In one of my favorite Poppleton stories by Cynthia Rylant, Poppleton’s friend Fillmore takes him out on a boat for the day. Poppleton is all kinds of nervous about this and Fillmore spends most of the voyage saying, “Relax, Poppleton.” To my kids’ dismay, I have adopted this as a mantra. I pull it out whenever people seem to be getting themselves worked up into an unreasonable knot – relax, Poppleton.
They love it.
Spring planning mode means school is on the brain for me, which is definitely a happy state of being. The kids are growing, the grass is growing, and I am planning. It’s the best.
In the course of this, over the last few weeks, I found myself worked up into a knot about history. Years ago, I decided I would use Susan Wise Bauer’s The Story of the World series as a history spine, proceeding with one volume a year for four years, and beginning in Jack’s first grade year. We’ve mostly done this, and we really do love it. But when Oliver was born, we got behind in Volume 2 (behind….the schedule that existed only in my head) and so, as we’re finishing up our third school year in this prescribed cycle, we are not even quite halfway through Volume 3.
What to do?! Like I wrote about in my lengthy and dull post on schedules, once I commit to something in my head, I feel bound to it. Enter false crisis, where I almost threw the baby out with the bath water. Here’s how my thought process went:
Could we just sort of fly through the rest of Volume 3 in order to be ready for Volume 4 by the time our next school year begins later this summer? Of course, this would mean skimming through things like the American Revolution. Should we skip Volume 4 entirely, or maybe do mostly skimming on THAT end? Bauer herself says that Volume 4 is rather heavy – the world wars, mass genocide, and prevalence of dictators in the modern age don’t make for easy story-telling. These are things you want to navigate carefully with children. OR. Should we just start over again with ancient history, putting aside the 4-year cycle in favor of a 3-year cycle? CC will be on world history (with a good bit of ancient history thrown in) next cycle; should I forget SOTW and base all of our history stuff off of our CC history sentences and timeline? Or maybe just pull pieces from SOTW to fit CC?
Crisis! (But….an almost enjoyable one. Let’s be honest.)
I talked about all of this with (or, to) Kurt. He made an admirable attempt to nod in important places and said vague supportive things. I think he was intensely relieved a few nights later when I declared my crisis over. And probably a little baffled as to what it actually was in the first place.
I can have such a hard time remembering that the schedule is all in my head and that this (our elementary survey of history) is supposed to be fun. I remembered what The Well-Trained Mind has to say about the purpose of history at the elementary level: it ought to be delight-centered. History tells a story. I am not trying to teach them all this stuff. I don’t expect they’ll remember all of it or even most of it. I’m trying to engage their imaginations, and form their moral imaginations through the complementary study of history and literature. My own goal here isn’t the acquisition of facts, although what facts they do acquire make excellent mental pegs that ought to serve as a solid foundation for future study. If I’m trying to actually teach them anything, it’s that the world is big, old, and not centered on them.
Years ago I highlighted this excerpt from The Well-Trained Mind:
A common assumption found in history curricula seems to be that children can’t comprehend (or be interested in) people and events distant from their own experience. So the first-grade history class is renamed Social Studies and begins with what the child knows: first, himself and his family, followed by his community, his state, his country, and only then the rest of the world.
This intensely self-focused pattern of study encourages the student of history to relate everything he studies to himself, to measure the cultures and customs of other peoples against his own experience. And that’s exactly what the classical education fights against— a self-absorbed, self-referential approach to knowledge. History learned this way makes our needs and wants the center of the human endeavor. This attitude is destructive at any time, but it is especially destructive in the present global civilization.
I re-read that whole section, and I read a few other articles, and I thought a little, and my knot straightened itself right out. I remembered my own goals and what I most value in the life I lead with my children. And- the thing I like best about what we do is that we share so many stories. History is packed with great stories, both true and fictional. Why read The Odyssey in first grade? Why ever not?! It’s insanely exciting. You’ll get no glazed-over stare from a 6-year old. Address it again when he’s 16 and he’ll remember – oh yeah, that was cool.
(I mean, I hope. Trying not to count chickens here.)
So I decided to finish Volume 3, “late”, and finish it well. No narrations, minimal (or no) map work, fewer library resources (because then I have to remember to request them and pick them up, and this makes it easier for me to postpone a chapter). I looked through the remainder of the Activity Guide, found a stack of stuff I knew I’d want to read aloud, and bought it all- 15 books total. Mostly chapter books, although there are a few picture books and one DK Eyewitness book (we love those) included. If the books are actually on my shelf and waiting, all I have to do is grab them and start reading. This is a good investment.
Then I wrote out a list with every chapter title from SOTW Vol. 3 and the books (if any) I’d be reading along with that chapter, so I don’t even have to crack open that Activity Guide again. There are a few picture books I do hope to request from the library along the way, and I’ve noted them, and if we don’t get to them it’ll be fine. We’ll continue this all through our summer break, but that shouldn’t feel burdensome. I wouldn’t have stopped reading aloud to them anyway, so I’m fine with this plan. We’ll still start Volume 4 later than I’d intended, but that’s fine too. Because of the nature of the material, we likely won’t want to spend as long on some of those topics anyway. But I went ahead and ordered both Vol. 4 and its Activity Guide, so I can do the same thing in the next months – figure out what books I definitely want to read alongside, and then just buy them. Ah! Freedom!
Once again, it’s helpful to remind myself WHY we are doing history at all. It’s incredibly clarifying. And so once again the task of pursuing a chronological study of history with my young children becomes the opposite of a burden; it becomes a gift. We are coming alongside the whole of the human experience and remembering. We are stirring our collective imagination through story.
I don’t want to skim over the Pharaohs, Marco Polo, the Cherokee, Japan’s shoguns, feudalism, Mohammed – you can’t even start a list like this because it’s nearly impossible to finish.
It’s all worth telling.