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wendyroo

Can we Discuss History Depth vs. Breadth?

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As background...
My oldest is currently in 5th grade - a 2e student who is significantly advanced in some areas, very strong in most others, and only really weak in narration/writing and willingly reading literature (as opposed to non-fiction which he devours).  At the end of this school year he will have heard all four SOTW books plus The Complete Book of United States History.  Plus he has read all of the Horrible History and Horribly Famous (biography) books and hundreds of random, historically themed picture books.  His output, OTOH, has been scant.  He loves the SOTW coloring pages and maps, and can answer the review questions orally reasonably well in single sentences.  He narrates occasionally, but his narrative language is a significant weakness and he struggles mightily with it.

I have been thinking about next year when he will be in sixth grade.  We will be cycling back to ancients, and the younger three kids will be listening to me read SOTW.  Over the years I have been thinking and researching where we would go for the middle grades, and I had come up with a provisional plan of either OUP or Human Odyssey along with MapQuest, a time line, outlines and summaries, etc.  Pretty standard stuff.

But lately I have been reading Teaching What Really Happened: How to Avoid the Tyranny of Textbooks and Get Students Excited About Doing History and I am intrigued by the author's premise that "covering" textbooks and teaching too much is the bane of history classes.  He strongly believes in going deeper rather than broader, and guiltlessly skipping topics - even worthwhile topics - in order to really explore and practice the skills of history on a smaller subset of events and concepts.

This is how I want to teach history, but it is very much outside of my comfort zone.  I am the product of a fragmented, boring, "dead" history curriculum that was heavy on drill and kill and short term memorization, and completely missing any understanding, perspective taking or active gathering and construction of historical knowledge.

Can anyone help me envision what a deeper rather than broader approach to history actually looks like day to day and over the course of a semester or year?  How do you decide what to cover and what to skip?  How do you go about having your kids actively engage in topics?  What types of output do you require?  How do you ensure that students are connecting events and people and ideas and building a mental framework of when and why things happened in relationship to each other?

I'm not thinking I am going to radically alter the materials I had planned to use, but I am looking for ways to use less of each resource and instead go deeper.  I'm considering reading the OUP books to all the kids during morning time either instead of or in addition to SOTW for the youngers.  I'm hoping that will help all of them develop that big-picture sense of the flow of history.  Then, for my eldest, I am considering centering "units" around investigations from either Investigating World History: A Systems Approach and/or Reading Like a Historian.  As part of those units he would read specific sections of Human Odyssey and complete related MapQuest maps.

I'm not sure how a timeline or written output would fit into this unit studies picture.  Writing a paragraph a week right now (with lots of scaffolding) as part of his writing curriculum is just about killing him, and I worry that requiring too much writing in history would turn him off to the subject.  But, he also isn't AT ALL an arts and crafts, project-y kind of guy, and he finds "fun" writing (pamphlets, letters, Powerpoint presentations, ads, etc) just as torturous as straightforward summaries.

Would anyone be willing to tell me about your deeper rather than broader middle-grades history courses or plans?

Thanks,
Wendy

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I don't use textbooks.  I also don't do history in a cyclical manner.  We study whatever we want.  The kids read books like Landmark, Time-Life, American Heritage Library, Horizon-Caravel, or library books.  We pick topics that they are interested in or that relate to something else they are studying. Even through high school graduation they don't write an assignment per week in history.  Their writing assignments flow from one subject to another cycling through history about every 3-4 weeks.  I assign a topic that I want them to research more deeply for their papers.   ln 8th grade they start writing summaries of their reading in a Cornell Notes type of format (or their own version of some approximation).   

FWIW, for a student like your ds, I would find something that inspires him.  You could take something like Lord of the Rings and model Middle Earth battles with cheap plastic army men and study the Middle Ages at the same time and read books like Castle, Cathedral, etc and pick geographical areas to map battles or the spread of various cultures/trade/religions, etc.

Honestly, I think I could count on one hand the number times my kids have touched a history textbook.  

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9 minutes ago, 8FillTheHeart said:

FWIW, for a student like your ds, I would find something that inspires him.  You could take something like Lord of the Rings and model Middle Earth battles with cheap plastic army men and study the Middle Ages at the same time and read books like Castle, Cathedral, etc and pick geographical areas to map battles or the spread of various cultures/trade/religions, etc.

I honestly don't think he has ever really been deeply interested in anything...and I don't just mean academic things, I mean anything.

I mean once my brother showed him a card trick that kept his attention for a couple days, but he had no interest in reading books (even ones that I procured) or watching videos to learn more card tricks...or learning about other types of magic or going to a magic show or reading about Harry Houdini. 

That is pretty much the story of his life.  Right now he is somewhat interested in chess, and attends a weekly chess club, but I have strewed chess books around and he has no interest in them.  He also has no interest in videos, documentaries, biographies, etc related to chess.

I think between his autism, anxiety, ADHD and very weak executive function, he is extremely inwardly focused.  He likes collecting facts, shallow trivia.  He reads Guinness World Records and Ripley's Believe It or Not and old kids' almanacs...but he has no interest in, and in fact strongly opposes, learning more about anything he reads.

He has never once enjoyed a work of literature.  He will read them when told to, but not once has he become interested in the characters or story or even remotely cared how the story ended.  I guess that is the bottom line...I've never seen him care about anything.

I'm not saying I couldn't eliminate text books from his history study - clearly I could because he is reading a collection of nonfiction books about anatomy and medicine for science - but I won't be able to construct a course around his interests or passions or hobbies or favorite books, because he doesn't have any.  This is a child who has never watched a single movie in his life.  Who has never chosen to listen to music.  Who after looking through four Christmas catalogs can't come up with anything to put on his Christmas list.

He will read whatever I tell him to read (as long as he doesn't think he can get away with lying), but at this point it is unrealistic to think that I can light the fire of his curiosity if I just skip the textbooks and pick the right riveting topic.  I need to keep my goals realistic and remember that I can lead a horse to water but I can't make him drink. 

 

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What would he do if you told him he could go to the library and read any books on history topics for history?  Would he make a decision or just opt not to decide and read what is assigned?  Would a baby step toward him deciding on a book to read be a positive experience for him?  If not, then I would just pick books for him to read and ask him questions about what he read and define that as "history."

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16 minutes ago, 8FillTheHeart said:

What would he do if you told him he could go to the library and read any books on history topics for history?  Would he make a decision or just opt not to decide and read what is assigned?  Would a baby step toward him deciding on a book to read be a positive experience for him?  If not, then I would just pick books for him to read and ask him questions about what he read and define that as "history."

He can’t even really pick his own free reading books from the library. It is just too overwhelming. For pleasure he reads factoid books, those ubiquitous DK/Usborne kids’ encyclopedias, Horrible Histories and their ilk, and pretty much any non-fiction picture book or graphic novel I bring home. We all go to the library every other week, but DS just grabs the first book I put in our bag regardless of what it is and reads that while we are there. I normally check out about 150 books, and 95% of them are read before we go back...as long as I don’t try to sneak in any fiction or novel-length non-fiction, everything else he just mechanically reads showing no preference for one book over another. 
 

I have let him choose his next literature book from a small selection. At first I was showing him the actual books and he always chose the shortest one with the largest text. Then I switched to having him choose based on short book blurbs without seeing the physical book - at that point he said he didn’t have a preference and that I should just pick. Several times I have chosen books with sequels hoping that he might want to keep reading the next book, but each time he has disliked the book (just like he dislikes them all) and declined to read the sequel. 
 

I guess we are already doing pretty much what you are suggesting.  I choose a wide range of non-fiction books and he reads them. I often ask about what he is reading, and he spews a list of esoteric facts at me (he has very little ability to narrate or summarize).  I do think it is time for me to push him toward some longer non-fiction books. Right now his reading level is easily high school level, but he will not willingly read a Who Was biography because it is too long...even though he could still easily finish it in one short reading session. I’m certainly not going to stop bringing home picture books, but I probably will insist on at least an occasional slightly longer book.

Oh, one more question. Do you incorporate any primary sources in the middle grades?  

Thank you for your thoughts. 

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Deliberately? No. If they become naturally included, sure. My kids have all naturally listened to speeches like MLK's, Lincoln's, etc bc of what we read and discuss. But, I dont have a list of "read these primary sources before high school."

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We use elementary years as a broad overview of history.  By the time we get into middle school, we do "dips".  It's like a side by side history where we have a continual overview of light history, but we go deeper with other materials into certain events.

Youngest ds starts 5th grade next year and Ancient history.  While I have Human Odyssey vol. 1 to go through as a reader, we're going to be stopping periodically to go all in. I'm slowly training him to ask the unanswered questions of history: how do we know?  Who can we talk to?  What point of view is this written from and what is their background? It's a slight revision of the KWL chart. We're going to use Investigating World History to help guide our studies because I like the set up better for this period than Reading Like A Historian.  We'll get through approximately 13 of those activities, which works out to about 1 every 2-3 weeks.
At the same time, we have fabulous local history societies that give talks all year about the local area.  The historians are worth their salt.

I am not good enough at history to do this all on my own.  I just know I want my kid to approach it as a detective or a judge and look for evidence.

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I really think you need to keep your eyes on the prize for history. In my opinion, the point of science and history before high school is to accumulate some basic knowledge and to make them associate it with being fun or interesting -- that is, to not kill the love of the subject if possible. But in general, I think the focus should be on skills, not these content subjects. For instance, I took college history courses for my history minor, that I found fascinating, and yet I cannot remember many details from them. I don't remember what subject my big research paper was on for one of my classes. But notice how I can go to Wikipedia right now and in 10 minutes get a good overview of the wars of the roses or Alexander the great and a basic booklist to take to the library on the subject. So I would keep it in perspective. If he likes the factoid books and SOTW and devours all that, I would call it good! In high school, when his writing skills are a bit stronger, you can teach him to come up with a cause-and-effect style argument (the bad weather led to the defeat at Waterloo etc) and use non fiction book tidbits to research and support his argument. That is an important skill and not something you can get on Wikipedia in 10 minutes. But I think there's a big difference especially for boys between 5th grade and 9th grade in terms of being able to write or type their ideas properly. And I don't think historical fiction is all that helpful or necessary.

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