Last week two authors, Ryan smithson (Ghosts of War) and Susan Campbell Bartoletti (we were discussing her KKK book) visited my Rutgers class, then I came to meet Mary Ann’s Lesley University class, all by Skype. And over on her blog, Joyce Valenza posted about new interenational Skype tools. This is getting interesting. I’ve noticed two immediate effects. First, having a NF author speak about his/her work is a reminder that NF books have authors — they are individual, they are not textbooks crafted by committees. If nothing else, bringing that home — the personal point of view, passions, interests that led an author to research and write a book — is a big gain. Many of the questions that are related to the dawning recognition that a real person wrote the books are, themselves, pesonal — were you worried that, what did others feel about, etc. These may not be the most profound historical questions, but they show the student identifying, thinking: if I wrote that, that would I be thinking, feeling, experiencing.
The second strand that keeps coming up is historiography. That is, the recognition that history changes, that there are many schools, approaches, and points of view, and that we are often motivated to research and write because there are new questions about the past that connect to our concerns and world view in the present. This college history 101, but that does not mean it is in the least familiar to teachers and librarians, especially those working with elementary school students. They experienced history as fixed — data to be absorbed, passively. They never knew that history is found, built, shaped, crafted by the concerns and interests of the historians — so long as s/he abides by the rules of evidence. Once you see how alive history is, or can be, how directly it flows from who we are, it becomes all the more possible find ways to engage young people in reading history. This is where the textbook — for all of its boxes on Critical Thinking — is really at fault. Because there is no author, there is no personal quest in writing the book, thus no point of view, thus no connection between living, breathing human beings and the past as described in the book. History becomes a chore, not an adventure.
Or it almost does. Our younger son at 6 is loving getting to know the numerical facts of the presidents — how long they served in office, which order they served in, etc. For him command of numbers is pure pleasure. And that is something I need to keep reminding myself. We should never say, that is “just facts.” For some, facts in their pure clarity, are treasures. I see the chronology building in Rafi’s mind as we read (and he begins to read to himself) the Magic Tree House books and the NF guides that come with them. Beginning to piece together the timeline of the past is as thrilling to him as putting together Lego pieces (which is high praise). Chronology can be a chore, but can also be a gift — we empower young people, we say the past belongs to them, is open to their interest, is connected to who they are. We entrust to them knowledge of who we are and where we came from — and we do though our modern form of the Biblical “begats.” We allow them to know the sequence of events that led to now.
I will say that from a pure technical POV the Skype visits have been uneven. It has not been unusual to lose the video and essentially have a conference phone call. So this is still a creaky bridge. Any of you have Skype stories, good, bad, warning, and enticing to share?