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What Public Historians Can Learn from Fourth Graders

by Nick Sacco, Park Guide, National Park Service, Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site on

Ranger Nick Sacco with a group of Fourth Graders at Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site. All photo credits go to the National Park Service/Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site.

As a former classroom teacher and a current front-line interpreter with the National Park Service, I’ve had the privilege of interacting with and educating literally tens of thousands of k-12 students. I didn’t anticipate this turn of events when I first dreamed of being an educator. Early in my training I decided that I wanted to work with high school students and thought that teaching younger students would be nothing but a major headache. As I transitioned into the public history field, however, I learned that my past prejudices would have to be thrown out the door. I felt nervous and useless when 120 fourth graders stared at me as I began a tour of the Indiana State House for the first time four years ago.

Since that time I have come to cherish the experiences and relationships I’ve forged with younger students as a public historian. I like working with all age groups now, but my favorite group might be fourth graders. They have taught me valuable lessons about teaching, learning, and the process of interpreting history that I would not have learned had I stayed in the classroom. What follows are three lessons I’ve learned from working with fourth graders in a public history setting.

 

Seek to learn about the context in which a historical event took place and then explain that context in a clear, concise fashion.

Fourth graders are in a unique developmental phase of their lives. They start seeing glimpses of the “big picture” beyond their own personal experiences and are eager for explanations as to why things operate the way they do. I will never forget when a student watched a film about the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement and asked me why “Jim Crow became so big” (her words) and why it took 100 years for the country to address questions about racial discrimination and voter disenfranchisement. Such a question may not be easily answerable, but it reminds us that history is not merely a series of dates, dead people, and dust, but a struggle to understand causes, context, and consequences in historical events. Fourth graders understand that.

Contrary to what some educators may think about young students struggling to handle difficult historical topics, I have been continually impressed with the interest and willingness of elementary students of all backgrounds to discuss shortcomings in America’s past. Students at a young age learn about the D.A.R.E. program and sex education in school. Generally speaking they can handle the tough stuff of history, provided that programs are done with sensitivity, care, and numerous opportunities for students to share their own feelings and perspectives. Explaining U.S. history to fourth graders can be difficult, but it challenges historians to devise strategies for teaching this content in ways that are clear, concise, and contextual. If a fourth grader can understand what you’re saying, you can assume most of the public will understand you too.

Always be prepared to answer the “why” questions

As history professionals, we don’t need to be told why history is important; we love studying the past and our livelihoods depend on it. But the “why” questions are not always so evident to the many publics that we work with on a daily basis. Fourth graders are really good at challenging history educators to explain the relevance of a given topic and clarify confusing aspects of the past. In recent programs I have been asked questions like “Why did slavery exist in the United States?” “Why do Ku Klux Klan members wear hoods over their head?” and “Why does the National Park Service have sites dedicated to history?” The depth and breadth of these questions are rarely exceeded by the ones adult visitors ask me on a regular basis.

These questions highlight the intelligence and perceptiveness of fourth graders. Simple explanations like “that’s the way it was!” are simply not good enough for them, and they will keep peppering you with questions until it makes sense to them.

 

Fourth Graders in the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site Museum

Always maintain a sense of curiosity about the world.

Perhaps the most impressive trait of fourth graders is their natural curiosity about the ways of the world. They are always anxious to ask questions, answer questions, look at historic artifacts, participate in group activities, and learn something new. They also have a desire to create and use their imagination during the learning process. This curiosity is infectious and motivates me in my own intellectual inquiries. What would the world look like if we adults maintained the intellectual curiosity of a fourth grader the rest of our lives?

Evaluating the success or failure of a particular education program at a public history site is difficult partly because the tangible results of a student’s visit may take years to develop. The relevance of a fourth grader’s visit to a historic site may not come to light until that student takes an interest in studying history while in high school or college, for example. Most of us in the public history field, however, are here because we had a positive experience at such a site when we were younger. It was within the welcoming environment of these sites where we were first encouraged to embrace our passion for learning and our inner curiosity in the fascinating stories of the past. Scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson often recalls how a visit to a local planetarium at age 9 inspired him to study science, and I have heard countless historians recall how a visit to a historic home, museum, or battlefield sparked their interest in history.

Public historians should always work to encourage a sense of curiosity in their educational programs, especially when young people participate. Your presence in a student’s life might inspire them to be the next Ken Burns, Henry Louis Gates, Jill Lepore, or, just as importantly, the person who will fill your shoes someday.

Nick Sacco is a public historian who works as a Park Guide with the National Park Service at Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site. He holds a master’s degree in history with a concentration in public history from IUPUI. Nick has previously worked for the Indiana State House, the National Council on Public History, the Missouri History Museum Library and Research Center, and as a paraprofessional. He also blogs about history at his personal website, “Exploring the Past.”

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