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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Touch

What It Means to Connect With the Past

PBS aired a show on Sunday the 6th about schools that bring kids out into nature, and use that interaction to foster learning: tinyurl.com/nafave As it happens the school our older son has just transferred into was featured in the program, so we watched the show. While there was something of the infomercial about it — all eager kids, engaged teachers, and wise professors — the show made a good case: digging into the ground, finding a worm and letting it wriggle across your palm is different from looking at a picture. The show made me think about tactility, physicality — how can we bring that dimension into how we teach history?
     When I was growing up, the Museum of the City of New York had a "please touch" exhibit which both my wife and still remember visiting and enjoying. And if you think of it, any town square that has an old Civil War or WWI cannon in it is certain to have kids clambering all over it. Sure a cannon is a weapon — so easy to feel cool imagining using it — but that is just the point. Kids naturally incorporate objects into their fantasy play. If those objects have a past, have a history, fantasy begins to become time travel. 
     Of course the problem is that objects from the past may be rare or fragile — not the kind of things to bring into a classroom. And I suspect that some of the emphasis on primary source documents is a desire to bring kids into direct contact with something from the past — even if that is in the form of a document. But I wonder if teachers might begin the year by asking kids to bring to class the oldest human-made object in their home (or a photo or drawing if they cannot take it out of the house). Begin the class with a kind of Antiques Roadshow — figuring out what past those objects contain, show, what the world was like when they were new. The journey into the past would begin with the relics, the remnants of the past that have washed ashore in our lives today — inviting us to sail that mysterious ocean. (By coincidence, I just found this personal essay — which is filled with the objects of the past, it traces time periods in one working life through the tools this book editor used: tinyurl.com/llls75)