Snapshots in History: Utilizing Primary Source Materials in Education
If you look up the words history and story in an etymological dictionary, you will find an interesting bit of trivia. Not only are the words related, they are the same word. They were not differentiatd until the 1500s. History is a story, or narrative, of events. It boasts characters as rich and intereting as anyone in fiction, settings to inspire and to revile, themes and plots which drive the story forward and a series of attempted solutions which but carry us from one chapter to the next. As Christians, we view history as God's story of redemption. It is His story, and it is our story.

Unfortunately, many history programs treat the subject as a listing of key events, places and people. Names and dates are memorized and themes are rarely developed. Some of the better history programs place these things in context, highlighting ideas, principles and themes which reoccur across the ages. As 19th centruy historian and philosopher Thomas Carlyle commented, "The history of the world is but the biographies of great men." A program with this or a similar approach can be quite inspiring.

Still, even this method falls short of providing children with a true mastery of the subject. History is God's story of the nations, told through events in the lives of men. It is also a method of reasoning. Just as scientists use the scientific method to explore the natural world, historians use a variety of methods to interpret the events of the past to tell the story of the world. To practice this, children must be given the opportunity to analyze primary source documentation to reason for themselves what it was like to live in any particular age and what guiding principles historical figures lived by.

Before you imagine losing your child's interest amongst a stack of dusty books at the university library, consider this sample lesson, A Snapshot of Victorian History. The photograph above was taken in 1887. Consider it with your child. Talk about it, ask questions and encourage him to ask questions. How are they dressed? How is their clothing different from today? Do you think they are wealthy? Why is there a cricket bat in the picture? How is the clothing differnt from today? Do you think all the children are from the same family? A photograph is like a brief glimpse into someone's past and it can give us some clues about the time period. Alone, however, few conclusions can be drawn.

Take a look at this census return, taken in 1891. You will need to click on it for a larger image. Again, ask questions to find out as much about the family as possible. Together with the photograph, what can we know about this family? Were any of the questions answered? Look at the census return and figure out how old the children would have been in 1887. Match names to the individuals in the photograph.

In this brief lesson, you will have set your child up to approach history as a method of inquiry. As you add details, an enaging picture of Victorian life will emerge. Other documents to consider looking at are songs, poems, minutes to a meeting, court documents, a sermon, journals, letters and laws from the period. Rather than presenting the story, ask questions and present your child with documents to explore. Through your child's inquiry, the story of history will begin to unfold.

If you enjoyed this sample lesson, this and more can be found by exploring the Learning Curves website. Thousands of primary source documents from modern history can be found at the Internet Modern History Sourcebook.

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