Sunday, June 1, 2008

Little House on the Hudson?

More from the teaching history front: in a focus group this week, several teachers said they used Little House on the Prairie as a way of teaching about the history of New York State. It's been a long time since I've read any of the Little House books, and my daughter, now 19, never had any interest in them, but teachers seem to find them meaningful and useful. Interestingly, they use this to teach what they call "colonial" or "Early American" history, despite the fact that the books, written in the 1930s by Laura Ingalls Wilder, depict, through fiction, the Midwest in the late 19th century. I wonder whether the use of these books really reflects the teachers (mostly female) own childhood affection for these books, rather than any sort of real assessment of their usefulness in a classroom setting. I know for me, a small part of my mental images about the Revolutionary War were shaped by reading Johnny Tremaine by Esther Hudson. I had to go back and look up some descriptions of the book to recall the details, but I remember his apprenticeship as a silversmith, the sense of being involved in events larger than one's own life, and a sort of pluckiness and determination. Funny I don't remember Laura from Little House in the same way.

The same group of teachers mentioned that, on the museum visit, they wanted more activities that were appealing to boys in their group. I think of Little House as very much a girl's book--even Farmer Boy, also by Wilder, is more boy-centered, as it's based on Wilder's husband's growing up in New York's North Country.

What does this mean? is it the detail in the books that is appealing? the idea that many of the activities discussed are translatable to classroom activities? should we, as museum people care that teachers use these books to teach history? are there books relating to New York State's history that would make a good read before visiting certain NYS museums? Why cannot we shape real historic sources and narratives into forms that can engage students?


Anonymous said...


I love the idea of using historical fiction to encourage children to learn about history. When I read Little House on the Prairie, I see the big idea not being Colonial America or New York State History in the Early 1800s (which it isn't) - but I also don't see it as Midwest History of the late 19th Century (which it is). The big idea to me (and what I would hope to pass on to elementary students) is that a "long time ago" things were different and these are some of the ways. That's a good lesson right there - and enough for an engaging starting point. When I watched the Reader’s Theater experience from Cherry Hill at the MANY conference, I know that the writers took great care to make sure that dates and objects were carefully correct. The goal for students, though, I don’t think was to remember those details – but the “big idea.” Change happens, and it’s not always as we can imagine it.
I think the school scene in general is so caught up in "content" and "covering" certain topics that they miss these big ideas. Those to me, presented in engaging ways - like Little House on the Prairie or Johnny Tremain (or a Museum visit) can prompt the more down and dirty kind of history that we "Museum people" are so eager to share.
In our back rooms and archives we have lots of enticing stuff. We have clothing, letters, drawings and maps. It's our job to bring these to teachers and students.
Perhaps a good study would be to find out why these fiction books are so attractive to teachers. Is it because they are accessible, popular, easy and familiar? Is it because there is so much available in inexpensive formats to go along with them? What do teachers love about these books? Why do they do the things they do? How can Museums offer this same kind of experience while sharing their collections and specific knowledge, while always keeping in mind that the occasional visitor is only looking for the big idea – not the details?

Linda Norris said...

Lauren's comments encapsulate the dilemma for many a historic site (perhaps even more than for museums). We want visitors to have an immersive, meaningful experience, but at the same time, we want it to be right! Whatever that right might be defined to be. Many teachers may not have the time or resources to dig deeper than the immediately available books--but we should ensure that the "enticing stuff" Lauren mentions--the stuff that's the real deal--is presented to our visitors, young and old, in ways that engage the imagination in the same ways that historical fiction does.

Anonymous said...

Do not overlook that elementary teacher trainning now links Social Studies with English Language Arts. Elementary school teachers are taught in college to look for fiction to teach history.--Mary Ann Colopy

Anonymous said...

Johnny Tremain was the first book that aroused my interest in history. Right after reading it (in 5th grade)we had to write a paper about one of the founding fathers.

I was beside myself with excitement because I felt like an investigator finding out more about that long ago world. Reading the book and then doing my own research allowed my imagination to run wild!