Teaching history to my homeschooled kids

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Wow. A letter to the editor in the Nanaimo Times reminds me why teaching history properly is so important. The letter has been removed as has the screen shot of it I tried to link to. The author of the letter lists of accomplishments he feels the natives failed to meet before starting onto his theories before arguing that they are irresponsible and should not receive “special treatment.” The letter misses several important things I want my children (and all Canadians) to learn.

There are two historical issues at play. One is the issue of what the author titles “special treatment.” If he knew his Canadian history better he would understand the role of the treaties, and how what native tribes receive is not special treatment but the promised return for sharing the land with us. The other historical issue is his claim that natives were “notable only for underachievement.” There are some really good rebuttals already written so I’ll direct you to this description of Native American achievements or a line by line rebuttal.There’s also a good blog post over at Canadian trends pointing out that the modern age isn’t necessarily all that great an achievement.  Here’s a snippet from it:

Mr. Olson, in the last 100 years we’ve become a “modern economy” that is unsustainable. You sir are telling a people who managed to live in balance with their surroundings for thousands of years not subject to “boom” and “bust” or underground cities of poverty stricken people that you know better. That’s the modern world right there as it sits, is it any wonder they don’t want to be a part? (links in the original)

As a homeschooling mother I’ve looked at a few homeschool curriculums and textbooks and I’m concerned about the tendency to view history as a progression of empires. It’s easy to move from studying Sumerians to Egyptians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Europeans and then Americas with Asian cultures thrown in as side topics. It’s possible to look at history as progressing from the different empires as though a country that doesn’t dominate the world at its time is unworthy of study and has nothing to contribute. I think the letter to the editor was born out of that sort of mythology, that belief that a certain branch of history is the most important. How do we make history more than a glorification of empires where certain cultures and people are celebrated for the power they wielded and the rest of the world forgotten and ignored?

One of the things I’ve tried to do is really emphasis the idea that history is about how people lived and how they understood the world. We want to try to hear the specific stories and voices of people, and all cultures have stories and voices even if they don’t have recorded records of what wars were fought when or who ruled as king when. When we talk about areas of the world that were dominant at some points in time and not others, I want them to think about how people lived during the times they did not dominate the world as well as the times they did.

Another thing I’m trying to do is, when I study native history, is to be specific. I want to look for books that are as specific as possible in time and place. There were different native groups across the country. They did different things and they worked within their specific environments. I hope that teaching my children about the specific groups will help them to appreciate that Canada was by no means ‘primitive’ pre-contact.

Being specific about history of other places also helps. I don’t care if my children memorize all the details about which pharaoh came when, but I do want them to understand a bit of the differences between the Old, Middle and New Kingdoms of Egypt because I want them to understand that history is not just the big details but the little ones too. History takes place in the small changes as well as the large ones. I hope that the more they get used to viewing history clearly, the more they’ll want to learn about it and the more they’ll realize we don’t know everything about it.

I want to emphasis to my children the incompleteness of our understanding of history. We do not know all that happened, and we have more knowledge of those cultures and places that kept written descriptions. If we teach children to recognize the gaps in our knowledge we can counter the idea that cultures without written record have no history. They do. We just don’t know it.

Finally, as my children get older, I’m planning on teaching them about the specific ideas that allowed Europeans to justify their treatment of the native people. I want them to understand where our notions of private property and ownership come from so that they can see these are not the only possible ways of viewing things. There are so many ideas that have become the water in our fishbowl and seeing the ideas clearly will help them to realize that when they compare cultures they are simply comparing other cultures with our culture, and not other cultures with the inherently perfect default. I want them to understand the struggles and debates that existed throughout history for how to deal with problems and how different cultures found different solutions and there may be other solutions yet untried.

Any other ideas? How do you ensure the history you’re teaching your children is both accurate and fair?

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2 thoughts on “Teaching history to my homeschooled kids

  1. There’s a child’s version of Howard Zinn’s book called A Young People’s History of the United States. After reading a basic timeline of traditional history, my daughter has been reading this. It really helps teach a fuller, more multifaceted approach to history.

  2. I just finished reading “People’s History of the United States” and was quite moved by it. Zinn knows how to tell an informative yet emotional story. I plan on teaching “Young People’s History of the United States” to my kids (they’ll be 10 and 11 in the fall) next school year. I found a great study guide online (http://people.ucsc.edu/~ktellez/peoples-history.pdf). It’s written for traditional classrooms with 20+ kids but we’re going to revise for our homeschool. We’re very politically conscious and traditional history/social studies textbooks just don’t do anyone except wealthy, white, Western hetero males any justice!

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