How Do You Teach History?

By Gina Reich Guzman. Reprinted with permission.

I must confess that teaching history is one of my greatest pleasures in life.  I loved it as a child and I love it now.  As a child I learned most of my history via books much like with a Charlotte Mason Education, only I didn’t know that was what I was doing! Guess I was born craving a classical education. 


Charlotte Mason’s View on History

In a nutshell Miss Mason did not believe that history is a collection of facts to be memorized and forgotten.  While there is some memorization involved she really felt that the best way to learn history was to immerse yourself in the lives of the people who lived it.  On her reading lists you will see a lot of biographies and historical fiction.  By reading these we are able to learn what life was like for the people living it.  In her opinion, for history, depth of knowledge is far more important than breadth of knowledge.  Basically the opposite of how American schools teach history.  I’ve experienced both methods and prefer Miss Mason’s ideas hands down. 

Miss Mason also believed that history should be studied chronologically and not rushed through piecemeal.  I must confess that I may not be as much of a stickler about this as she was.  My family studies history chronologically for the most part but I do not obsess about making sure everything lines up perfectly.  Our history related literature is often a bit ahead of our actual history studies and I am okay with that.  Rarely do my kids have trouble relating the books they’ve already read to the history lesson of the day.  We do use a timeline so that the kids can see the big picture and how it all fits together, which I think was really Miss Mason’s goal.  Miss Mason did not use the cycles that are so common in other classical education philosophies. I find this to be a great relief since we like to amble our way through history and not be rushed.  

As you research the Charlotte Mason way of educating you will notice that most classical history reading lists are quite Eurocentric.  While I think it can be rather challenging to find a world view balance of history materials here in the US I do believe we should add in as much nonEuropean history as we can find. Hopefully, you will find resources here to help you do that! On that note, I came across the following quote from Catherine Levison (p. 56 in More Charlotte Mason Education) about three of Miss Mason’s prime concerns when teaching history.  “First, study other countries as early as possible to avoid an “arrogant habit of mind”. Second, when studying a period, country or person try to compare what other people in other countries were doing at the same time.  Finally, Charlotte Mason schools always studied history in chronological order.” Since a nonEurocentric history education was Miss Mason’s goal I truly do not understand why we have such trouble finding resources in which to accomplish this! It is nearly impossible to find truly GREAT nonWestern resources for the early grammar stage. 

In a nutshell a very basic CM history involves the following: a timeline that the kids can add to, great living books and peotry, narrations, and a Book of the Centuries.  That’s it! We do need to keep in mind that Miss Mason did feel that it is important for us to expose our children to the real world of history via field trips and museum visits.  If you are unable to do this in the real world you should be able to find alternatives in the cyber world. Now I must confess that my kids like to jazz up their history studies with videos, art projects and the like but these are all extras.  I also use a spine and an encyclopedia to help the children see how it all fits together and so that *I* don’t have to worry about any so called gaps. 


Book of the Centuries

I must confess that even though I downloaded Tanglewood’s Book of the Centuries I decided not to use it with my older two children.  It simply did not match their learning styles or where they were academically; plus at the time we were just beginning our journey into Charlotte Mason land. The two girls have encountered the concept in their art history class so I think we are now prepped to try it again. Rather  than buying any of the commercial products I have decided to make one of our own using a sturdy sketch book since I want it to be somewhat interactive.  If you are familiar with the Egyptology or Piratology books with their little envelopes and lift the tabs and so on, our Book of the Centuries will include some of that along with the way that Miss Mason envisioned a BotC to be.  My girls are quite artistic and I intend to use this as a way to hook them into history since they can be as creative as they want in their books. I will post photos as the book comes along to give some ideas of how we are doing it.

Simply Charlotte Mason’s Book of the Centuries (not my favorite)

Parent’s Review Description of BotC (outdated but very interesting)

Donna Young’s Instructions For Making Your Own

Tanglewood’s Book of the Centuries


Narration

I love using narrations for history.  I especially like using them for any biographies the kids read.  Even though most people keep all of their history narratives together, my kids read historical biographies for math, science and literature as well as for history so we keep our biography narratives in a binder all their own.  This way when the children are trying to recall a fact about someone they have already studied they can just go to the biographies binder.  This also keeps them from having to double up on narratives if they learn about the same person for multiple subjects. An example of this would be writing a single comprehensive narrative on Leonardo DaVinci rather than writing four narratives on him; one for history, one for art, one for science and one for art. 

What many parents don’t realize is that narrations can be as simple or as complex as *you* want.  It can be just a simple summary narrative given orally or it can be a complex rewrite that becomes a video or a play.  The options are truly endless and you can be far more creative with narration ideas than any work/textbook could ever hope to be! I don’t think there is one correct way to do narrations. Truly, the main goals of narration are for the child to internalize what they read and for the parent to be able to see what the child internalized. In this age of technology, I sometimes have my kids do narrations of documentaries they’ve watched that supplement our studies.  I find quality documentaries can be as valuable as great books, esp. for visual learners or those who need more repetition. For these, I often ask the child to write a narrative telling me about the three things they found most interesting about the video or book rather than always having them do summary narratives. 


Timelines

Like Miss Mason, I believe that young children should not do written narrations.  The exception would be children who absolutely love to write and ASK to write their own narrations.  Otherwise, I hold off on written narrations until well into the logic stage, although most learners should be writing their own narrations by the end of the logic stage. During the grammar stage, most narrations are oral.  Some children love to dictate their narrations and watch Mom or Dad type them up as the child speaks.  Remember, another goal of narration is for the child to practice some of that rich language they have been reading and having a young child write out their own narrations will stymie this goal since their spelling and writing abilities are wobbly at this stage. For anyone familiar with the Language Experience Approach to teaching reading and writing this would fit right in with narrations.  You just use a book as the stimulus rather than a physical experience. If you have a boy, or girl, who balks at writing or even doing oral narrations have them use Legos or Bionicles to act out the narrations. My kids use to use their Bionicles to act out battles they encountered in our mythology reading.  Many people watching them would have thought they were just playing but closer observation showed that they were actually doing a physical form of a summary narrative the truly reflected what they had encountered and learned from their readings. I think of these as “interactive narrations” and I found that my young children did utilize the rich language they had encountered. Narrations should be concise and language rich but they do not have to be scholarly; which is where I think many people stressing about “how to do narrations” get hung up. As the child leaves the logic stage and enters the rhetoric stage their narrations will, by necessity, become more scholarly and will begin to resemble more of what I think of as essays.

You have some choices when it comes to timelines.  You can purchase pre-made ones that already have the information on them,  you can purchase pre-made ones that you fill in or you can make your own.  I have found all three useful for different purposes.

When my children were in the grammar stage they strongly balked at keeping a timeline themselves. Instead, I used traditional premade timelines and kept them on the wall where the children could reach them.  As we studied each topic I would put a sticky note there (or if it was laminated, circle it with a dry erase marker).  Much to my amazement the kids poured over these timelines and discussed them amongst themselves during their free time, pointed out to Dad and Grandma what they had learned that week and so on. Truly, these worked beautifully for us at the time.

One year I decided to make a fill-in timeline of our own.  If you search the internet or the classical education based yahoo groups you will come across a plethora of ways to make timelines. I choose to keep it simple so I just used legal sized paper to make oversized pages that would fit one century per “side”.  We were planning on storing ours in a binder so I folded each paper in half. Here is how I did it. Take one legal sized paper and hole punch the RIGHT side of it.  Then fold the page in half toward the binder rings, but NOT overlapping the holes.  Take another legal sized paper and hole punch it on the LEFT side. Fold the page in half, again NOT covering the holes.  Now you have a four “page” lengths for one century. Since I wanted the option of hanging it on the wall we did not use the back sides of the pages. Instead, I just repeated the above instructions to make more centuries.  I must confess that we did not use this timeline for long before I became the lucky recipient of a free commercial fill-in timeline that we use to this day. I really did like our homemade timeline though.  It was the kids who wanted to switch since, at the time, one of my kids had a fear of “the blank page”.

Commercially made fill-in timelines are readily available.  Be sure to choose one that has EVEN increments of time; particularly if your children are younger.  Even though it may seem a waste to have so  much blank space and not “tighten things up a bit” it is important for the children to be able to visualize how human history has changed, and sort of sped up, as time goes on.  This is true for any timeline you use whether homemade or store bought!

Learning Through History Timelines & Blank Timeline Book

Classical Home Education’s blank timeline

The following is one of my favorite timelines to use when lesson planning or needing clarification.  I did make the mistake of purchasing the book version.  DON’T  DO IT.  The book version is nothing like the online version, plus the print size of the timeline itself is next to impossible to read.  It is one of the most jumbled timelines I have ever tried to use. All this timeline  did was confuse my kids and myself.  I prefer the online version by far!!!!!  (And yes, this is one of the timelines sold at Learning Through History.  I like their other timelines much better.)

Online Interactive Timeline/HyperHistory