We’ve all heard the idiomatic phrase, “History is written by the victors.” In fact, Napoleon once said, “What is history but a fable agreed upon?” We’ve been reading about Napoleon in our world history studies, and believe me, he knew a few things about winning.
But what does this really mean? Does it mean you can’t trust your history books? Possibly.
Before you rifle through your collection of history texts (there are good ones out there, many of them for the homeschooling community) consider approaching history from eye-witness accounts. Use your favorite history text as an outline or guide, not as a primary or sole resource. For instance — read autobiographies and diaries. All prominent historical figures have written autobiographies. They love to talk about themselves. From George Washington to Benjamin Franklin to Ulysses S. Grant to Julius Caesar, there is no shortage of personal points of view to choose from.
Here are just a few real life examples. We have used all of these this year in our own history studies.
- Newspaper reports from the Great Fire of London (1666)
- The Star-Spangled Banner Project from the Smithsonian Institution contains a lesson called Historians are Detectives that gives detailed instructions for teachers and students on using primary sources to understand the past. We used these resources when studying the War of 1812. My favorite is the letter from the daughter of the woman who was commissioned to sew the flag that flew over Fort McHenry at Baltimore Harbor — the flag that Francis Scott Key would memorialize in the Star-Spangled Banner. There are lessons available for grades 3-5 and grades 6-8.
- In preparation to learn about The Alamo, we are reading King of the Wild Frontier: An Autobiography by Davy Crockett. There are a few versions of his autobiography – this one is about 120 pages long and is appropriate for strong readers ages 9 and up.
Don’t forget to read all sides of the story. If you read Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, then you must investigate Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government by Jefferson Davis, as well as Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington. Students will be ready for these types of volumes at different times. For instance, my 12 year old will soon begin Up From Slavery after reading Davy Crockett’s autobiography.
Of course, primary sources are not limited to documents and autobiographies. Think outside the book! Homeschoolers are great about getting out on the road and exploring. If you are interested in a particular topic in history, try to make a visual connection with something in your town or state. Start with the local interest area in your library or book store. It could be something as simple as the oldest house in town, a battlefield, or an old church.
We have also used other forms of literature to enhance our historical studies, such as an abridged reader’s theater version of Macbeth when studying the Renaissance.
When considering how to approach the study of history, it is acceptable to keep it informal. Slogging though lesson plans and a text is generally boring for everyone. Pick a time frame and a country and then consider who was there and if they had anything to say. This also opens up opportunities to discuss how the past relates to the present. History repeats itself. What kind of world could we have if children understood the past and used critical thinking to draw conclusions about actions creating consequences? I happen to think it would be a better place.