Historical Thinking = Now You See It, Now You Don’t

firstPersonWe have finally moved from the last frantic days of June into the beginning of July, but the days seem just as hectic.  There seems to be no time of year that is less busy anymore!  I guess there are only times when the activities are different from the routine.  A case in point: I spent the whole last week of June with the participants of this year’s Teaching American History Grant in our TAH Summer Institute, the culminating activity of the year.  It was hard work for everyone involved, but we finished off the year in grand style as the participants completed and presented their projects to their colleagues.  Commendations to all!

You might think that after such a demanding week, I would be ready to move on to entertain less historical oriented thinking, but no!  Just the opposite has happened!  These historical thinking concepts are cropping up everywhere – when I’m thinking about my workshop on the ELA Common Core Standards, when I’m working in the garden, even when I’m shopping at Wegman’s!  So what insidious ideas are these that have wormed their way into my brain?  Let me elaborate…

SheetsOn the first day of the TAH Institute, we spent time thinking and discussing how historians and museum curators make decisions about what to leave in their books or exhibits and what to leave out.  In the midst of all the pressures of the Institute, my partner in the TAH grant, Dr. Kevin Sheets, was finishing up the gargantuan task (at least to me) of writing a primary source American History reader for a major publisher.  Even with his deadline looming at the end of the Institute week, he volunteered to talk with us about historical thinking and the process he uses to filter out the mass of primary and secondary sources available to hone in on the 5 or 6 that he will include in his reader to represent a particular period of time.  chinaWe continued that thinking when we visited the Onondaga Historical Association in the afternoon and heard from Dennis Connors, Lynn Pascale and Greg Tripoli about how museum exhibits develop from a glimmer of an idea in someone’s mind to an actual, full-fledged display.  With the hundreds of thousands of artifacts in the museum archives, what gets included and what gets left out?  We have to ask ourselves when reading a historical book or looking at a museum exhibit, what story is being told and what stories are being ignored?  The story that gets told depends on the questions that the historian or curator asks about history.  Change the questions and you change the story!  It’s a matter of deciding what is significant – to the story you want to tell, to your purpose in writing the book or creating the exhibit.  To be sure, there are practical considerations.  Kevin spoke about making decisions for his book because of copyright issues, limits on how long sources could be or the need for including a variety of different types of sources.  At OHA, as well, sometimes decisions are made because a particular artifact may be unavailable for display or because of the limitations of the physical space.

What does this have to do with my historical thinking obsession?  We make these kinds of decision ALL THE TIME.  Which handouts do I include in my workshop and which are relegated to the file drawer or recycle bin?  It depends on which ones are the clearest at presenting the ideas we’re discussing.  Which plants do I put in the hanging basket on the front porch and which do I leave at the Regional Market?  It depends on which ones will fit in the basket and not require a lot of attention.  Which groceries do I pick up at Wegman’s and which do I leave on the shelves?  It depends if I’m making lasagna or a turkey dinner.  I could go on, but you get the idea.

I hear frequently from teachers that there is no way to “teach it all,” so how do we decide?  How do we decide what to teach and what to leave out?  Sometimes we decide based on practical considerations of time or materials, but we also need to make decisions based on what is significant to teach and what is essential for our students to know and be able to do.  The key is that we (and our students) need to be aware of the historical stories we are teaching and the stories that we are leaving out.  We can’t teach it all, but we need to be thoughtful about what we do teach and the messages that we are giving our students about history.  Think about that the next time you’re at Wegman’s!


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