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History lives in real stories

June 07, 2002|by LISA TEDRICK PREJEAN

Don't you just love a good story?

One that captures you from the start, keeps you hanging on and leaves you wanting to know more?

Some of the books we've been reading recently in our home have certainly fit that bill.

My 7-year-old and my 3-year-old will sit still for book after book as long as my voice holds out ... and as long as the stories are well-written.

They are particularly fascinated with historical fiction.

I've noticed that what they hear carries over into their play.

If I read a story about the American Revolution, a few hours later their beanie babies will be fighting off the Redcoats.

After we read "The Courage of Sarah Noble" by Alice Dalgliesh, they couldn't learn enough about Native Americans. (In the book, an 8-year-old girl stays with Indians while her father moves the rest of the family to their new home.)

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It seems like a natural progression for learning: Take one person's story, set it in a time period and let the events unfold. Then, because the reader connected with the person in the story, he or she wants to know more about the time period.

It's like dangling a carrot in front of a student.

After reading "Johnny Tremain" by Esther Forbes, Alan N. Kay was hooked on history.

"My original dream, at least since I was a teenager, was to get people to love history," says Kay, Daughters of the American Revolution Florida Teacher of the Year for 2002.

When he became a teacher, Kay says he was surprised to learn how many people dreaded the subject.

"The problem with American teaching is not what we teach but how we teach it," Kay says. "Our very first exposure is in textbooks with maps, graphs and charts. It's devoid of emotion and not that exciting to read. Kids don't want to learn it."

History should be taught as the story of people, Kay says, but "most kids think it's worksheets and memorization of dates and facts."

Kay's answer to this problem came in the form of "Young Heroes of History," a series of historical fiction books written on the middle school level designed to leave kids with a desire to know more.

The books, "Send 'Em South," "On the Trail of John Brown's Body," and "Off to Fight," are set at the time of the Civil War, says Kay, who teaches at Dunedin High School near Tampa, Fla.

"It is the best time period for looking at stories of individual humanity," Kay says. "We plotted to kill each other. Our homes were taken over to make hospitals. Our cornfields were used as battlefields."

A history textbook should be used as a map or a guide through history but not as the main focus, Kay says.

"Historical novels from the library - that is what will really get them going, will make kids want to open up their textbooks," Kay says.

"You have to do your very best to expose them to history outside of the classroom. It is so important for them to be reading historical fiction."

Kay will be signing copies of his books during "Freedom's Birth: An American Experience," at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park's Independence Day Heritage Celebration Saturday, June 29. The day will include a variety of living history programs, drama and musical presentations and a fireworks finale.

For information on "Freedom's Birth," call 1-304-535-6298 or go to www.nps.gov/hafe on the Web.

For information about Kay and the "Young Heroes of History" series, check out his Web site at www.youngheroesofhistory.com.




Lisa Tedrick Prejean writes a weekly column for The Herald-Mail's Family page. Send e-mail to her at lisap@herald-mail.com.

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