Boring! Boring! Boring!
That’s how Ron Cohen describes the way most students view history. And so Cohen, who began his passionate interest in history while growing up in Los Angeles in the 1950s and turned it into a profession, earning a PhD and becoming both an author and history professor at Indiana University Northwest, quickly learned to make the subject interesting.
“I never gave a test, and you didn’t have to memorize anything,” said Cohen, now a professor emeritus at IU Northwest and author of numerous books including "Children of the Mill: Schooling and Society in Gary, Indiana, 1906-1960" and "Woody Guthrie: Writing America’s Songs." “No facts, no bull. History is about people, history is stories.”
Stories indeed. Can anything be more salacious than Henry VIII who “legally” murdered two of his wives and divorced two others so he could marry the woman of the moment (one other wife died in childbirth and the last of the six, hanging tenuously by a thread, lucked out when Henry himself keeled over after a riotous life of hard living)? Oh and did we mention the number of friends Henry had beheaded because they didn’t agree with him and even his penchant for forcing his sisters into loveless marriage so that he could gain lands and allies? That’s hardly boring.
“If you do portraits about the past, remembering facts is easier because students have found the stories interesting and will remember times and dates and why things happened,” said Cohen. “But you do not say name three causes of the Revolutionary War and list the presidents in order from the first one. That’s boring.”
Instead Cohen suggested parents who want to instill an interest in history ask children to write about their family, an idea he said he got from a friend.
“Say if their grandfather was alive in World War II, ask them to write about that era,” he said. “It helps connect someone they know to the past. It’s connecting your personal with local history and national history. If someone in the family worked in the mills, then they can write about how the mills came to be here and how that attracted people to the area. Or if your parents were from Mexico, have them explore why they came here.”
Stephen McShane, who has co-authored "Moonlight in Duneland: The Illustrated Story of the Chicago South Shore and South Bend Railroad" (Quarry Books) with Cohen and "Steel Giants: Historic Images from the Calumet Regional Archives" (Indiana University Press) with Gary Wilk, has taught history at Indiana University Northwest and now is the archivist and curator for the IU Northwest Calumet Regional Archives, which for the past 25 years has collected, preserved and made available thousands of historical records documenting the growth and development of Northwest Indiana, also emphasizes tying the current to the past in order to evoke interest.
“Visuals are also good,” he said, noting that he is hopeful that shows like those on The History Channel will increase interest in history.
McShane noted matching history to a person’s ethnicity, religion or gender can also make those necessary connections. It’s matching kids with the personal. Young girls might be much more interested in learning about females in history rather than just slogging through biographies of famous men.
Don’t just talk about history, recreate it. The more senses involved in learning, the more the lesson takes hold.
For parents trying to help their children develop an interest in connecting to the past, think of a multi-sensory approach to the subject by staging reenactments. A child studying about the Revolutionary War, a mini-reenactment of such events as Washington cross the Delaware or Paul Revere making his daring ride can use their creativity to bring the scene to life with costumes and props like a couple of cushions becoming Washington’s boat or a broom a horse. Clothes, old hats or whatever can be used for costumes. Re-enactments enliven the imagination as do questions like, "What would have happened if Washington had fallen off the boat?", "How cold do you think it was?", "What would have happened if Revere’s horse went lame?" "What could they have done then? What would you do?"
“I am passionately interested in understanding how my country works,” said Ken Burns, director of such powerful historic mini-series as Thomas Jefferson, Jazz and The Civil War, when asked why he explored history in his films. “And if you want to know about this thing called the United States of America you have to know about the Civil War.”
Cohen, mentioning Erik Larsson, author of "The Devil in the White City," said it’s important to read authors who can make history come alive. Libraries have lists of historic fiction for kids including such classics as the Little House on the Prairie series.
For those of us who remember when museums were all about don’t touch and everything was encased in glass, there’s a whole new wonderful world out there. Most museums and historic sites have interactives as well as children’s areas for hands-on activities. And even if you can’t get there, there are online interactive activities to get kids interested. Colonial Williamsburg has a kid’s page with such options as iPad compatible Colonial Days Coloring Book, Mr. Jefferson’s Magical Maze and Treasure Trek—a Colonel era scavenger hunt where you hunt for such items as an anvil (clue: look where the blacksmith works) hand bellows and brass candlesticks. (history.org/kids/games). The Indianapolis Children’s Museum offers online games for Pre-Kindergarten to 8th grade like Build Your Robot, Dinosphere, ABC for non-readers and Make a Movie (childrensmuseum.org/games).