Watch, talk and learn

Fourth of July festivities might lead to discussions about history

Fourth of July festivities might lead to discussions about history

July 04, 2005|by HEATHER KEELS

Tonight, the eyes of many area youngsters will be glued to colorful fireworks bursting against the sky, their noses full of the smells of barbecues and their ears sifting the familiar tunes of patriotic songs from between the bangs and pops.

But amid this summer sensory spectacular, educators hope children's minds will find room for images of red coats and three-cornered hats, 13-star flags, flowery signatures on yellowed paper and, above all, the memory that this is not just the Fourth of July, but the American Independence Day.

"I think when children are very young, they identify with fireworks, which I hope leads to a discussion of why we are doing this and the rights of people in our country," said Jill Burkhart, the supervisor of elementary social studies education for Washington County Public Schools.


Because Independence Day falls in the summer, it is harder for teachers to plan lessons around the holiday itself, Burkhart said, but the history of the revolutionary period is woven throughout the county's public school curriculum.

From the first days of pre-kindergarten, children learn to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, Burkhart said. In second grade, a unit on symbols teaches them more about the American flag and introduces Francis Scott Key and Betsy Ross. The American Revolution then is taught in fifth-grade social studies and reading and studied in-depth again in eighth-grade American history.

In fifth grade, the challenge for teachers is to explain the complicated politics behind the revolution and the sophisticated language of the Declaration of Independence in words a 10-year-old student can understand, said Sara Belin, a fifth-grade teacher at Bester Elementary School.

In a five-week reading unit called "Voices of the Revolution," Belin reads her students books such as "We the Kids" by David Catrow, a picture book that illustrates the preamble to the Constitution, and "Declaration" by R. Conrad Stein, which tells stories of the revolution.

By the time students get to eighth grade, almost all know the essentials - that America once was ruled by England and that the country gained its independence in the Revolutionary War - said Jesse Smith, an eighth-grade social studies teacher and curriculum leader at Western Heights Middle School. The simplified patriotic stories leave lots of gaps to fill in, however.

"They don't go too deep with the elementary kids," Smith said. "They know the basics of the Revolutionary War, but I don't think they understand it in detail."

For example, they often don't understand that many colonists were opposed to declaring independence, said Leigh Face, the social studies department leader at Springfield Middle School. Not all colonists were patriots at the beginning of the war, she said. In fact, many either were loyalists or neutral.

Many also assume that the Declaration was signed on July 4, 1776, Face said, but this actually was the day it was adopted by the delegates. Most didn't formally sign it until August, she said.

Another common misconception is that the war was an easy victory for Americans.

"We hail the leaders of the revolutionary movement as heroes who were brave, determined and willing to give their lives for the cause, and indeed this is true," Face said. "Most students don't know, however, that without France's help towards the end of the war, the Americans probably would've been defeated by the British."

To engage students and make the material come alive, Face has her students role-play as patriots or loyalists, competing to win over the neutrals to their point of view, and rewrite portions of the Declaration of Independence in modern language.

Similarly, Smith has his eighth-graders write their own declarations from the point of view of an African-American, a woman or a person who did not own land, leading to a discussion of the difference between freedom for the country and freedom for each individual group.

Despite the teachers' efforts to make history interactive, however, it often is discussions and lessons outside of the context of homework and tests that are most engaging for children, said Kevin O'Donnell, who created the educational cartoon "Liberty's Kids" after observing his daughter's boredom with her fifth-grade history homework.

The show, which first aired on PBS in 2002, follows the path of the American Revolution through the eyes of a patriotic American teenager, a young English lady and a French boy, all of whom are working as reporters for Benjamin Franklin.

"When kids are watching a cartoon show, they go into that reality and they live it," O'Donnell said.

"It's not that we're trying to create rabid patriots," he said. "We're trying to create kids that have a greater understanding and love of where they come from."

In that aim, he's not alone.

"We couldn't begin to thank these people enough," Smith said. "They set the tone for patriotism, they all put their necks on the line and I think it's important for the kids to know that."

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