I taught early American History today to my 11-14 year olds as part of our (North and South) America project and it was a hoot. The kids have been working in groups and researching a whole variety of topics for a few weeks now, so I hoped to be able to bring in what they had learned so far, making the whole lesson more of an exchange than a lecture. I started by writing “1492″ down and asking who could tell me what it meant. The Christopher Columbus group piped up and we were off. As soon as the word ”discover” was used, the Aztec/Inca/Maya group protested and said that the Columbus group was wrong. A discussion followed about all the people who were living on the continent before Columbus, and that is when the North American Native group joined in. I interrupted to ask what happened to all these natives after Columbus showed up and then got to hear about small pox and guns and reservations.
Wait, we were getting ahead of ourselves here. Reservations were a long way off what happened between Columbus and the reservations? There was a lull in the discussion. Someone in the Slave Trade group then said “Didn’t a lot of people start sailing over and bringing slaves with them?” After cleaning up the chronology a bit, we talked about all the plants future sailors found and brought back to Europe. It came as quite a surprise to them that their local delicacy, pumpkin seed oil, is actually American food. Then we went on to the Tobacco-Rum- Slave triangle of trade.
But there was another big thing in between that we had missed. I wrote down “1620” and asked what that meant.
“Oh, I know that!” said Lea from the Settlement/Migration group. “It was the May . . . , the May . . ., the Maysomething carrying the Pilgrimagers.”
”Close!” I said and pretty soon, other kids came up with Mayflower and Pilgrims. We talked about who they were (and I didn’t use the term ”obnoxious religious fanatics” however much I would have liked to.) At this point I whipped out my own genealogy and pointed out the line leading directly from my mother all the way back to the Pilgrims. “See this guy? He was on the Mayflower. And he is my great great great great great great great great great great great grandfather.” The kids who had been drifting off were back. Once we covered why the Pilgrims came, what they wanted and what bad packers they were, the Native American group chimed in again and said that the Indians helped them survive. We talked about how many of the Pilgrims died in that first winter anyway.
This is when little Tommy asked if my relative on the Mayflower died. Lea pointed out how dumb that question was because if he had died, I would be dead too. All hell broke loose as the kids argued about the logic of that conclusion.
Then I wrote down “1776” and asked if any one knew why that year was important. This part was a bit rough, because most of the kids weren’t all that familiar with the terms colony, country, government, monarchy, democracy, independence. Little Tommy, in particular, was getting rambunctious and sassy. I took out my souvenir replica of the Declaration of Independence and was trying to explain it to the kids. Tommy grabbed it from me, felt the parchment and said,
“Why did they write on baking paper?”
”And not only baking paper,” added Niles, ”used baking paper - its all brown!” Another lively discussion erupted about paper in the 18th Century. It seemed like every kid in the group took his/her turn feeling and examining the parchment.
I was losing them again. How could I make them understand what the Declaration was? In front of me on the floor was a map of the United States. I asked them to point out to me how much of continent had white people on it and we identified the first 13 colonies. I then looked around the classroom and judged where and what England would be, relatively speaking. Destiny smiled on me.
“So look here. These are the colonies. And by now a lot of the people living there were born there. And they had an idea of how big the continent was.” I swept my hand over the rest of the map. “And over there,” I said, pointing at Tommy, ”was England. About the size of Tommy’s nose. No, not even his nose, his nostril. And the Americans thought, why should this huge continent be ruled by Tommy’s nostril? Inside that nostril somewhere, was King George III. Let’s write him a letter and tell him we will make our own decisions from now on, Thank you.”
Tommy, and all the rest of them, were back on board.
”So, Tommy, you get this letter. What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to chop all their heads off.”
”You are going to do that yourself?”
“No, I’ll send other people.”
And we were off to the Revolutionary War. By then, I knew I only had about 5 more minutes of attention span time for my replicas of the Constitution and Bill of Rights. I spent three of them on the concepts of democracy and self-rule and the last two on rights. ”What rights do we have?” I asked. One of the older kids came up with freedom of speech quickly, but there was only cluelessness after that. So I prompted, “What do people do on Sundays?”
“I go swimming at the hot springs,” said Tommy.
The older kids – who all realized that I was trying to get at freedom of religion – pretty much lost it and I could tell the lesson was over for today.
They had some free learning time after that. Two of the girls came to me and asked if they could hang up the three document replicas on the wall of their classroom. A few others suggested we write something like a Constitution or Bill of Rights for our school. They asked if we could write it on baking paper and then put it in the oven until it gets brown.