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Not a page from your father’s history book…

December 1, 2009

In preparation for Thanksgiving, I consulted my father’s 1945 American History book looking for a hilariously out-moded take on Pilgrims and the red savages who brought them turkey.  Unfortunately, I found only bland little USA Today-type event summaries, none of which were the  least bit amusing.  Simply boring.

Poor old history with this terrible, terrible reputation for being dull.  Yawn-inducing even.  Shame on those history teachers who essentially taught a timeline and never clad the skeleton in thrilling flesh and blood.  (I once had a history teacher who bored even himself, and gave his rote lecture while stooped over a putter or looking longingly at the golf course outside our big plate glass classroom windows…)

This fall, when I attended my middle school son’s back-to-school night his history teacher immediately addressed history’s bad rep (wisely understanding, I suspect, there were parents in the room having dreadful flashbacks).  I misplaced the copious notes I took with his exact words, but I was impressed with the almost Sherlock Holmesian approach of research and deduction that was explained.  My son is learning all sorts of impressive techniques that will enhance his understanding of the stories of nations and peoples of the past — and the present.  Stuff I wished I’d learned when I was his age.

Of course, where I really want to be is with my other son, in elementary school. 

What fun!

That’s where I spent this afternoon, crawling around on the floor in my paint pants, helping them get ready to study Colonial America.  Talk about flesh and blood — they actually become their own living history experience.  Today we made murals for their presentation and next week invited guests will watch them as they learn — and as they teach us history.

Of course, I’m probably a terrible dweeb as a volunteer.  I tried to make the measuring part about math and posed arithmetic questions.  Then I got worried we were taking too long laying out our sketch, while others seemed to have already started mucking about with paints.  But how I wished that I’d brought a couple of my books with me!  (Dweeb alert!)  We talked about the details of the picture and I reminded them of what they’d probably seen on the recent field trips they’ve made to area historic sites.

 I wanted to show them redware.  I wanted to show them Colonial portraits — especially of children —  and point out the details:  the clothes and toys, the animals, the windows and what you might see through them.  I wanted them to think about a life without electricity —  how candles and lamps were the only way to pierce the darkness once the sun went down.  (My son still talks about when the power went out and we used only candles; how tentative light  is when it is a candle flame in a drafty house going up a staircase.  If it goes out….)

Our mural came alive with details.  The artists called for a shelf, and a pot on it.  We talked about what it might be used for.  What should hang on the wall?  (It probably would have been a mirror.)  The young man suggested a painting of a boat.   (With Thanksgiving just past, I suppose it makes sense our artist chose the Pilgrim’s Mayflower, rather than the Welcome, the name of the ship William Penn sailed on.)  There’s a cat gazing out the window, a redcoat walking along a trail, a bird flying to the tree, a dog chasing a squirrel, a cow grazing, and a barn — a big red one.

I was amused by how many red barns worked their way into the murals.  According to third graders, most views ought to have a red barn!  This was interesting because, having looked at their field trip photos, I suspect they saw mostly weathered grey or stone barns.  (Ah, Margaret Wise Brown, your Big Red Barn is iconic!)

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