Wednesday, April 30, 2008
a curriculum follows a question
We were in LA for a week or so earlier this spring, and the kids and I spent a few days exploring. We went to the library (right across from our hotel), we walked around the neighborhood (no grocery stores or laundromats), and we took the Metro. A lot. One of the places we took the Metro to was Chinatown. Here's me in my two dollar hat, purchased to shield my eyes from the Southern California sun. Funny, but I'm not using it around here nearly as much.
This was a trip we'd been planning since we first started homeschooling back in October. When I explained to the boys that we'd be able to do more field trips, and that we'd have more time for family trips that would be our field trips, the first place they wanted to go was China. I explained that we couldn't actually afford to go to China, but maybe we could go to Chinatown. I was thinking NYC at the time, but there we were in LA with a Chinatown visible from the train, so off we went.
But I digress. Back to the Metro. We were going everywhere by Metro, because we didn't have a car, and there was nothing useful (like food) in our neighborhood. So the kids learned to read a subway map, and learned to recognize our stop, and so on. They also learned how to use the automated ticket machines. Or rather, they learned to watch me try to get the automated ticket machines take our debit card, and then give up and give it our precious cash.
When the machines gave change, they gave it in dollar coins. These coins engendered a lot of interest, not being the usual increment of money that is metal and round. One of the dollar coins was a Sacagawea dollar.
"Hey Mama, who's Sacagawea?" I don't even remember who asked.
"Oh, she's this Indian lady who traveled around with Lewis and Clark when they were making those maps," I said. We'd already learned a little bit about Lewis and Clark when Big started making maps of the neighborhood, so they had some context. "When we get back home, we'll get some books out of the library and find out more about her."
The miracle is that I actually remembered to do just that. We found lots of great picture books about Sacagawea, about York, and about the expedition in general. We also poked around in the adult section, and came home with a copy of the journal kept by Lewis and Clark, and a DK book of recent photos taken along the route.
The picture books are ostensibly for Little, but I've noticed that Big has a sort of magical radar that goes off when someone is reading out loud, and he often shows up to listen. Some of the picture books are very closely based on the diaries kept by Lewis and Clark, and follow them even down to the dates. This gives us a great opportunity to think about the modern-day interpretation of historical fact. For example, there's the apocryphal story about Sacagawea saving the entire expedition by fishing many essential items out of the water after the boat swamped. We looked in the diary, and found that, at least from the perspective of Merriweather Lewis, this was not such a big deal. The event was recorded, but he doesn't seem to think her efforts that day were essential to the overall success of the journey. Interesting. So I can ask questions like, "Why do you think the modern-day writers of Sacagawea's story might want to exaggerate this event?"
The books about York are similarly enlightening. As Lewis's personal slave, York was the only member of the expedition who wasn't paid for his work. Some of the books have great historical information about slavery in general. For instance, one book describes the marriage customs among slaves. They didn't include any vows about 'til death do us part' because everyone knew couples and families could be parted at any time by their masters who could sell them.
So we get a chance to talk about some of the not-so-pretty aspects of Western Expansion, just by reading stories. Over and over, Lewis and Clark write of their sense that they are the first civilized people to set foot in these lands, even as they encounter people who are settled and civilized, with laws and customs and art work and complex cuisines: all the markers of civilization.
This is good stuff, and it's all on my agenda as an educator. I want them to question the motives of people who write books for children. I want them to consult primary sources for history, and to look deeply at the intellectual and cultural context of those sources. I want them to understand that slavery was an abomination, that it was perpetrated on people as fully human as we are, and that its effects echo through our lives even now. Of course, it answers some of what New York State wants me to be doing with my kids too. I needed some kind of American History topic this year, and we are finding this one to be particularly rich, both in terms of available materials and issues raised.
Much of this was a surprise to me, however. I am not an historian of any stripe, and I know very little about the Lewis and Clark expedition. When the original question was asked, I answered it not from a wealth of knowledge, but by accessing a factoid I'd memorized, probably in a Social Studies classroom, some year long in the past. I wasn't even completely confident that I was answering it correctly.
The point is that I don't have to know all this stuff; I just have to be ready to jump on it when the question comes along. It's impossible to predict which questions will become curriculum, but over time I think I've developed a sense of which questions to just answer, and which ones should send us running off the library.