Mystery makes history fun

“I hate history!”

My daughter’s plaintive was a dagger to the heart to this history lover. She has a great teacher, but salt dough maps were not enough to make Missouri history exciting in any way. My daughter had refused to read my beloved Laura Ingalls Wilder books, so I was not surprised, just disappointed.

My favorite city to visit is New Orleans because of all the history, which gave me an idea. I told my mystery lover that the reason she hated history was the school couldn’t teach it “Allison style.” I bought Haunted St. Louis: History & Hauntings Along the Mississippi and started reading it with her by flashlight late at night. Success. When her teachers had a Meriwether Lewis expert come to speak to the students, she sneakily asked how he died. She wanted to see if he would discuss the mystery surrounding his death, which he did.

I’ve already bought every spy book set during the Revolutionary war times to read over the summer to prep her for next year. Knowing that George Washington wasn’t just our first president, he was our first spymaster may keep her going through the tedium of her history textbook. (George Washington, Spymaster: How the Americans Outspied the British and Won the Revolutionary War)

When she studied pioneers, we talked about her great, great great grandmother who came to Missouri. She knows I have the little pitcher of hers from her childhood, which is my only family heirloom. Making history personal helps make it real and more interesting.

One example of making history real to students is this 4th grade, which has adopted Eddie Cemetery, a local historic cemetery. Besides creating a memorial garden and researching the occupants, these student learned about preserving and repairing headstones. As a genealogist myself, I think this is an excellent history lesson (and it passes the Allison test).

I might not convince my daughter’s teacher to take the class to Bellefontaine Cemetery for a class field trip, but I am inspired to take her there to see some historic graves and to my family’s small ancestral cemetery in northern Missouri this summer. (By the way, Bellefontaine has suggested lesson plans for teachers based on this historic cemetery.)

Infusing a little bit of mystery and personal touch is possible and a good goal for all history teachers.

How long do we need to study about Missouri

While my natural inclination is for local control as much as is feasible, nationalizing standards has some appealing arguments. For example, fourth graders throughout Missouri aren’t studying world history, American history, civics or other typical social studies topic. Nope, they’re taking a year to learn all there is to know about—Missouri. The state of Missouri. I’ll grant you we have some interesting history in the state. I even understand how they can acquire necessary skills such as reading maps, comparing and contrasting geographical regions etc. But, really? A whole year on Missouri?

If you live in another state, don’t start feeling superior because the children in your state are also studying it for a year most likely. If you’re lucky, they will revisit it in a later grade (here’s looking at you South Carolina!).

I think a unit or even two on the state is sufficient. I would even spiral that back around in later grades as students get closer to voting age. Heck, by then they might even still live in the state by the time they’re 18, so learning the names of their governor, state reps and state senators isn’t asking too much of a high schooler.

If families never moved, you could make the case for studying their own state in such depth, but that is not reality. With mobility rates of 15-20 percent, we can hardly justify spending an entire year on a single state.

Some may make the case that kids start out learning about their family, their neighborhood, then their community, and work their way up to their state, country and finally the world. How boring is that! Besides, kids have an easier time understanding other countries than state or county divisions, so learning is not quite so linear as that.

I suggest choosing high-interest topics such as ancient Egypt, pre-Columbian Maya or medieval Europe to introduce historical methods and skills. You could certainly include some Missouri-related units such as Lewis & Clark. I would then emphasize the state history within context of U.S. history as kids develop a sense of time flow in later elementary. That would seem to make more sense.

I think lack of world knowledge is a bigger problem overall than lack of state knowledge, so I can’t see how reducing time spent studying the state will harm our country’s ability to compete in the global economy.

Researching history at the library

National History Day 2007 Documentary Category National Winner: The Great Seattle Fire

I'm such a nerd. While in college my roommate skipped classes because she was hanging out with her boyfriend, she was sleeping, it was raining or any other excuse she could find (before flunking out). I skipped classes (and not just one or two) to hang out at the State Historical Society of Missouri. I was doomed as soon as I discovered it was actually on campus. I had one professor give us an assignment that required us to dig into old Missouri papers on microfilm. The other students complained about doing a stupid assignment that was probably just to help a prof with his research, but I was in my element.

Over 2,600 Mo. students grades 6-12 compete in National History Day. This year's theme is "Conflict and Compromise in History," which seems apropo in an election year. About 500 students will then compete at the state level in April with 45-50 going on to nationals in June. The St. Louis region's contest will be this Saturday, Feb. 23, at UMSL.

The ability to do real historical research and present their studies instead of just memorizing dates is a wonderful way to show students the relevance and fascinating aspects of history. Go St. Louis history students!