Back to the Past and Into the Future: Teaching History at Home

May 6, 2020 Updated: May 6, 2020

In her online article “Nation’s Report Card: Only 15% of Eighth Graders Know Much About U.S. History,” Susan Berry analyzes the recently released National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) on the subjects of history, geography, and civics. Known as the Nation’s Report Card, these NAEP assessments reveal that between 2014 and 2018 the test scores of eighth graders in history and geography once again declined, and in the case of civics remained stagnant. The vast majority of students failed to reach even proficiency levels in these three subjects.

As Berry reports, U.S. Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos pronounced these results “inexcusable,” stating that “America’s antiquated approach to education is creating a generation of future leaders who will not have a foundational understanding of what makes this country exceptional.”

Depressing, yes? But like so many dark clouds, this one has a silver lining.

Cyber History

With our schools shut down until at least the fall, we parents and grandparents have the opportunity this spring and summer to introduce our young people to times gone by. Our libraries may be closed, but we have at our fingertips the means to time travel into the American past.

If we go to YouTube on our computers and Google “American History,” scores of sites pop up awaiting exploration. The one that caught my eye was “The Story of America,” a Reader’s Digest production suitable for students from late elementary school through high school and beyond. This narrative includes hundreds of film clips, photographs, and paintings, takes a balanced approach, and frequently brings original sources into the story. It was particularly moving to read the “Comments” on this post from today’s immigrants expressing their love for America.

For the younger crew, Google “American History For Kids,” and once again you’ll find dozens of engaging sites. My grandkids really enjoy “Liberty’s Kids,” a series of animated films centered on the American Revolution. “U.S. History For Homeschoolers” features a variety of learning tools about everything from the Pilgrims to the presidents.

For older students, Google “Hillsdale College Lectures,” and you’ll find scores of talks on subjects ranging from the Constitution to the Victor Davis Hanson series on World War II.

Kitchen Table Classroom

Compose a list of topics for the kids. What was the Battle of Okinawa and why was it important? Why did the North have more factories than the South in 1860? Who was Sequoia? What was the significance of the Lewis and Clark expedition? The younger ones can tackle simpler subjects: What happened at the Alamo? Who was Thomas Edison? Clara Barton? Why is Patrick Henry still remembered today?

Lewis_and_clark-expedition
“Lewis and Clark on the Lower Columbia,” 1905, by Charles Marion Russell. Opaque and transparent watercolor over graphite underdrawing on paper. (PD-US)

Have your students make some notes from this research and deliver mini-lectures once or twice a week after supper. By researching, writing, and reporting aloud what they have discovered, that information will stick with them much better than having merely watched a video. Siblings can learn as well from these brief presentations.

You can also use this kitchen table classroom to teach critical thinking. Read aloud, for example, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and then dissect his words. What does “Four score and seven years ago” mean? To what event is Lincoln referring? What is the “great civil war?” For what purpose are he and his audience gathered in this little Pennsylvania town? What does he mean by “government of the people, by the people, for the people?”

Lincoln Gettysburg Address Memorial
“The Lincoln Address Memorial,” designed by Louis Henrick, with bust of Lincoln by Henry Kirke Bush-Brown, erected at the Gettysburg National Cemetery in 1912. (Public Domain)

Popcorn and the Past

Hollywood has made hundreds of movies centered on historical events, many of which can be watched by the whole family.

Here are just a few films for your consideration: the excellent television series “John Adams”; “Gettysburg,” a solid movie based on Michael Shaara’s novel “The Killer Angels”; “The Longest Day,” which gives us the invasion of Normandy without the gore and obscenities of another fine movie, “Saving Private Ryan”; the old Disney classic “Johnny Tremain,” about Boston and the beginnings of the American Revolution; “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” with Jimmy Stewart imparting a lesson in civics; the hardships of the immigrant life in “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”; the Civil War movie “Shenandoah,” with another fine performance by Stewart; the classic “Drums Along the Mohawk,” which tells of frontier life during the Revolution; “Apollo 13,” which might kick off a discussion of the U.S. space program; and “Gone With the Wind,” another classic offering viewers any number of subjects for discussion.

man with hand on book of law
James Stewart in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” (Columbia Pictures/MPTVImages.com)

And these discussions are vital if we are to impart the history behind the movie. If, for example, you and the gang watch “Gettysburg,” read a review or two of the film before turning on the television. Usually these reviews offer insight and background into the historical events depicted in the movie, and this preview will enhance your understanding of what is taking place on the screen. Afterward, again go online, read together some history of this battle, and discuss its significance.

Vacations on the Sofa

The internet offers a glittering array of virtual tours of museums, famous homes, and battlefields. Start with Missy Sullivan’s “10 Virtual History Museums and Experiences to Explore From Home,” which includes visits to such places as the Smithsonian Museum of American History, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Aerial_view_of_National_Museum_of_American_History
Aerial view of the National Museum of American History, located on the National Mall in Washington. (Public Domain)

From there, you can move on to tours of Mount Vernon, Colonial Williamsburg, and a host of other historical sites.

Our Future Depends on Our Past

When we explore the past, we enter into a grand and exciting laboratory of the human heart and mind. After all, what is history if not the story of people and events, courage and ingenuity, wisdom and folly, triumph and disaster? By such expeditions, our children will not only broaden their knowledge of America’s past, but they will also become citizens able to use that past as a ruler to measure the present and as a compass to guide them into the future.

Science fiction writer Robert Heinlein once said, “A generation which ignores history has no past—and no future.”

By giving our young people the past, we are giving them a future.

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C., Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.