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Hats Off to History Teachers!

Making the Study of History Exciting and Fun
From the perspective of a history nut.

History is not just a collection of dry facts and dates, meaningless names and obscure stories of battles in places whose names you can't pronounce. If it were, I would never have become as excited about it as I am now. History is about real people doing exciting things. It is also about those lurid details that sixth and seventh graders the world over seem to love so much, a story well-told.

Also I don't have much patience with textbooks for younger students of history that focus on approaches such as: "... and the underlying causes of the Thirty-Years war were... 1..., 2..., 3... The struggle of emergent nationalism against the powers of established religion...and the net result was A..., B..., C..."

This kind of reasoning and cause and effect argument is not very meaningful to young students who don't have any mental picture of what the lives of these people were like or the world in which they lived. They are often not aware that these events happened a LONG TIME AFTER the most recent events in the Bible and a LONG TIME BEFORE cars and airplanes and even trains were available to allow people to travel about as freely as they do today. Real understanding of timelines, scale, largeness, comparative interval, and a vivid mental picture of the relationships of dates requires that the student internalize some quite sophisticated number sense skills. This is often referred to as being "numerate," or possessing numerical literacy in the professional education literature. On looking back upon my own education, I really didn't develop this kind of thinking myself until after I was in college. In order to bring meaning to these events, young people need to see the average person living in antiquity or the middle ages as very poor with little to eat. He or she was almost always in the way of some invading army or stood a good chance of dying from disease before reaching the age of thirty-five years, even if the perilous years of early childhood and infancy were already behind them. The person living in what we refer to as the Age of Enlightenment was living in the dark ages as far as medical care, human rights, or economic opportunity were concerned. He or she stood a better chance of survival in boarding a leaky, rat infested old ship and making a two month voyage to carve a new home out of hostile wilderness than hanging around in "Enlightened" Europe.

History can come alive in the classroom by making connections to people and events through the use of physical objects. History is a pageant, a play, a saga, a story well-told. If these words evoke bright, colorful visual images and a treasure house of sounds and smells, then I am amply making my point. Sixth grade ancient history classes should be baking bread the Roman way and being surrounded with high-quality color reproductions of Pompeiian mosaics. They should be listening to Gregorian chants and ancient Chinese music just as history classes covering later periods should listen to fine classical music or the Jazz and Blues of the 1930's. Contact with the past is enriched by reading well written accounts of desperate battles, perilous voyages of discovery, and major contributions by ancient engineers, artists, musicians, kings, queens, churchmen, ship captains, soldiers, and peasant farmers. Liberal use of strong verbs, image evoking adjectives, and moving dialogue can motivate young minds to enjoy history while not sacrificing historical accuracy.

Another way to make history come to life is to bring actual artifacts from the past into the classroom to let young people hold and study an object made and used long ago. They will soom be hooked by their natural curiosity, which will be a far greater motivator than the grade on next Tuesday’s test. The odd bits of pottery, arrow points, and discarded cloak pins have their story to tell, but if the artifact is inscribed with bits of writing, the quest to unlock its secrets will prove a very rewarding one for your students.. This stipulation leaves us with two choices open to all but the most wealthy teacher. These are inexpensive ancient coins and fragments of Sumerian clay tablets are both affordable and accessible. Both of these are usually covered with written language. The students would probably have trouble relating to the clay tablets because the language is strange and unfamiliar to them. In fact, it requires quite a bit of imagination to see the little cuneiform markings as language in the first place to people of our culture. One class the author has observed studied Egyptian hieroglyphs, but these students had an exceptional teacher who had studied Egyptian culture in depth. This leaves coins, mostly Roman and medieval, along with a few Greek. Since Latin contributed a large part of the foundation of our own language, the children can translate some of the inscriptions immediately because of their similarity to words we use today. Not only that, children seem to be naturally attracted to money even if it is not the spendable kind. Those with imaginations might ask from whom the poor wretch was running when he lost this denarius or whether the portrait is a true likeness of that empress and the inscription conveys her sincere feelings. There is also the clothing and fashion connection, especially with today's young people. It might come as a surprise to modern students that wearing their hair in cornrows is not a new thing. A sixteen-hundred year old coin of the empress Aelia Flaccilla very plainly shows that she wore her hair in this style. Another reason to use coins is that they are inexpensive and readily available if you know where to look. A real piece of history that has features clear enough to identify can be had for as little as four dollars. Beautiful examples like some I have used for images in this work can be had for twelve to fifty dollars. It is for this reason that I have chosen to illustrate this work largely with coins and to make an effort to explain in language the student can understand some of the features found on them.

The whole list in alphabetical order
Go to booklist about the Roman army and ancient warfare
Books about Roman and other ancient coins
Books by the popular author Michael Grant
Books about ancient ships and sailing
Go to booklist about women in the Roman world
Hats Off to History Teachers!