about to become painfully obvious. Young people who have been encouraged to pursue the big bucks and the toys they buy at the expense of an inner life will find they have been cheated twofold: Once, because their expensive but strangely valueless degrees will no longer give them automatic entree into the world of work and twice, because once the trips to the mall and expensive vacations dry up, they will find they lack the resources to entertain themselves and intellectually enrich their lives.
Public history will also, I predict, be sorely tested. Gone will be the funds and high admission prices that fund fancy displays and technology. But demand will climb, at least for the right kind of public history that engages its audience, and doesn't charge much (or anything) for the privilege.
If the right kind of people are involved in creating public history (and that's a big "if") and if rigid bureaucracy doesn't interfere (an even bigger "if"), those of us involved in public history and in teaching history will discover that, in hard times, the public will embrace imagination, creativity, and human connection with the past.
Tuesday, September 23, 2008
The two most notable castles that Alec, my kid assistant, and I visited on our recent six-week stay in the UK were at Kenilworth and Dover, both of them owned by English Heritage, a government agency whose superb and energetic stewardship of historic sites defies the conventional wisdom about government-run enterprises.
I can't give a complete review of Dover Castle for the simple reason that we toured very little of it: It's massive, plus we were there to participate in a day of Roman-themed activities, staged by external groups of volunteers. Alec reveled in the displays of horse-chariots and weaponry, but most of all, he and hordes of other kids loved pretending to be Roman soldiers, under the direction of a man in centurion kit who bossed them about like a sergeant-major from a British sitcom. In the process, they learned how to form a tortoise, which I imagine might one day prove a useful skill.
Personally, I can't stand military re-enactments: A little goes a long way for me. But having an eight-year-old son has forced me to concede defeat on this score. Needless to say, he loves that stuff.
However, he also loved the opportunity to make a moulded clay medallion, which we somehow managed to keep intact over six weeks of travel. The one surprise was that he was completely turned off by the demonstration of Roman medicine: A man with a very convincing and revolting wound to his arm was "treated" by a volunteer playing a medic, who first gave a very long and tedious talk on Roman medicine. Alec was completely grossed out by the presentation, as were several other kids. As someone who has not been above doing such a presentation herself (at TimeShop, we demonstrated medieval surgery), I have come to the conclusion that we all overestimate kids' enthusiasm for grossness. As the success of the Horrible Histories book series shows, kids love reading about gross stuff in history. But seeing it? Another story.
Kenilworth Castle was a huge, glorious ruin. Alec, who normally is game to listen to museum audio tours, and especially to kids' audio tours, resisted most of my attempts to help him learn anything about the place. He wanted to rampage around with his sword, and rampage he did. English Heritage publishes colorful and (wisely) brief children's guides, which all draw on the same template. Until the visit to Kenilworth, I had had no reason to question this approach. But Alec's response gave me pause.
Fortunately, I fell into conversation with a very impressive young English Heritage employee. I've been thinking about that conversation ever since. She said that the Kenilworth staff had noticed the same thing: The kids simply love to run around and use their imaginations. To the chagrin of teachers and parents, they ask about ghosts. She has been reading about the role of folklore in kids' development, and is increasingly convinced that it's important to let kids enjoy the Castle on their own terms. I am too.
In recent years, our productivity-obsessed culture has created an education system that's straight out of Dickens's Hard Times. It's all about rat races and hoop-jumping, about credentials and tests. The result is that we are ruining the quality of our children's lives, now and for their futures, by ignoring their creativity. In a child's mind, fantasy and reality blend in ways that are inspiring and exciting, and create a seedbed for their future interest in history. Castles are great places in which to discover and embrace this fact.
Kenilworth Castle made me rethink English Heritage's "branding" approach, which has led to the creation of a matched series of leaflets for children visiting all its properties. I think the time is ripe to encourage bottom-up interpretation, to allow the staff at each property full latitude to use their creativity and enthusiasm to craft interpretations that speak to children's emotional as well as intellectual responses. From what I could gather from the staff member I met, English Heritage does grant a fair amount of latitude, but I couldn't help noticing how interpretive materials (from signs to museum to audio tours) push kids in a utilitarian direction. That said, there's nothing wrong with parents and teachers simply giving kids plenty of time to run free.
By the way, Alec loved the chance to brush up his medieval swordsmanship, too.
Friday, August 8, 2008
Which may, in fact, be the problem.
The website sort of sucked. Judge for yourself: http://www.cressingtemple.org.uk/CTaerial.htm It was hard to feel enthusiastic about visiting on a day with no historical events. But we got a warm welcome from the staff, and enjoyed a falconry display by the resident raptors, which was the day's special event. We opted for the free audio tour, handsets that were supplied with a laminated map (for loan) indicating which numbers on the handsets we should push at which parts of the site.
The audio tour was reasonably interesting for adults, but did not really work for eight-year-old Alec. Likewise, the information posters at various points were sufficiently engaging for grown-ups, but were difficult to translate into kid-friendly language.
The larger problem is that, despite extensive archaeological digs at the site, very little of it is visually interpreted. There's an exhibition in one of the barns, which has the advantage of several life-size mannequins depicting medieval building techniques and a Knight Templar. The museum also had a real chainmail shirt to try on...if you could lift it, which we couldn't (far more instructive that way!) However, much of the museum was heavy in text, and limited in hands-on activities.
Cressing Temple is used often for meetings, sales, weddings, etc, so that a number of areas, rather jarringly, featured modern seating, or were in the process of being set up for events. This included the world's oldest barn, which was a wonderful structure. In another anachronistic touch, other barns included nineteenth century blacksmiths and wheelwright shops, and a 1920s summer house, designed to match the barn's architecture but filled with agricultural tools. Anachronism is not a problem per se, but the interpretation of this fascinating and complex site was not similarly fascinating and complex, especially for kids. It had a cobbled-together feel, one that was only partly alleviated by the audio tour.
Funds are almost certainly an issue (Cressing Temple is owned by the county of Essex), so I certainly wouldn't prescribe expensive interpretive technology. But I do hope Cressing Temple is successful in recruiting volunteers (we never saw anyone after we left the gift shop), and that perhaps the means are found to update the informational displays, as well as to develop materials for kids that clearly show the multilayered history of the site. It would also be lovely to see a display of the archaological finds.
We will be back, but on an event day. A kids' archeological dig (held Mondays and Tuesdays this summer) looks very promising.
Thursday, August 7, 2008
I'm writing about it because the key to its success was the same as for historical events for kids: Knowledgeable, friendly and enthusiastic staff.
Despite jet lag, Alec thoroughly enjoyed himself at a workshop which was directed by a man who connected well with kids and knows his subject--in this case, bugs and all manner of other things that dwell in an English pond. The five kids in attendance were issued with fishing nets, and trays filled with water into which they could dump their catches for closer examination.
The man in charge answered questions well, but also knew when to stop talking and allow the kids to catch more critters. He also clearly enjoyed his subject: When one kid caught a giant silver diving beetle, the instructor and an excited colleague enthused over it with sincerity. Kids know when adults are real, and when they are faking. These guys were enthusiastic, and their enthusiasm was inspiring. The cost? A few cheap nets and plastic trays. That's all the technology you need when you have good people.
I look forward to sharing our adventures in homeschooling and museum visits live from England over the next weeks.
Tuesday, July 22, 2008
The worst sin that Savannah has committed in my book, however, is that I and others have endured too much snottiness among the history-powers-that-be in the city. I recently made the mistake of taking a city walking tour offered by the Owens-Thomas House, on the subject of the Wanderer, the last slave ship to arrive (illegally as it happens) in America. It was led by a volunteer, it was free, and it was worth every penny I paid for it. Actually, I ought to have been paid: Disorganized, uninformed, dull, and most importantly, rude, the guide was a good example of why Savannah desperately needs better and professional public history. At the tour's end, my historian friend and I agreed that it had been a waste of time, and a terrible disappointment, especially because there is so little African-American history on show in Savannah. Another historian friend of mine encountered what she described as a very snotty tour guide at the Andrew Low House a few months ago, and so I asked her to accompany me back there today.
The Andrew Low House (1849) was built by a Scotsman who made his fortune as a cotton merchant, and then very sensibly retired on the proceeds of slave-grown cotton to the less malarial climate of England. It was in England that his son met and married Juliette Gordon Low, later the founder of the Girl Scouts, and they lived in the house periodically, although England remained their principal home. Since 1928, the house has been owned by the Colonial Dames of America, first as their HQ, and, since 1952, as a house museum.
Savannah isn't really a destination city for families, and so I usually forgive its house museums for being inattentive to kids. However, the Andrew Low House is frequently visited by one particular group of kids, Girl Scouts, because of its connection to Juliette Gordon Low.
On this particular day, only my friend and I were on the tour. The House is open in the midst of a massive restoration project which involves a few boarded-up exterior areas, but we didn't mind since we got a three dollar discount off the usual $8 tariff. Our tour guide wasn't particularly friendly, but nor was she insufferably snotty. She was fairly well-informed, but seemed a bit bored, and wasn't very encouraging of questions. In other words, she was par for the course in Savannah.
Most of the furniture was true to the period, although almost none of it was original. The tour, although it took us to both floors, wasn't too long, but included no view of the service area, or any mention of the African-Americans who staffed the place in slavery and freedom. Perhaps the stories about them don't exist. What we didn't get, however, was a better sense of the personalities who had inhabited the house: Andrew Low, the merchant, who came to Savannah as a Scottish teenager and fled it to become an English gent, was an intriguing guy.
I wondered to myself whether he left letters or diaries that might have helped us bring the house to life. The guide told us a couple of funny stories about Juliette, but only after the official tour had ended. I didn't see any evidence on the web site or in the shop that the Museum makes any effort to reach out to children, despite the fact that hundreds if not thousands of Girl Scouts are brought through the building every year. A scavenger hunt, a lively background briefing on the house and its inhabitants,or costumed character tours, all would enliven an otherwise stuffy presentation.
My historian friend described how rudely another of the docents had treated her group, including a Girl Scout whose angry mother protested. I hope that at least that experience isn't typical, but I fear that it may mark one end of a very narrow spectrum of unsatisifactory tour experiences at the Andrew Low House.
Particularly because I, admittedly, did not share my tour with Girl Scouts or any other kids, I do welcome feedback and suggestions from Low House staff or any reader who has visited within the past year, particularly Girl Scouts and their chaperones. Also, I do plan a visit to the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace soon.
Wednesday, July 16, 2008
I don't actually approve of homeschooling as a first choice: Children are entitled to a life apart from their parents, and to have influences other than them. But, being a world-class hypocrite, I'm homeschooling all the same: One year, one child, and plenty of socialization time for him (work time for me) as he will remain enrolled in the afterschool program at his elementary school.
Here on the blog, I will happily share our adventures and misadventures. While Alec is not in any sense a representative sample, he does help me understand what is inspiring and what is not in history teaching for kids. Our trial run week, in which we studied the Ancient Greeks (a subject about which I knew less than he did) was not an unqualified success, but it was a good start. And it's much more fun to teach my son than to teach college freshmen.
In my next posting in this series, I'll talk about lessons learned (by me as well as Alec) and useful resources for getting started with the Greeks: How we connected past and present, and how a boy's love of Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson series can be parlayed into other interests. As ever, I welcome comments from readers.
Wednesday, July 2, 2008
Honestly, without a great deal of autonomy for classroom teachers in choosing curriculum to cover, and without essay exams (the sine qua non), I'm not sure that tweaking will work.
I always remember asking my British history teacher in the Seventies to show me the syllabus for the "O" level exams we took at age 16. With great solemnity, he pulled a chunky book off his shelf, opened it, and passed it to me. As I recall, the entire Government-created syllabus was "English history, 1066-Present." That was it.
How did this work? On the day of the exam, we all received booklets of essay questions, and we flipped through them until we reached the areas we had covered in class, then picked out three we wanted to answer. While imperfect, this system allowed teachers to teach to their strengths and interests, and for us to learn in depth, which also meant learning a passion for the subject and the critical thinking skills that come with it.
And as for periods we didn't cover? Did we remain forever ignorant? Sometimes we covered them earlier or later in our school careers...and, by the time our formal education ended, we had been equipped with the enthusiasm and knowledge to pursue whatever interested us on our own, then and later. For the record, I taught myself American history for pleasure in my mid-teens, and now have a Ph.D. in it, a subject we barely covered at school. Contrast that with my college students, who have been repeatedly force-fed broad surveys in American and World history, and arrive in my classroom without a clue or a care.
All that said, I have asked a few Georgian colleagues to work with me to create and submit our sixpence worth to the proposed revisions in the Georgia social studies curriculum. Meanwhile, here's the text of the GCSS email:
"As social studies educators, we often long for more attention to be given to our disciplines – more emphasis in the classroom, more support by administrators, and more attention by the public. Though the circumstances are not what we necessarily would have desired, social studies has certainly been “in the news” around our state for the past few weeks. Many of us were disappointed with the performance of our 6th and 7th graders on the CRCT this spring; there clearly were problems in our curriculum and our testing program that needed to be addressed.
The State Department of Education took immediate action by forming a committee of social studies teachers, supervisors, state DOE leaders, and college faculty that worked tirelessly during late May to revamp the curriculum for 6th and 7th grade. I’d like to thank these individuals for giving their time and expertise to this task. Such decisions are not easy to make and require both debate and compromise. The results of their work were presented to the Social Studies Advisory Council in early June, where further discussion took place and further changes were suggested.
In addition to the extensive changes made to the 6th and 7th grade GPS, the standards for grades 3-5 and grades 8-12 also underwent a scheduled Precision Review this spring. The proposed changes for these grade levels are relatively minor in most cases, often rephrasing or rewording standards and elements for the purpose of clarity and better alignment.
Now, here’s the exciting part for us as GCSS members! ALL of the proposed revisions that I just mentioned (grades 3 through 12) are now posted on the DOE website for public comment. This is your chance as a social studies professional to voice your opinions about the proposed changes and to help shape the state social studies curriculum. The period for public comment will continue through early August. I strongly encourage you to participate in this process! Your comments and suggestions are vital to the process of finalizing the proposed revisions before the state Board of Education votes on them in August. Go to www.georgiastandards.org and click on Social Studies to view the revisions and submit comments."
Friday, June 27, 2008
As an early American historian, I really do want to see this museum succeed, and all these changes seem terribly promising: It's great to see museums taking a proactive approach. My only continuing beef is that I remain skeptical that architectural features alone can evoke imaginative response in most audiences, but I'll hold my fire for now, and cheerfully accept the invitation to make a repeat visit to the Benjamin Franklin House at the next opportunity, this time with a child or children in tow. For now, if you're considering a London trip, please do read over Dr. Balisciano's comment (appended to my original review), and consider booking tickets to visit the house. I will be interested in readers' responses in future.
Thursday, June 19, 2008
Tuesday, June 17, 2008
Annette's note: This is not a book for kids, although kids may well like the pictures and some of the text. So this rating does NOT incorporate the opinion of Alec, my son/kid assistant. I review it because it is a book that can be used with and for kids.
Burton K. Kummerow, Christine H. O'Tooler, and R. Scott Stephenson, Pennsylvania's Forbes Trail: Gateways and Getaways Along the Legendary Route From Philadelphia to Pittsburgh (2008)
I first learned how to "see" rural western Pennsylvania in 1993, in the company of Pastor Weiser, an ordained Lutheran minister who used his many personal connections in the area to take visitors beyond the tourist trail. Our group, from throughout the University of California system, had been studying Early America in Colonial Williamsburg for three months. Now, we made contact with the colonial past's tenuous survival into the present, as we travelled among the German-Americans of Lancaster County. We visited a market staffed by Amish and Mennonite farmers in their otherworldly costumes, and pondered how deep the food roots of the amazingly artificial "traditional" Whoopie Pie could possibly go. We climbed the stairs of a rural house, and met an eighty-year-old Amish bookbinder at work. We descended to a church basement for a scrumptious lunch of Pennsylvania "Dutch" grub cooked by Pennsylvania "Dutch" ladies, while a cheesy but earnest local duo sang German-American folk songs. Pastor Weiser kept us grounded, as did all the Pennsylvanians we met: These locals not quaint relics, but real and complex people who inhabited the same world as us. This tour was worth a million boring roadside "historic landmarks."
It was the memory of this day in Pennsylvania, and my realization that I have so many vivid memories of it, that piqued my interest in Pennsylvania's Forbes Trail: Gateways and Getaways Along the Legendary Route From Philadelphia to Pittsburgh.
Published to commemorate this year's 250th anniversary of the French and Indian War, the book's timing is not altogether lucky: This is not so much a book for reading as it is a luxurious road trip guide. As I write, gas is pushing $4 a gallon, so it might actually work better as a guide for the armchair traveler.
That said, and assuming that the road trip has any future, this is an intriguing and creative approach to engaging visitors in the presence of the past.
Inviting the reader to retrace the route through western Pennsylvania taken by the British and Colonial joint forces during the French and Indian War, the book focuses on John Forbes , a Scottish officer who won military victory, brokered careful negotiations with Indian allies of the French and pacifist Quakers, and generally set about winning hearts and minds as well as battlefield victory. The creators are upfront in their hope that this story will serve as a model in an age when we have been more inclined to resort to saber-rattling and aggression than to diplomacy. Fair enough.
True, the muddy trail that Forbes, his men, and others followed has since mostly given way to asphalt. But despite dramatic changes in the landscape, the Pennsylvania of the 1750s has not vanished. Even the original unpaved road has been preserved in part, the authors tell us, and is open to the public. Some of the taverns on what is now called the Old Lancaster Road, such as the General Warren Inne in Malvern, already existed in the mid-eighteenth century. Looking for colonial survivals, and understanding that things aren't always as young (or old) as they seem is a great way for everyone to learn to think historically.
Recognizing that most vacationing families who might undertake the quest lack the obsessiveness of historians, however, the authors envision the trip as one that should be broken up with distractions. Capsule descriptions not only of historic sites and museums, but also of restaurants and even theme parks, offer plenty of advice for breaking up the journey.
While a journey through the area with this guide will encourage travelers to take a deeper interest in the environment—both built and natural—it would have been even better to have included a broader focus on the region's people, both past and present. Longer excerpts from letters and diaries (rather than indirect quotations with snippets of the original, more readable, language don't cut it) would have helped, as well would interviews with modern residents. The engaging and vivid illustrations help distract from the often ponderous text.
My question for the book's creators is whether they were interested in cultivating the broadest possible audience. Was it tested with families? If the intention was always to appeal to a niche audience of military history geeks, fair enough. But the theme and tone of the text may be offputting to anyone who doesn't fall in that group, and that's a shame.
Anyone considering writing future guides like this should think hard about producing a book that will actually have wide appeal. There is a great fear in America of dumbing down history by making it accessible, and we cut off too many people's interest in the past by limiting the scope and appeal of public history. It doesn't have to be military history to be history, nor does it have to rely on dense text. The sooner that we recognize this, the faster we can rescue historical literacy from the abyss.
Homeschoolers and teachers: Use with caution. Read through and think about this book before you hit the road, and be prepared to put in some work to use it effectively. Resist the temptation to read large portions of the dry narrative aloud to the family or your students. Instead, translate it into your own words. Plan your own narrative. This book doesn't teach kids well, but, with it as a guide, you can.
Sunday, June 15, 2008
Alec, my son/kid assistant and I, arrived early on Thursday afternoon: Forewarned that the only affordable food on the premises was Chick-fil-A (a fast food offering that, frankly, grosses me out) we ate beforehand.
We had what I thought were modest goals: To tour the main exhibits about Atlanta history, and the Tullie Smith Farm, an 1840s farmhouse that is presented as a pointed reminder that few Antebellum Georgian plantation houses bore much resemblance to Scarlett O'Hara's Tara. In a moment of weakness, I accepted the offer at the front desk of a guided tour of the Swan House, the other historic house at the Center, about which I knew diddly-squat.
Turned out, I was overly optimistic, given an eight-year-old in tow. But it's a mark of how impressed I was that I also whisked him into the Civil War gallery and a temporary exhibit on school desegregation ofr a quick look, even though he was tired and I normally get very sanctimonious about adults who force-feed kids history.
The Swan House, our first stop, was probably a mistake on my part. Turns out, there's an audio tour three days a week, and we arrived on one of these days. Good audio tours for families can be a godsend, but this one was "one size fits all," and spent too much time cooing deferentially about the antiques, the architecture, and the original owners, who were "prominent"in Atlanta (read "rich".)
That said, there were interesting points to be made about the lengths to which the wealthy (and all of us who aspire to gentility) go to turn homes into theatres to impress our friends.
The first owners, who commissioned the building in the 1920s, were avid Anglophiles, who tried desperately to create an 18th century English country house. Alas, they were done in, not so much by the ugliness of modern technology (which the architect cunningly hid, such as in a small room for the phone, or carefully camouflaged heating ducts), but by the grandchildren.
The audio tour included snippets of interviews with those grandchildren, who recalled being banned from various rooms (presumably lest they conflict with the decor), running toy trains in the grand hall, and eavesdropping on phone conversations by pressing their ears to the heating grilles... Encouraging Alec to think about how hard it is to have a perfect living space when kids are around helped him to survive what was otherwise a less than suitable tour.
The Tullie Smith Farm was much more kid-oriented, and led by a real, live docent, the kind who gives docents a good name. She constantly engaged Alec and Bryce, the other eight-year-old on the tour, asking them questions and tolerating their off-the-wall comments with great humor. The house and its outbuildings were appealing spaces for small boys, who dashed about exploring after the tour. When Alec recounted his visit to his father, it was the farm that figured largest in his recollection.
Throughout our visit, in the exhibition halls and gift shop as well as the historic houses, the staff members and volunteers of the Atlanta History Center were unfailingly friendly, and did their best to make Alec as well as me, in my T-shirt and jeans tourist mode, feel welcome. One of my beefs with museums (anywhere) and the city of Atlanta's cultural attractions is that staff too often are grumpy, snotty, or even border on the hostile (High Museum, anyone?) To find a museum in Atlanta, of all places, with a srong ethos of hospitality was truly a pleasant surprise.
While the AHC's displays are not particularly oriented toward kids, the Tullie Smith Farm, the attractive exhibits, the full program of family-oriented events, the gorgeous gardens, and the friendly staff make it a good bet for families with older kids, especially if you're willing to take the lead in helping interpret the exhibits for your children. Alec got tired and grumpy at the end, but we were there for three hours, and his exhaustive account of the day, given later to his father, showed that he took in a great deal: He also expressed enthusiasm for returning.
Just be sure to bring a lunch or eat first (we recommend Johnny Rocket's, about a quarter-mile away at the intersection of Peachtree Road and Paces Ferry Road, or the new branch of Flying Biscuit Cafe, at the intersection of Pace's Ferry and I-85.) Otherwise, be prepared to splurge at the posh Swan Coach House restaurant, or deal with the horror of the Coca-Cola Cafe, serving a limited menu of elderly Chick-fil-A products: The day we were there, they were selling pre-cooked sandwiches from a cooler. Ugh.
For details of hours, exhibits, etc, visit the AHC site at http://www.atlantahistorycenter.com/index.cfm
Monday, June 9, 2008
Becky Laney just published an interview with me (wearing my author's hat) on her wonderful kids'/YA lit blog.
Thursday, June 5, 2008
Wednesday, May 28, 2008
Boy, was I disappointed.
Finger-wagging in tone, it was written in microtext, and had it been any drier, it would have shrivelled. There's no way my son will read it, and I'm not sure I will either.
Why are so many American kids' books boring? A huge part of the problem is the Appropriateness Police who include some vocal parents, teachers (rarely), publishers, and, more often than you might think, random adults who don't actually know any kids.
The fault also lies with authors who are determined to instruct, whether about facts or values, and instead come across as pious and pompous. No wonder kids have to be bribed with pizza parties and pig-kissing principals to get them to read...
Recently, I stumbled on this wonderful article by Martha Brockenbrough, who says it all better than I do, and who quotes the wise and wonderful Rick Riordan, whose hilarious Percy Jackson series will captivate your kids while hooking them on Greek mythology.
It is always good to be reminded that I'm not alone in my loud complaints about the soullessness of so many kids' books.
Thursday, May 22, 2008
This morning's news: Georgia State Superintendent of Schools Kathy Cox has thrown out the middle school CRCT test results for social studies (meaning history, with a bit of geography), after 70-80 percent of students failed.
Let me be blunt:
First, the test is likely rubbish, with a focus on arcane facts. Just a guess, because, unless I am mistaken, none of us can see it.
Second, teachers, most of whom had an inadequate education in the overcrowded classrooms of the state's university system, from the overworked and demoralized professors of the USG, were not taught history in a meaningful way that they can communicate to their own students, and so teach history as one wretched thing after another.
Third, the professors of the USG who teach history to the future teachers are pressured to eschew taking time that good teaching demands, and instead to publish scholarship that, most of the time, is far too underfunded to be good enough even to make a dent in the consciousness of the historical profession. Those of us who strive to teach beyond memorization and multiple choice get no real support.
Fourth, when the state came up with its new curriculum a few years ago, the first time they asked for the opinions of academic historians was when it was already a done deal, and without any promise of reward or recognition. They sent an email with the curriculum attached. Most of us looked at page after page of standards, saw problems, considered that we wouldn't be listened to even if we took hours we don't have to produce a reasoned critique, and hit delete.
As one example of the problems I spotted, kids in third grade are supposed to be taught that there is a direct link between Greek democracy and the kind practiced in America today. There isn't. You cannot find work by an historian that shows such a link exists. How are teachers supposed to teach that? And how are teachers supposed to teach social and cultural history by examining a random group of unrepresentative Americans as the curriculum suggests, from Abe Lincoln to Rosa Parks to Ronald Reagan (who, by the way, is extolled as an example that kids should follow. This politicization of history should outrage all of us, regardless of our personal views.)
Now the Superintendent is forming a committee to review the curriculum. Will any historians be on it? Don't hold your breath. What would historians know about history?
As an historian, as a history professor, and as a mother of a son who is being tested to death in a public school in Georgia, I am tired. Tired of encountering students who, having been tested and tested on random facts in high school, arrive in college profoundly ignorant of even those facts you would think would be common knowledge and, worse, incapable of thinking historically after years of cramming trivia. Tired of watching as my son fills out dreary worksheets and spends weeks taking meaningless tests, while his class spends zero time on history in the classroom at an age when he is most eager to learn it. Tired of watching the state continue to pretend that historians don't exist, even as it discovers that it cannot teach history without us.
Wednesday, May 21, 2008
Annette's note (6/28/08) Since my 2007 visits to the Benjamin Franklin House, there have been substantial changes, and the director of the House has responded to my review in a comment below, which I encourage you to read.
From Lauren, a former student of mine, who wrote to me on Facebook:
"Just wanted to tell you, I've become a bit obsessed with public history. I'm in Virginia with my cousin and I dragged her to Monticello to analyze it...must tell you, it was much better than Ben Franklin's house in London! haha."
I was thrilled to get this message. Lauren took my course in public history last summer, during our incredible University System of Georgia London Study program. She is already a history buff, which always helps, but our emphasis in this class was very different from others that I teach. It doesn't focus on a specialized body of knowledge, but rather on the ways in which history is interpreted for the public.
If you're a regular reader, you know I already mentioned this class and our London adventures. We also visited the only remaining house in which Benjamin Franklin ever lived, while he acted as a colonial representative (a cushy job, really.)
Even before the House opened to the public, I had heard about its creative interpretation, and was excited about visiting. However, when I visited in January, 2007, I was disappointed. All the same, I decided to retain the trip in my summer 2007 course, and see how the students responded. I made absolutely sure to exude neutrality, to avoid influencing them.
They thought the Benjamin Franklin House was hilarious.
It didn't help that there was a glitch that day. After buying our tickets from a well-hidden theatre box office in the arches under Charing Cross Station, we turned the corner onto Craven Street, and knocked on the door of Number 36. After entering a typical eighteenth-century London townhouse, with its cramped hall and narrow staircase, we were quickly ushered into a ground-floor room for the orientation video, which is a rather messy montage of words and images shot in rapid-fire MTV fashion.
Now, I'm all for unsnotty history, but this was too much: When my students think something is being dumbed down, that's telling. As one said, we knew no more about Franklin at the end of the video than we did at the beginning.
And then we waited. And waited. Nobody arrived. Nothing happened. We called up the stairs. We sent a messenger back to the ticket office. Finally, a somewhat disheveled interpreter dressed as an eighteenth-century woman announced herself as Polly Hewson, the daughter of Franklin's landlady. We were told later that there were technical troubles, and received profuse apologies that were reminiscent of Monty Python's dirty fork sketch. My students, being a cynical lot, were convinced that the real reason was that the interpreter was late for work. I'm not sure they were wrong.
The interpreter gives the entire tour as Polly Hewson. However, my students were rather shocked when she broke character to tell off a visitor (not with our group) who took a photograph. This was just one illustration of why it's never a good idea to supply visitors with only a first-person interpreter. Worse, the format hinders questions, especially from adults, who are usually reluctant to play-act.
The Benjamin Franklin House embraces museum as theatre to an extraordinary degree. Most radically, visitors are asked to imagine the furnishings of the house (there is one table, I seem to recall, in one room, but that's about it.) As recorded voices and music float about, abstract images play on the walls: When the actor playing the voice role of Franklin speaks of a shipment of cranberries, we see a video of cranberries rolling around.
Quite honestly, it was all a bit artsy-fartsy for the audience, including me, and that's saying something. I'm all for the idea of engaging audiences with the use of imagination, but it has to be done with an eye to that audience, and not merely as an act of artistic expression.
On my first visit to the House, another visitor, a middle-class Englishwoman in her sixties, had confessed to me on the way out her disappointment with the experience. "I like to look at furniture when I visit old houses," she said. But had she learned something about Franklin that would make her want to read more about him? "Not really," she said forlornly. How to interpret this visitor's reaction depends on how one chooses to read it. My take is that it would be very easy—and a huge mistake-- to dismiss such visitors as lowbrow aesthetes, more interested in knick-knacks than getting to grips with history. This visitor was no stranger to historic sites, and clearly was educated. The fact of the matter is that people want a tangible connection with the past, and the bare house simply put more of the burden on visitors to forge that connection than they were prepared to make.
There were moments of levity: We did learn that Franklin basically left his wife Deborah to stew in Philadelphia while he lived it up in London. The presentation doesn't judge him for this, explaining that Deborah had refused to cross the Atlantic, which I can't blame her for. But my students were properly scandalized, especially in light of Franklin's relentless flirting. The good thing was that this put a human gloss on an otherwise cardboard Franklin.
But the whole thing is too hero-worshippy for words, presumably in a misguided effort to lure Americans and their dollars, which are worth much less than when the House opened a few years ago. And the breathless way in which the visitor is introduced to Franklin as an amazing man capable of holding a gazillion jobs at once is a bit much. Talented, likeable, and admirable though Franklin was, was it really impressive that he had time to be the London rep for the state of Georgia? I mean, what could that have entailed—asking around in the pub occasionally if anyone wanted to buy land in Savannah? I say all this not to dis Ben, but because, like most historians, I dislike the sort of public history that encourages the view of individuals, no matter how impressive, as demi-gods. Frankly, it's off-putting to learn that the best people are already dead, and that they are a separate race from the rest of us.
The presentation ends with the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner, which was written after Franklin was dead and buried. Another effort, one presumes, to appeal to Americans. Quite honestly, the Americans who (like my students) take the initiative to come all the way to London are generally a bit more wordly than they are given credit for.
So, do I recommend the Benjamin Franklin House? For adults, sort of: Go and let me know if you agree. Quite honestly, it's almost more fun when museums don't work well, because they make good stories. My students had a field day critiquing the House.
But for kids, no, I can't recommend it. In fairness, I never saw a kid on the tour, either time. But the whole thing was too high-minded, too abstract, and too lacking in visual stimulation and interaction to persuade me that the average kid would have a good time. School groups may do better, because the House offers tours specifically for them. The casual visiting family, however, would most likely find the tour a little dull and frustrating.
Monday, May 19, 2008
I love my schools roadshow about life in World War Two Britain: When a kid blurts out "That's just like The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe!", my day is officially made.
But I count it secondary whether a kid becomes interested in this particular subject so long as my time at schools stimulates new ideas and activity. Some kids go off and interview grandparents about WWII America, some are fascinated enough by the old British Monopoly set to pull out their own to compare, and it's especially lovely to motivate some kids to read my novel, I'll admit it, particularly if reading it brings them full circle to an interest in history. Mostly, however, I'm happy just to have jumpstarted kids' thinking, especially given the relentless drilling and testing that characterizes public schooling today.
For those kids who do want to explore further the subject of British life in WW2, here are just a few suggestions for books to add to your school or home library. They may be available from library wholesalers, they may be available from Amazon.com (often in used editions: see links below for availability), and they are certainly available direct from the British Amazon.co.uk (you will need to set up an account, exactly in the same way as American Amazon.) The links are to Amazon.com.
The list is arranged in order of reading/subject matter challenge, beginning with the most accessible. Oh, and don't miss the music, either: Check out the Amazon list at left for my selections from wartime Britain.
Rebecca Hunter with Angela Downey, A Wartime Childhood (Family Scrapbook Series) (Evans Brothers, 2005)
Today, Angela is a grandmother of six. But she was four years old in 1941, when her mother took her to live in the countryside, safe from the bombs raining down on London. There, in a small village, Angela lived with a foster family for the next three years, seeing her mother only once a year.
Angela tells her own story of life as a wartime evacuee (and the story of her family members), which personalizes what is actually a broad introduction to life in Wartime England. A picture book, Wartime Childhood includes the key themes: air raids, evacuation of children, food rationing, and war work. The text is sparse, but the graphics are varied, and the book also includes well-presented and contextualized documents (including a letter home that Angela wrote after her father was killed in action.)
This is a highly recommended introduction to the subject for ages 7 and up, very much accessible to American kids, and sure to create good talking points.
Peter Hepplewhite, An Evacuee's Journey (History Journey Series) (Hodder Wayland, 2003)
Much like A Wartime Childhood (above), An Evacuee's Journey threads the story of one child throughout the book. In this case, however, he's Joseph Thompson, he's fictional, and his story is told in third person. The text is heavy on facts and figures, and includes broad context: It begins by explaining the rise of Hitler, for example. However, it is nicely balanced with more accessible materials about everyday life.
A short anecdote about "Joe's" life that relates directly to the text kicks off each two-page chapter. We see Joe reacting to the announcement of war in September, 1939, for example, and read about his being fostered by a farmer and his wife. Short and lively quotes add the voices of real evacuees, and photographs are varied: alongside the black and white photos of wartime kids, check out the staged color photo of a week's worth of food rations. Pithy captions explain the graphics, and help promote critical thinking: Kids are urged to note how an advertiser uses the theme of evacuation to sell a drink mix. I was especially impressed that the book touches upon the variety of experiences among evacuees: Joe is happy, but his best friend is removed from a foster home after repeated beatings. The author, to his credit, explains without rancor that many foster families were ill-equipped and unwilling to care for evacuees.
Great for ages 8 and up.
Rachel Wright, World War II (Crafts Topics Series) (Franklin Watts, 2008)
Despite the sweeping title, this title is primarily about the wartime British Home Front. The text is a little more "textbooky" than most, and the focus is on the adult experiences of food rationing, clothes rationing, mass entertainment, and war work. The appeal is in the activities: As a nice counterpoint to the whiteness of the Brits in contemporary photos, two Indian-British kids are the models who demonstrate making a fake tin helmet, a truly repulsive-looking mock-apricot flan (tart) from a wartime recipe using carrots, and a cardboard U.S. aircraft.
My complaints? There's a "Now what?" quality to the activities. It would be great to have suggestions for dramatic play to go along with the crafts, and a text that sparks empathy and imagination. Still, if you can get it cheap, it might be a useful addition. Ages 8 and up.
Terry Deary, The Blitzed Brits (Horrible Histories Series)
True to the series' title and reputation, this is horrible history at its best. Read about the evacuees whose parents didn't want them back when the war ended… The evacuees who arrived with fleas and had no idea how to eat at a table… And don't miss the stories of people who used the black market to cheat on rationing. It's good for everyone to learn that the people of the past weren't always perfect, and, no, this doesn't make kids depressed and cynical as the Appropriateness Police blithely assume. Indeed, kids are gleeful to discover that adults are people, too, and that their behavior can make kids seem morally superior. Check out the recipes for truly awful wartime food to try at home. No color pictures, but plenty of cheery black and white cartoons. Ages 8 and up.
Nina Bawden, Carrie's War (book and DVD)
The book's a classic, but whether kids like it or not will depend on their general taste in books. This is a gentle story of an evacuee and her brother who are sent to rural Wales, far from the bombs of the Blitz. The strength of the book is in the characters, from the terrified Auntie Lou, to the bullying Mr. Evans, the sensible (and amusing) Albert Sandwich, and the daffy Mrs. Gotobed. Nina Bawden was herself an evacuee in Wales, and, although she maintains that Carrie's War isn't autobiographical, she writes from experience. Ages 9 and up.
The Carrie's War DVD…is okay. It has far too much of a modern tone for my taste, so that the characters seem anachronistic for the Forties. Mr. Evans is too sympathetic (to appeal to the adult audience, I suspect), while Carrie and Nick seem too worldly and self-assured. However, the BBC has not yet released the 1975 version on DVD, so this is the one we have. Still worth a look. Ages 9 and up.
Michelle Magorian, Goodnight, Mr. Tom
A lonely and sweet old man takes an abused evacuee into his home and heart. One very humane novel with a sweet ending. Ages 10 and up.
Annette Laing, Don't Know Where, Don't Know When (Confusion Press, 2007)
American kids from 2008 become British kids in 1940. Enough said, since it is (full disclosure) my book.
Wednesday, May 14, 2008
Had a very good time visiting May Howard Elementary School in Savannah yesterday, talking to the entire fourth and fifth grades about kids' lives in World War Two Britain, which also happens to be the backdrop to the first novel in my Snipesville Chronicles series.
It's always interesting to see which variables affect my school visits: Timing (right before lunch can be tricky), age (above 6th grade requires significantly different strategies) and, most of all, how "on" I am. Or not.
Yesterday, I'd had to take a bit of temporary but very powerful anti-allergy medication that put me into jittery hypermode. I'm kinda afraid to watch the video now, to be honest. But kids and teachers were reportedly pleased, so I guess I pulled it off. Phew.
My large-group talks always include lots of show and tell artifacts, a multimedia narrative, and audience participation, in the form of question and answer, volunteers to the front to help me demonstrate, and objects passed around for hands-on experience. I also compare and contrast between past and present, and encourage kids to imagine themselves as children in the period.
But the very best stuff, I learned from pantomime, or panto for short.
Now this isn't to be confused with "mime", you know, like Marcel Marceau.
Panto is a interactive family theatre format in Britain that dates back a couple of centuries at least, and is a much-treasured secular Christmas tradition. British kids love it, and I'm delighted to learn from Wikipedia that a handful of theatre companies in the U.S. have started their own Christmas pantos.
My experience with TimeShop taught me that American kids love interactive and silly approaches just as much as any kid in Britain. So I've started incorporating some techniques in my one-person school visits: I wear a truly hideous costume. I hand out prizes to kids who come to the front and help, or who answer questions; random candies (from the period, I rush to add) are distributed to the audience, and I make fervent efforts to get the kids to argue with me. "They ate a lot of vegetables during the War...But you like veggies, don't you?...Especially cabbage. And Brussels sprouts."
That usually gets them going. :-)
Where I come a cropper is when I forget myself while talking to fifth graders, and revert to the historians' habit of being equivocal: "Well, there were exceptions...." etc. It's always best to keep it simple.
Does all this emphasis on entertainment and avoiding ambiguity mean that I'm dumbing down?
No, it absolutely does not.
What I try to do is all about engaging kids, and then slipping in asides to jump-start their thinking: They're fascinated to figure out that they have much less personal freedom than did the kids of wartime Britain, and also that they are generally much better behaved (not that this always a good thing...)
Once kids realize what they have in common with people of the past as well as what sets them apart...The ball is rolling, and I no longer have to push it along. That's the thing that too often gets missed by those who create social studies curriculum for elementary schools and inflict it on teachers: Cramming the kids full of facts is boring, pointless, and counterproductive. Inspiring them is the only thing that counts at that age.
Interested in having me visit your school?
First off, I want you to know that I keep it affordable, because my primary mission is not to push my books for their (or my) own sake, but to sell kids on history. I genuinely treasure my schools visits, because it's so stimulating to touch base with teachers, librarians, and, of course, kids.
So I'm not getting rich: Fees start at just $100 a day (local), rising to $800 for West Coast visits, which includes travel expenses. I will admit that I also make my books available for sale, with $2 per book being donated to your school's media center/library. However, my large group presentations DON'T depend on kids having read the book, and I always make sure they have access to library copies. Hard to believe, I know, but I ain't in this for the money.
Drop me a line at Annette@ConfusionPress.com, and I'll happily send you info by email.
Saturday, May 10, 2008
Kids are fascinated with first-hand accounts of children who worked in mines and factories in the industrial revolution in early nineteenth-century Britain. Combine that with a discussion of the later American industrial revolution, and now the industrialization in China, and you will hook them.
In every case, child labor is a feature of early industrialization, but is finally acknowledged as an evil, and attempts are made to eradicate it. Consider that kids had always worked on farms: How was this different from working in factories? How did the ending of child labor go hand in hand with the rise of compulsory education?
Have kids look at pictures and write a first-hand story of what they imagine it would have been like to work at a young age.
Ask kids if they would be prepared to give up goods made by children, even if that would mean paying more. This is not the loaded question it may at first appear: Many of us who have qualms about poor working conditions in factories nonetheless purchase their products, either because we are apathetic, or because we cannot afford to pay more for our current standard of living. Allow kids to decide for themselves where they stand.
This is a great way to kick off a study of industrialization: It will make learning the economic stuff more palatable, and encourage critical thinking, including historical literacy.
Wednesday, May 7, 2008
So much for globalization.
I created a short list of recommended summer history reading for my local independent bookstore, the amazing Book and Cranny. Among my suggestions were Terry Deary's Horrible Histories, a marvelous (and phenomenally successful) British series that is listed with major online booksellers in the U.S.
Silly me. I thought this meant it would be no problem for Debbie the bookseller to stock a few of the titles.
Boy, was I wrong. Turns out, she would have to forfeit the standard booksellers' discount of 45% for a measly 25%, assuming a title was available at all, because most of the books have to be imported from the UK. Since Debbie has to pay her rent, and bookstores are hardly places of great profit, I couldn't ask her to take a hit. We settled on ordering Horrible History of the World (mysteriously re-titled Wicked History of the World for the U.S. market) and the Horrible History Pirates' Handbook, the only two titles available at standard rates on this side of the Atlantic.
I do wonder why these books are so hard to find
I doubt very much that demand is low because American kids wouldn't enjoy the series: My son and several of his friends love it to bits.
Perhaps the problem is that American parents may be shocked by a history series that cheerfully tells of heads being chopped off, and other ghastly subjects that kid adore. Certainly, there are a couple of easily-shocked adults who have vented their spleen in Amazon reviews…But it's not clear that all the critics are in touch with what kids really like. Moreover, American parents have staunchly defended the titles, and praised them for their humor and lively approach to history.
Some years ago, there was an effort to launch an American Horrible Histories brand, with a book on Columbus that…wasn't very horrible at all. In fact, it was rather dull.
Fascinatingly, many of the Horrible History books are readily available in the U.S., but only in Spanish. I'm guessing this means they're big in Latin America, and so can easily be trucked here. Does this mean that Latin American parents have a better appreciation of good kids' history, and that the cultural differences in publishing between Britain and Peru or Mexico are not as great as those between Britain and the U.S.? But I'm just guessing wildly.
Still, I am encouraged that at least two of the titles are available here, but concerned that they aren't much promoted, and hard to find. Let's see how The Book and Cranny does with the two titles in a small, conservative town in Georgia. I'll keep you posted.
Tuesday, May 6, 2008
Working on my second children's novel recently, I keep on thinking about a comment from an Amazon customer who praised my first book for reviving her son's interest in reading (hooray!) but who also criticized it for not having as much history in it as she had hoped (Not hooray. Hmm.)
I really, really wish I could ask her for more feedback.
This was an extremely interesting comment, because I hadn't heard it before from anyone, not even the three academic historians, other than myself, who read the book in draft. I asked one of those historians, what to make of it. Without being unkind or patronizing, I promise, she said "Oh, she doesn't understand what history is."
That's the sort of comment that understandably rankles people, so let me explain.
We often use the word "history" generically. We use it to mean "the past."
A building becomes "historical" by virtue of its age, regardless of whether it is genuinely of interest in terms of architecture, social history, or political history.
Even the most tedious chronicler of the past can dub himself a historian without being challenged, so that very, very boring and/or unrepresentative people and books become the public face of history.
In too many high schools and, I'm ashamed to say, in all too many colleges, what we call "history" classes are really exercises in one damn thing after another, in which students are fed and tested on random factoids, without rhyme or reason.
Why does this matter? It matters because history is not the past, but interpretation of the past. History is honesty, not apology. History is critical, not celebratory. History is argument. History is questioning. The word history itself comes not from the blending of "his story" (contrary to the imaginings of 60s feminists who celebrated "herstory"), but from the Greek "historia", which means (roughly) learning through enquiry.
If historians engage constantly in argument with themselves and others, doesn't that imply that they are deliberately manipulating the past?
True, the ethics of professional history do not require absolute objectivity, because that's humanly impossible: We all have our biases and prejudices. But they do require self-examination, and honesty,. Put another way, I am not required as an historian to shed every opinion I may hold (how could I?) but I am required to pursue truth, no matter how unpleasant I may find it. I am required to be willing to revamp or even abandon a thesis when the evidence does not support it.
What's more, I must constantly play devil's advocate, asking myself over and over if I have taken every available bit of contradictory evidence into account.
That's why ideologues don't make good historians.
If I screw up, if I don't deal honestly with the evidence, if I inadvertently interpret it out of context, or if I miss some major body of evidence entirely, I expect to be called to account by peer reviewers before my work goes into print. Our ideas are run up the flagpole at conferences, and tested further in articles and books. Even if we survive the vigorous debate to that point, we expect our work to soon be rendered obsolete: Every idea worth its salt inspires a dozen other scholars or more to rush to the archives on a hunch that it's wrong.
Lecture over. Now, hands up: How many people learned all this about history and historians in high school? Or in college?
That's the problem.
When practically everyone who didn't go to graduate school in history is only taught history in vapid survey courses, a "history" without theses, without argument, without passion, without debate, what is generally understood to be history is indeed one damn thing after another. Without an awareness of the ongoing arguments and the vast publishing output of professional historians, we believe that history is enshrined in textbooks, having been passed down since time immemorial on stone tablets.
I recall attending a lecture given some years ago by the then-head of the American Historical Association, Dr. Joyce Appleby, who said wearily, "People think that when we tell them something different from what they learned in elementary school, we're lying to them." (Not a word for word quote, because it has been a few years, but pretty close.)
Which brings me back (sort of) to my Amazon critic, who (unless she contacts me to clarify, and I really hope she will!) I can only assume meant that my novel was lacking in textbook-type facts.
Normally I don't respond to reviews, because having been trained as a journalist as well as an historian, I am used to criticism and, indeed, genuinely welcome the feedback.
On this occasion, however, I did respond, because it was an opportunity to make sure we were both on the same page. What I emphasized is that history is not just dates and battles, but changing attitudes and values: As a cultural historian, that's my specialty. By bringing three 21st century American kids to mid-20th century England, I had to exercise all my skills of historical imagination, as well as my (imperfect) knowledge of the period, to show how things really do change over time and place. That said, I wasn't trying to write history, but fiction that would ignite kids' interest in history. I wanted, above all, not to sound like a textbook.
I referred this parent to the many entertaining and informative non-fiction books for kid on British childhood during World War II. But I'm still worried that I sounded condescending, then and now. I promise that I don't mean to: The tone is rather of a young woman in a hurry, trying to get out the word to the real public (not just those who read the New York Times) that history is so much more than meets the eye.
Why does all this matter to kids, parents, and democracy?
Thursday, May 1, 2008
Last summer, I taught public history in London to undergraduates from throughout Georgia . Every week, we took a day-long field trip to a different museum, with a view to figuring out what works, and what doesn't. Of course, we weren't there as official consultants, and my goal was to get students looking at museums with a critical eye. But I think we learned a few things that might be of interest.
Size doesn't matter. The British Museum, of course, wins the "Who Has the Biggest and Most Bewildering Collection Award" for all time, and one could certainly argue that its treasures, from the Elgin marbles to the pickled body of the Bog Man, are attraction enough. Our class visit to the BM began as a mystery tour: The students, in their first week in London, didn't know where they were going until we got there. For the first fifteen minutes, I had them go off in pairs to figure out what the theme of the Museum is, without consulting the official leaflets, and then return to give brief oral reports. To discourage cheating, and to encourage creativity, I awarded extra points for humor. A typical response was that of the student who threw open his arms and said "EVERYTHING!"
Like every British kid within a hundred-mile radius of London, I was dragged to the BM more than once in the Seventies, and set loose to wander (or, more accurately, misbehave). I've never been that keen to go back, honestly, because I feel boredom setting in rather rapidly after I've oohed and ahhed at a few of the more remarkable exhibits.
But the BM scored points with me on this occasion. It made quite an effort to help visitors avoid being overwhelmed, and also made their experience a personal one.
There are more resources specifically for kids these days, including a family-friendly audio tour, hosted by British comic actor Stephen Fry. Scattered throughout the Museum were tables where visitors could handle artifacts. What was striking was the friendliness of the staff at these tables: They encouraged kids to touch, answered questions concisely with humor and without droning on at length, and otherwise made themselves very approachable. It was this spirit of hospitality, more than anything, that helped make the BM less daunting to us all.
Queen Elizabeth's Hunting Lodge has, in many ways, practically the opposite set of challenges. It's on the very edge of London, in Epping Forest, which makes it off the beaten path for most visitors. The building itself is tall (three stories) but very narrow, so space is limited. There are practically no period artifacts beyond the actual building, and it's unlikely to acquire any.
Yet Queen Elizabeth's Hunting Lodge was my students' favorite museum in London.
That's because it has soul.
We were given a tour by Sophie, the enthusiastic director, who showed us how the museum makes the most of its limited resources. Unlike larger museums, this one has a very focused theme: The building was indeed a Tudor hunting lodge. Royals and their guests, often a bit worse for wear after several rounds of drinks, would shoot arrows out of the windows at deer who were driven toward them from the forest by servants. It's a lovely, Monty Pythonesque image, really, especially when you realize that the guests were sustained by ample food and drink being delivered from the kitchen on the first floor, and it speaks volumes about the entitlements of the wealthiest Tudors. A friend of mine laughingly pointed out that this is roughly the style in which the wealthy still hunt today.
The museum uses wonderfully presented fake foods to recreate the kitchen. The upper floors include dress-up costumes and a few small displays. An excellent scavenger hunt (treasure hunt in British English) is available for kids, and my son enjoyed that enormously. The view from the windows is a great spark to imagination.
But the most striking thing is the hospitality of the staff. I have visited the Lodge before, and even in the absence of the wonderful Sophie, it's clear that everyone is passionately fond of the Lodge, and eager to share its story with others.
Over many years of visiting museums and running my own public history programs, I have become convinced that it's hospitality that counts. An impressive collection and sophisticated interpretation don't make for a pleasant visitor experience if staff are apathetic, pompous, or dismissive toward visitors. One passionate, committed, and friendly interpreter is worth a thousand artifacts.
Tuesday, April 29, 2008
My friend and fellow historian Michelle recently asked me to make a list of books I would recommend for James, a British kid (age 8) she knows who is interested in American history.
At first I was a bit flummoxed: As I often complain (watch this space: I will continue to do so) too many American history books for kids tend toward the sort of worthy, well-intended, and dreary books that kids don't care to read.
So I've come up with a few books that I do think will appeal not only to British kids with a budding interest in American history, but also to American kids.
Most of the these titles are easily available from Amazon's British branch, amazon.co.uk, so Michelle can save on shipping when she orders the books for delivery within the UK. J
Here's the list of books for Michelle. The links are to http://www.amazon.com/ (the American Amazon! Gosh, this gets complicated…)
- The Horrible History of the USA: As author Terry Deary likes to say, it's history with the boring bits left out. America is NOT the best entry in the series, and Deary is not a huge fan of American culture, so please, Appropriateness Nazis and nervous parents, don't say you weren't warned. However, my son, a thoroughly patriotic American, adores this book. What kid wouldn't be tickled to learn that George Washington owned slaves, and all about the Salem Witch Trials? Chances are, James already owns this, because British kids love Deary's books. So on to…
- You Wouldn't Want To Be an American Colonist! A Settlement You'd Rather Not Start. All the gruesome bits of the Jamestown fiasco are here in this British book, cheerfully depicted with cartoon illustrations: disease (although why yellow fever is fingered, and not malaria, is beyond me, but never mind: James will find out better from other sources), fighting between Indians and English (ditto for the omission of the Powhatans' political maneuvers around the English, which get left out, but, again, no big), cannibalism (kids love that and, no, they don't try it at home) and much more. Look, what they get wrong is pretty minor stuff. What they get right is terrific: They interest kids in some pretty specific historical topics, most of which are dealt with very poorly in American books. Also in the You Wouldn't Want…series: Live in a Wild West Town, American Pioneer, Sail With Christopher Columbus, Sail on the Mayflower, Civil War Soldier, Boston Tea Party, and more coming all the time.
- Thomas Coram: The Man Who Saved Children: Thomas Coram was an 18th century Englishman and sea captain who spent many years building ships in Massachusetts, before he got fed up with the locals and went home. In London, he managed to get enough support to build the Foundling Hospital, an orphanage for babies whose mothers simply couldn't afford to raise them. Coram was also one of the Trustees of the colony of Georgia, and I don't for one minute doubt that George Whitefield was inspired to found Bethesda Home for Boys by Coram's example. This is a fun book with lots of colorful illustrations and photos about Coram, his years in America, and the Hospital. A great example of Britain and America's "special relationship," and a lovely book that fascinated my son. Only hitch: This small-press book is hard to find, thanks to the stranglehold of Big Bad Book Corps., but the British Amazon.co.uk will source it for you.
- If You Lived When There Was Slavery in America: This is interesting, rather than fun, and I find the series to which it belongs a bit "school-y". But if James is already hooked on American history, the series, and this book in particular, might do the trick. Written in a question and answer format, the book is heavy on text, but still well-illustrated in color. My main complaints are that it could be livelier (always a problem, especially when dealing with a subject and format that doesn't loan itself to humor), and that it is ahistorical: The book doesn't give much idea of the differences in slave life over place and time, and this leaves readers with an unsatisfactory vagueness. Still, at least it's reasonably honest about slavery.
- Samuel Eaton's Day: A Day in the Life of a Pilgrim Boy: There was a Samuel Eaton on board the Mayflower, and this is a reasonable conjecture of what his life might have been like. Better, it focuses on a day that, while hardly out of the ordinary, marks a milestone in an otherwise rather quiet existence. We meet Samuel on his first full day of work in the fields, at age seven, and share his anxiety that he prove himself grown up in his father's eyes. Best of all, the book is illustrated with photos of costumed actors, shot at Plimoth Plantation, the living history museum in Massachusetts. This gives the story a three-dimensional quality that my son commented made it seem real. On the downside, not much in the way of humor, and my son pronounced the book fair to middling. Still, a nice book that I catch myself revisiting from time to time.
Needless to say, this list is not exhaustive. I'm always on the look-out for genuinely enjoyable books on American history, fiction included, that don't preach, teach too obviously, or bore the socks off the reader. If you know of books that you think meet my criteria, please comment below.
Oh, and Michelle? Might want to suggest that James' parents take him to The American Museum in Britain, which is in a beautiful house on the outskirts of Bath. I'll review it soon.
Friday, April 25, 2008
Annette's note: Starting with this review, I'll be using a quick-reference rating guide.
Five Stars= I couldn't put this down, and neither could my kid tester, Alec (age 8). We have read (or will read) it again. It's inspiring, thought-provoking, and very entertaining. A truly exceptional book.
Four Stars= Excellent and enjoyable history for kids. Both Alec and I enjoyed this very much.
Three Stars= Commendable effort. Headed in the right direction, but needs a bit of work to make it more engaging.
Two Stars= Fair. It might work for a kid who is already engaged in this specific topic, but won't fire up too many kids who aren't. Typically pedestrian stuff.
One Star= Beware. This is the sort of kids' history I'm complaining about.
Anne Millard and Steve Noon (illustrator), A Street
Through Time: A 12,000-Year Journey Along The Same Street (New York: DK Children, 1998)
For many years, a well-meaning community service club here in Snipesville donated the proceeds of its annual benefit breakfast to buy dictionaries for every kid in town. I used to have to restrain myself from suggesting that such a gift was about as exciting to the average kid as a clod of dirt, because, well, that would have been a bit rude of me. But maybe I should have been brave and spoken up, and suggested that the good ladies of the club buy a truckload of A Street Through Time instead.
This is, quite simply, a book that no kid should be without.
Our copy (I say our, because Alec is resigned to my laying claim to it, too) is in a shocking state. The cover is long gone, and there are ominous inch-log rips near the spine on several pages. We have owned ours since Alec was five, but he can often still be found lying on the floor with this enormous volume opened in front of him, pressing his nose up to the illustrations to see all the details (and no, he doesn't need glasses.)
A Street Through Time tells the story of one fictional northern European street, from 10,000 B.C. (or B.C.E. if you prefer) to the present day. The "street" and the events that take place on it are generic enough that many readers can imagine it to be wherever they like, although it's pretty clearly somewhere in England. Each double-page spread of this outsize book covers a different period, and the pace of the book slows as we enter the modern era. In other words, the early pages jump from 10,000 B.C. to 2,000 B.C. to 600 B.C., while the last few pages divide the 19th century into three periods, before jumping (rather startlingly) to a late 20th/early 21st century present.
But this is not a reading book in any conventional sense.
Adults who believe that only text and facts are worthy for children's history are terribly mistaken, and A Street Through Time is a perfect illustration of why. This book teaches children (and adults who pay attention) what history is.
Each double-page is an enormous and beautifully detailed, vividly colored illustration of the street. You must hold the book in your hands to appreciate how gorgeous it is, because no written description or computer image can do the book justice. It's the sort of illustration that eschews artsy abstraction for the sort of vivid and realistic detail that kids (and let's be honest, most adults) prefer.
The main text is a brief (fewer than 50 words) description of the historical context (discussing how, for example, the street's residents have developed ironwork since we last met them.) All around the edges of each picture are text snippets that highlight some things to look for, such as the building of a stone castle where previously there had been a wooden fort, or the outdoor toilets in the middle of the settlement (these are often in use in the pictures, to kids' delight. Who knew that people in the past went to the bathroom?)
But the pictures themselves serve as a text for teaching kids about change over time (the very definition of history) Often, the street is captured at a less than tranquil moment in its history. We see cattle rustled, Vikings invade, and plague strike. Oddly, we don't see the impact of modern warfare, because the book skips much of the 20th century because, I presume, it would be hard to depict while maintaining the deliberate vagueness of place.
In the pictures, we see not only changes in dress, crafts, customs, religion, and how people relate to each other, but also the ways in which people alter the natural environment: What began as a wooded hill behind the settlement is gradually deforested, and then built over for example.
What's most thought-provoking (I hope) is that the book vividly illustrates that history and progress are not the same thing. After viewing the street as it was during Iron Age, complete with thatched huts, modest wooden canoes, and wooden palisades around the settlement, we turn the page (and five hundred years) to find the glory that was Romano-Britain. A huge stone temple, an amphitheater, paved roads and an embanked river give an impressive display of (to quote Monty Python) what the Romans did for us. Yet, turn the page once more, to AD 600 (five hundred years later), and all that is left are a couple of ruins, as the street, now populated by the descendants of invading Angles and Saxons, returns to wooden huts and an unbanked river. Magic.
The book shows the zigzag that is history, and it also shows continuity as well as change. The holy site of the Stone Age becomes the Roman Temple becomes the stone church, which over time acquires a spire, and then a rebuilt tower, before burning down in the civil war of the seventeenth century. It is then rebuilt, and repeatedly modernized into the present day.
The success of A Street Through Time is partly reflected in how often it is imitated. Since its publication, the format has spun off and inspired all sorts of similar titles. All are welcome, because it's an inexhaustible genre that still has much potential, and I will review some of them here. None, however, quite matches the cleverness of the original.
This book will stimulate a child's interest in history of all kinds, so even if European history is not your thing, please don't hold that against it. For kids, the most important thing is NOT absorbing "information" (i.e. committing facts to memory). It is to gain a sense of history, and an enthusiasm to learn more. Kids gain from A Street Through Time a sense of chronology and change. Most of all, they love it. This book is a terrific investment in imagination and critical thought.
For more book recommendations, visit my
Non-Boring History Recommendations for Kids.