Thursday, November 27, 2008

Historical Perspective

Mention the word “history” to a person and you will often receive a groan and apprehensive expression usually reserved for students ambushed by a pop quiz, or ambushed by Jay Leno and his staff on the streets of Los Angeles for another segment of the “Jay-Walk All Stars”, the part of the Tonight Show that makes comedy out of pedestrians’ lack of knowledge. There’s something about the mention of “history class” that brings back the worst sort of tedious, parochial memories. The groan that you are greeted with when mentioning the subject comes from hours of forced memorization, and the apprehensive look comes from the fear that you are going to ask a historical question which they may not know the answer to, embarrassing themselves in front of you, or, in the case of the Jay-Walk All Stars, in front of millions of Americans! History doesn’t have to cause this kind of anxiety and dread; when taught and studied in the right manner, it is an incredibly enriching and entertaining subject.

One quandary in the teaching of history is the massive amount of dates; teachers feel the need to teach them, and the students hate learning them. The irony of history being taught by dates is that the great lessons of history can’t be learned by memorizing dates. Dates, rather, should be treated as the framework within which to organize historical information. Just because an event can be placed does not mean that it is understood; somebody knowing that the Civil War ended in 1865 does not indicate that they know the causes, results, or importance that the war brings to modern times. The great gift of history is not in the numbers or dates, but in the understanding and perspective that it gives us of ourselves and our times. As a young man, Abraham Lincoln, a dedicated student of history, once lamented the fact that he was not born in the times of the American Revolution, when it was possible for Americans to be of great service to their country. At that point in time, Lincoln had no knowledge of the service he would render in the coming years, but he understood the worth and value of the American political experiment because of his knowledge of history.

Additionally, stories told using only a framework of dates and times are boring! Imagine a friend telling you that they have a comical story about almost missing a flight, then proceeding as follows:

“At 1:00pm on July 12th, my first flight arrived at the airport. My next flight was at 1:20 at a gate on the other side of the airport. I thought I might not make it on time, but I arrived at 1:18 and did make my flight.”

Terrible story, right? We don’t want to just hear a chronological framework as a story, we want the storyteller to describe how they accidentally grabbed someone else’s bag because they were in a rush, nearly lost a shoe when leaping off a moving walkway, and thought they were going to have to chase the airplane out on the runway to catch it, right? That’s the stuff that makes the story interesting! It’s the same with history. The interesting stuff is the stuff behind the date and event, and often, that is what makes it truly memorable.

An argument can be made that it is simply not possible to teach history in the depth that it could be taught because of time constraints, particularly in formal school settings. Homeschoolers typically have more time to devote to particular subjects, but still, trying to fit over two hundred years of detailed American history into a school year can seem daunting. However, it is not necessary for your student to go in depth with every event in history for them to benefit greatly from studying some events in depth. The themes, issues, and knowledge gained from studying certain things in depth can often be applied to time periods as a whole. A recent, and excellent example of this is David McCullough’s book “1776”, which tells the story of that year in American history. McCullough only touches briefly on events that occurred before or after that year, but by exploring the year of 1776 in depth he provides a better understanding of the causes, struggles, and results of the entire American Revolution.

Another great way to study history is through biographies. History is often viewed as a web of broad themes and complex situations, and for some students, these may be better understood through the eyes of an individual. A good biography not only places you in the life of the subject, but also their world and environment. For example, it is impossible to read a biography on Benjamin Franklin without learning a lot about the American Revolution, because Franklin was heavily involved in that movement. Additionally, by reading about Franklin, one can learn about life in colonial times, what it was like to work as a printer, and many 18th century scientific experiments at the same time! The reality is that Franklin had an inquisitive mind and was heavily engaged in the world of his day, so if you read about him, you will, by necessity, be reading about the world he lived in.

An additional benefit to studying some periods of history in depth is that your student will grow to appreciate the subject, and will even enjoy it! This will cause them to be interested in history and seek it out long after they finish formally studying the subject. The intrigue provided by the topics they did study in depth will drive them to learn more about the times and events that you did not cover in depth. Help mold an amateur historian and make the world a better place!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Novel Ideas

When I am traveling in other parts of the United States and someone discovers that I’m from Wisconsin, I am often asked two questions; the first regarding whether I own a cow, and the second regarding the cold weather of a Wisconsin winter. I usually respond that I don’t own a cow, but have considered investing in one. To answer the second question, I tell them to read Jack London’s “To Build a Fire”, a short story that more accurately captures what it’s like to face numbing, bitter cold than anything else that I’ve ever read. “To Build a Fire” takes place in the Yukon, a region that is easy to relate to for those who have ever inhaled a breath in winter to discover that their lungs have frozen.

The value of good fiction far exceeds simple entertainment; it can inform, inspire, and give a student a deeper understanding of the world around them. A common adage states that “Nothing is as it seems,” and good literature can give invaluable insight into the complexities of life and the nuanced thinking that it requires to properly understand it. Additionally, many novels (particularly in classic literature) involve protagonists who are able to navigate through the pitfalls and difficulties of life through positive action and strength of character.

Novels provide the opportunity to have a breadth and depth of experience far beyond the scope of our everyday lives and surroundings. We don’t live in the 18th century, for example, but by reading a good novel set in that time period we can have an idea of what it was like. One of my favorite novels as a boy was Johnny Tremain, which tells the story of a young, blacksmith’s apprentice who is caught up in the events leading to the American Revolution. The storytelling and attention to detail are so excellent that the reader cannot help but be pulled into action.

Novels can also inspire a young person by giving them characters and stories of courage that they can relate to. Sometimes this means that the protagonist is of a similar age to the student, but other times it may be a deeper connection with the struggles of that character that they relate to. Johnny Tremain lives with a deformed hand that sometimes makes it difficult for him to do his job, and leaves him unable to shoot a musket. In a day when most young men are joining militias, he must deal with not being able to participate in the way that he wishes he could. Stories like this one can help develop a student’s empathy for those facing struggles around them, and enrich them with a greater understanding of themselves and others.

Finally, the language and themes of novels often pull students into a world where attention to detail and mental acuity are rewarded. Good authors often speak in simile, metaphor, and allusion rather than blunt description. To understand a story, readers are often required to think through concepts and situations, leading to greater skills of analysis and interpretation. The value of these skills cannot be overestimated because they help comprise emotional intelligence and the ability to discern right from wrong. On the surface, “To Build a Fire” details a man’s struggle to survive on a dangerously cold day in the Yukon. On a deeper level, the story explores the dangers of not heeding the environment around us and choosing our paths in life without care or consideration of the consequences. For this reason, as well as its somber ending, it is more appropriate for older students than for younger ones. However, there is a wealth of great fiction for all ages that contains appropriate material and themes.

Introducing children to quality fiction can have many benefits beyond entertainment. Good stories allow them to encounter and think through situations that they may be faced with at some point in their lives. Additionally, novels can introduce them to individuals of different time periods and backgrounds, while developing their comprehension ability and insight. One of the greatest benefits is that if you get them hooked on great books, you’ll never have to remind them to read again, because great stories sell themselves!

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Socrates in the Living Room

In his famous work entitled “The Last Days of Socrates”, Plato gives us a window into the life of that legendary philosopher as he was on trial for corrupting the youth of Athens with unconventional and supposedly heretical ideas. Socrates, despite the fact that he was eventually convicted, spent much of the trial persuading his adversaries to admit the tenuousness of their positions by questioning them with the now famous “Socratic Method”. Using this method, Socrates would chip away at the preconceived notions and illogical reasoning forming the basis of his opponents’ arguments until they gave up, or admitted that their thought processes were contradictory and full of fallacies.

With the fear of public speaking typically ranking slightly above the fear of death in many polls conducted in this country, it’s hard to imagine many folks jumping at a chance to argue their points of view in public, let alone attempt to convince others to abandon their arguments through logic. There is still plenty of arguing that goes on these days; one needs only to turn on a news network or talk radio to see that; but much of it is sadly lacking in substance and logic. Many of these arguments contain provocations rather than points and do an excellent job of inciting the opposition to respond in kind, but little to inform the public or illuminate issues.

Somewhere along the way the art of rhetoric started to become a lost art.

When we hear the term “rhetoric” used these days, it is most often used as a term to summarize a person’s overall argument concerning an issue, but it wasn’t always so. Rhetoric was once a highly developed and polished method using logic and evidence to argue one’s point of view. Rhetoric was taught at universities by professors who would educate students in argumentation and encourage them to debate the issues and questions of the day. Outside the classroom, many bright Americans polished their debating ability in clubs called “Lyceum” that were set up expressly for that purpose, and modeled after the forum established by Socrates in Athens. Whatever the setting was, the primary goal was intelligent debate rather than verbal squabbling. One gifted member of the Lyceum in Springfield, Illinois, was Abraham Lincoln, who with his campaign opponent in 1858, Stephen Douglas, provided a series of rollicking political debates that informed, entertained, and are still studied by scholars today.

Even thought rhetoric is not formally taught as a subject anymore, it doesn’t mean you can’t create your own Lyceum in your family living room. One of the great benefits of homeschooling is the time that it provides for individual instruction and discussion. One of the things I’ve noticed during my work as a private tutor is that the verbal skills of my students who converse and interact with their parents on a regular basis seem to consistently exceed those of the students who do not have that in their home life. Any positive interaction is good, of course, but it’s even better when parents actively engage their children in conversation. Conversation helps develop speaking skills, listening skills and analytical skills. Good conversation starters are questions that cannot be answered with simply a “yes” or “no”. Topics of conversation can include activities, events, books, or anything that it’s possible to say more than a few words about. If your child participated in an activity that you were not present at, try asking them for a detailed description; something that will result in them having to arrange information in their heads and deliver it in an ordered manner.

Homeschooling parents also have the opportunity to be involved in their child’s curriculum. There are many academic subjects that provide the opportunity for debate and discussion. History, for example, provides an enormous amount of material for analysis and interpretation. When your child is studying a certain time period, ask them questions that encourage them to not only absorb the material, but interpret it as well. If you’re studying the American Revolution, you can ask your child if the colonists were justified in rebelling against England and King George. If these actions were justified, then why? Could King George have acted differently to satisfy the colonists and prevent the revolution? Did the loyalists have just reasons for remaining loyal to the crown? Try asking your child what they would have done if they had lived during that time period. When they give you an answer, ask them to explain the reasoning behind their answer. The opportunities for discussion are endless.

Another medium providing great opportunities for discussion and debate are novels and biographies. Ask your child about their impressions of a certain character in the book they are reading, and what causes that character to act in the way they do. Does the character always act as he or she should in certain situations? If not, what causes them to make wrong decisions? Quality fiction can help develop your child’s awareness of metaphor, simile, and help develop their skills of interpreting the world around them.

If you have more than one student at home, or if you know other homeschooled students, try having the students pick an issue and debate it, with each student taking a side. Try taking an issue from a period of history that you are studying. For the American Revolution, you could have one student debate as a loyalist and the other debate as a patriot. Having a student argue in support of a position they do not normally support can be a very educational experience, and can help them understand their own views with more clarity. Be sure to emphasize that civility is the first rule in debates (despite what we see in political debates sometimes!), and that the students should treat each other and each other’s views with respect. Also, remind them that they are not trying to “win” against each other, but rather, respond to each other with reason and intelligence.

Finally, one of the best ways to learn how to be a great speaker is to study great speeches. Many libraries carry recordings or books containing great speeches of history. A great web resource is American Rhetoric (, a site that offers a database of great speeches from history. All of the speeches can be read and many of them can be listened to. Try studying a great speech and asking your student why that speech is considered “great”. Ask them what kind of speech it is. Is it persuasive, descriptive, or elegiac? How does the speaker deliver his or her point? Does he or she use religious terminology? Does the speaker appeal to the emotions of the audience? Or just to their minds?

Rhetoric isn’t just for politicians. The ability to express oneself in a clear and concise manner and argue a point effectively is an invaluable skill. By engaging and encouraging your child in meaningful discussion, you can help bring Socrates back into the classroom and the living room!

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Abe Lincoln Slept Here

One day, many years ago, a town called New Salem rose like Brigadoon out of the forest to meet a young man named Abe Lincoln, and the country would never be the same.

Yesterday, as I celebrated our nation's birthday with a brat and can of soda in my hand, the life and times of our sixteenth president came to mind. In particular, I began to think of the days he spent as a young man along the Sangamon River, years before anyone would ever know his name or speak of his greatness. Lincoln came to New Salem by flatboat while returning from New Orleans, having been hired by a man to travel down to that port city and sell a load of wares. The Sangamon River was low that year, and Lincoln's raft was caught on the dam that powered the small town's mill. One of the men who came down the bluff from the town to help free the raft was opening a store soon, and seeing something in young Lincoln, offered Abe a job running the store. Lincoln agreed, and after completing his trip, returned to New Salem for the job that awaited him.

The Abe Lincoln that entered New Salem was tall, gangly, and twenty-two years old. He had only one year of formal education, but a remarkable ability to educate himself. He was unsure of his future, and while he had ambition to make something of himself, he had no idea what that something was. Lincoln, later in life, remarked that he arrived in New Salem as directionless as a twig floating on a river. A gifted storyteller with a quick mind and sense of humor, Lincoln quickly became popular with the townspeople who appreciated him for his personality and strong work ethic. New Salem was such a good fit for Lincoln that he stayed even after the failures of the original store he clerked at and a subsequent store he opened with a friend. After the business failures, the town still found work for the young man as a surveyor and as the town's postmaster.

I traveled down to central Illinois a couple of years ago and had a chance to walk around New Salem. The town was restored through a grant by the Rockefellers, and it's possible to see New Salem much as it was in the days of Lincoln. Upon arriving at a small general store that also served as the town's post office, the docent informed us that Lincoln slept in the back of that building while he was postmaster. We walked to the back of the small log cabin, and next to a row of cubbyholes for sorting mail there was a small, narrow cot. "Abe Lincoln slept here," the docent said, pointing to the cot. "He never owned property here, so he slept in various places around town." Basically, Lincoln slept on people's couches for seven years.

I enjoy museums, and have seen many antiquities over the years, but I have rarely ever seen an object as inspirational as Lincoln's cot. To hear that a man comes from humbles origins is one thing, but to see the cot that he slept on in the back of a store is another.

Sometimes in life it seems that the odds are stacked against us and our days are filled with too many defeats and not enough victories. Lincoln knew about failure and tragedy; he lost his mother and sister when he was a young boy and his early adulthood is a litany of failed enterprises; but while his spirit was beaten it was never broken. The difficulties in Lincoln's life played a tremendous role in shaping his character, and we need only to look at his past to see the circumstances that helped create a man who spent long nights in the Oval Office writing compassionate letters to war widows. Difficulties can either embitter a person or bring out their true greatness, and in Lincoln they did the latter.

Lincoln didn't sleep on that cot forever. Eventually he became interested in law, and since he couldn't afford law school, began to study the subject in the shade of New Salem's trees. He was also elected to the Illinois State Assembly by the people of the area, and at age twenty-nine, set off down the road to Springfield and legend.

Next time your child faces difficulties and needs some inspiration, try telling them about Abe Lincoln and his cot.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Ramblin' With the Fam

Egypt has the pyramids. China has the great wall. Mitchell South Dakota has the Corn Palace.

I’m not sure why South Dakota’s tribute to Midwestern agriculture consistently makes my top ten list of wonders of the modern world, but it does, and I think this fact has as much to do with extraneous factors as it does to the fact that it’s a large building covered with corn.

Every year, thousands of families make the pilgrimage to South Dakota to find a bit of Americana in the form of a drug store famous for handing out ice water, a mountain displaying the likenesses of several presidents, and a building covered in corn. I beheld the wonders during a dusty summer road trip when I was about eight, and neither the Great Wall, nor the Eiffel Tower, nor any other wonders have ever displaced them in my memory.

There’s a marvelous sense of exploration inherent in travel when you’re a kid. The destinations don’t have to be exotic, and they don’t have to distant to incite wonder; all they need to be is a little new, and a little different. Along with the memories of great vistas and interesting locales that road-tripping with my parents gave me, one of the most enduring legacies of those travels is the sense of curiosity it fostered, and the spirit of following curiosity wherever it leads.

With the cost of travel increasing this year, a lot of folks are choosing to stay closer to home, and it’s a great opportunity to go poking around places that you may have passed by and wondered about over the years. Show your kids what fun can be had being tourists in your own region, state, or town.

There’s an American flag that flies over a cemetery in my town, above the grave of an army veteran named Nathanial Ames. The fact that Ames, a veteran, is buried in the cemetery is not unusual; what is unusual is that the general he served under was George Washington. Ames is one of a small number of Revolutionary War veterans buried in Wisconsin, a place that achieved statehood in 1848, roughly seventy years after Ames fought with the Continental Army under the future president. When I discovered Ames’ grave as a boy, it put me on a quest to find out how in the world a Revolutionary War vet ended up here, and along the way, I ended up discovering the story of my own town.

Curiosity fuels education, and the more combustion it produces, the further the wheels in your student’s head are going to carry them! Curiosity developed in childhood is a lifetime asset.