Getting Young People Excited about History
Each week was a new adventure because we had different topics and aspects to cover.... We had tons of fun surfing the Web for information on great historical figures such as Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass.History is not a favorite school subject for many young people. Learning American history has often meant little more than memorizing dates and studying one-dimensional heroes. However, when young people are given the opportunity to get to know what ordinary people were thinking, doing, and saying, they become engrossed and eager to learn more. History, particularly social history, is actually a collection of stories every bit as fascinating as fiction--more so because it's true! In order to become interested in history, youth--and adults--need to see themselves in it. They need to find people and ideas and causes that speak to their interests. As the WGBH Outreach team has worked on this project, we have found that early American history can excite young people and help them make sense of the struggles in their own lives today.
Helen Wong, Africans in America Youth Radio Pilot
One of the reasons many kids are turned off by history is because most of their experience has been reading textbooks and listening to lectures in class. The young people involved in the Africans in America project told us that what was different and exciting about this project is that we shared compelling stories and historical documents with them, and then created activities such as role plays, Web research, historical site visits, and follow-up discussion.
Don't worry if you feel your own breadth of historical knowledge is limited. If you can't answer a question, simply ask the young person with the question to do some research and report back to the group. He or she will love the opportunity to share that new knowledge. Let young people take the lead in their education and they will take on the challenge. For resource ideas, we have included an annotated book list, as well as a selected list of Web sites, and useful organizations.
Before you start your project, you might want to do an inventory of your local resources. Talk to your local librarian about the historical information available at the library. It may house an exciting collection of primary sources. Your librarian can also be a great source of information about other local resources such as private collections, amateur historians, and historic houses and sites. Contact local museums and historic sites to find out what collections and educational resources they have and to learn about local historians and landmarks that might be useful. While the young people in your group can do a lot of this research, the more you know in advance, the better you will be at providing direction and advice.
Focus on Themes
One way to think about history is to focus on themes instead of dates. The following themes resonated strongly with the young people involved in our project, in large part because the themes are still relevant today. You may want to encourage your youth to think about how local stories fit into these themes.
Youth advisors have struggled with the contradiction that was part of our nation's founding: a democracy based on the declaration that all men were "created equal," which denied that freedom to Africans and African Americans.
Leadership and Resistance
The young people we have worked with have been fascinated to learn how individuals such as Frederick Douglass and Maria Stewart became leaders and made a difference. They wanted to examine the dreams these leaders had for America and the steps that they took to create change. They also saw the importance of all acts of resistance to slavery, no matter how small, in maintaining an individual's humanity.
Race and Identity
Many youth advisors commented on how historical ideas of black and white continue to divide people from different cultures today.
The Struggle to Survive
Drawn to the idea that history is created by many different people, our youth advisors also wanted to get a better sense of what it was like to live as a black person in early America.
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