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Young Readers—Teacher's Guide

Young Readers Teacher's Guide—Printable Version

The following three essays are included in the Young Reader's Teacher's Guide. They discuss topics of special interest to parents of grammar school age children who are using the Heritage Classical Curriculum..

    How Children Learn     How Children Differ     What Parents can Do

How Children Learn History

This section discusses the process by which children actually absorb historical information and explains how the selection and organization of books in the Young Readers Library is designed to make learning history easy and enjoyable. It is true that attentive students can learn history from textbooks rather than living books—most do in fact. Bright students are likely to pick up information from many sources and are often willing to learn whatever lessons are required in order to earn a good grade.

But when history is presented as a collection of facts and abstract issues there is a tendency for students to see history itself as a checklist of dull information and cliches—important to learn for the purpose of passing a test, but afterward disregarded. Many capable students see no purpose in continuing to study history after passing their AP History courses, because they never developed any real interest in the subject.

The goal of the Heritage Curriculum is not to spoon feed historical facts into a student as efficiently as possible; it is to foster interest in history and to encourage discovery based on curiosity rather than to-do lists. This is important to keep in mind when reading the following guidelines. They are intended to help parents understand how the living books approach is best suited to generating history lovers, rather than students who merely absorb a superficial knowledge of the past for the purpose of passing tests.

Story Based History

When children get tested for their retention of historical knowledge they typically get tested on their retention of facts. Horatio Nelson was killed at the Battle of Trafalgar; Hernando Cortez conquered Mexico, Miles Standish arrived in the Mayflower, etc. But behind each one of these associations is a terrific and highly memorable story—sometimes a whole collection of stories.

The problem with highly condensed history—that is, the style of history that textbooks are typically written in—is that they tend to diminish stories to make room for facts and analysis. But the idea that students need to absorb facts rather than stories is a distortion of the truth. Memorizing facts may help a student become a winning contestant on jeopardy, but it is unlikely to provide him with useful insights into human nature and the behavior of complex civilizations. It is stories from history that portray personalities and events in their full complexity that provide the most valuable insight and instruction into the real problems of human society.

The point here is not to diminish facts in favor of mere propaganda. The modern trend of abandoning facts in favor of political posturing has done great mischief, but encouraging students to learn the whole stories of history rather than basic facts is not the same as distorting historical events for the purpose of social engineering. Conservatives tend to emphasize facts over concepts, and progressives tend to prefer concepts over facts, but at Heritage History, we believe the whole controversy is misguided. Almost all textbooks, whether they emphasize facts or social studies, condense the stories of history into mere sketches. Story-based history simply cannot be confined to a textbook—a whole library is required.

When textbooks omit the stories of history, either to present facts in the most succinct possible fashion or to provide interpretations and analysis, they neglect the vehicle for the greatest gift that history can give. It doesn’t really matter, in the grand scheme of things, that the Spanish conquistador who conquered Mexico was named Cortez rather than Velazquez. But it matters a great deal who Cortez was, what he was like, and how he overpowered an advanced, powerful, and militant civilization of millions with a rag-tag army of undaunted Spaniards. The devil is in the details one might say—but certainly all the interest is in the details. The full story of the conquest of Mexico is fascinating on many levels—some of which are too advanced for youngsters. But simplified children’s versions that preserve much of the drama of the original are available and are far more worthwhile to read than a highly condensed summary.

That is why virtually all of the books in the Heritage Library—from those written for the youngest children to those directed toward college prep high-schoolers—are story based, rather than textbook style. We think it is more important for students to learn at least some of the stories behind the major events of history than it is for them to memorize data that has no substance behind it. That is, we believe there is more value in learning the full story behind Hernando Cortez, Horatio Nelson, or Miles Standish than there is in memorizing the basic achievements of a dozen other conquistadors, naval heroes, or pioneers.

Obviously, stories written for the youngest of children must be simplified so that they omit a great deal of the most interesting aspects of history. The point is not that grammar school students need to read Plutarch’s Lives, or Diaz’s Conquest of New Spain. Historical accounts written for children often focus only on a few incidents or personal anecdotes rather than trying to tell the whole story. But from the very beginning, children should see history as drama rather than data. History is a panorama, not a point.

Historical Categories

When children are exposed to new information, they usually only retain it if there is some category already in their mind for the new information to fit into. In other words, they need to know what kind of information it is in order to "store" it effectively. Once a child is aware of a country called France, for example, with its capital at Paris, and its Eiffel Tower, he will be able to digest more information about France if it is presented as a historical anecdote and his view of France will be gradually enhanced. If he is unaware of the significance of the Holy Roman, Austrian, and Prussia empires, he may have a much harder time piecing together incidents of German history into a coherent narrative. Since Germany lacks the unity and longevity of European states such as England, France and Spain, its history is more difficult for youngsters to comprehend.

The formation of categories in which to organize data occurs spontaneously, but it is a process that can be helped along with particular study aids. At Heritage History we help the process along by the use of maps and timelines, but also by the use of explicit historical divisions. All of the Heritage History Study Guides, including Young Readers, divide the subject into pre-defined historical eras. Historical summaries, timelines and character lists are identified for each division. These divisions help reinforce the idea of thematic categories for history so that students are conscious of how what they are learning fits into the "big picture."

The Historical divisions for Young Readers are extremely broad—and this is appropriate for students who are just becoming familiar with world history. The four major categories we emphasize in the Young Reader collection are American, European, and Ancient History, and Bible/Saint Stories. In each section we provide a brief outline for ways in which these broad categories can be subdivided, but it is not necessary to provide a complicated framework for novice students. As students read more books in each section, the division of broad historical categories into more specialized topics will evolve naturally.

In the civilization-specific Curriculums which follow the Young Readers collection, much more attention is given to the idea of historical divisions. The major portion of the Study Guides for Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, British Middle Ages, and British Empire curriculums are all organized by historical era. The divisions in these curriculums are intended to be used by middle school and high school students for reference and review. Younger students, can of course, refer to them also but they should not be expected to comprehend or be familiar with all the information therein.

A broad overview of the Heritage Classical Curriculum is given in the Curriculum Users Guide, and the uses of historical divisions for review are discussed in more detail.

Just Enough Information

Even when a student has his historical categories squared away, the amount of new material he will be able to absorb may be limited and he will learn best if the rate at which he is exposed to new information is slow and steady rather than overwhelming. One of the biggest problems with history textbooks is they are designed to pack facts into a small space and are therefore very dense. The amount of information a particular student can absorb at a given age is not increased by throwing more at him than he can handle. This is why settling on a pace that is comfortable and enjoyable to an individual child is so important. Students do not enjoy reading books that are tedious or "over their head." When too much information is presented in a short space, students who are unable to absorb and categorize material are unlikely to enjoy the subject.

Most learning aids are organized around the belief that helping students organize the facts presented to them will help them learn more efficiently, but even learning aids such as maps and timelines can only do so much. Each child’s brain develops at a different pace and no learning aids or curriculum will force a student to absorb and retain more information than he is ready to process. Just as some students learn to read well in first grade and others learn in fourth grade, the age at which student can synthesize historical information varies. When students are taught history on a strict grade-level basis, some will absorb nearly everything and some will retain almost nothing. Only when their curriculum is customized to take into account individual abilities, can children learn at maximum efficiency. In some subjects it is very difficult to accommodate individual learning styles, but in a reading-based subject like history, it is relatively easy.

The good news is that most students are naturally drawn to books that are "just right" for their level of sophistication. The necessity of giving students a broad selection of worthwhile material underlies the whole Heritage History approach. It is essential for students to read books that genuinely interest and engage them. Presenting material that is too challenging or unappealing to a particular student is not only useless, it can be counter-productive. There are so many excellent books written for students of all abilities that every child should have a wide selection of appropriate material.

Historical Genres

Many of the books in the Young Readers library are anthologies rather than comprehensive histories. That is, they are collections of stories with no explicit relationship to each other. For example, in the book Stories from French History, historical tales are presented in chronological order but the author does not make any attempt to "connect the dots". However, the stories do introduce many of the most important characters and events of France so that when students revisit European history at a later time they will have some guiding lights. Several of the books in the Young Readers collection include anecdotes from history that illustrate human virtues and vices and so are useful for moral as well as historical instruction.

Other common genres include biographies, legends, adapted literature, Bible stories and historical fiction. In each case we have selected versions that were written specifically for grammar school students and have been skillfully simplified for a young audience. Virtually all of the books in the Young Readers collection cover topics that should be revisited at a more detailed level with when students are older, but in the meantime provide a good introduction to famous characters and events.

The legends and adapted literature included in the Young Readers collection are based on classical literature of great historical significance. Certain famous works of literature, such as the Iliad, Pilgrim’s Progress, and Don Quixote were so widely read by previous generations that they are staples of the Western Canon. Such works are historically significant and an important part of cultural literacy, an idea promoted by the well-known "What Your Nth grader needs to Know" series. Heritage History takes a more individualized approach to learning, but shares many of the general goals as the author of this series.

The Young Readers library also includes several exceptionally good historical fiction series that are intended to help younger students ease the transition from chapter books to historical topics. Each work of fiction in the collection features a character growing up in a historically significant period. All are told from a child’s viewpoint and discuss customs and occurrences that would be of particular interest to youngsters, rather than emphasizing the most historically significant events. This is because the purpose of most of these books is to familiarize younger students with a historical setting rather than to impart historical facts. By helping students to develop pictures in their mind of various time periods, they lay the groundwork for more detailed histories to come.

The individual biographies in the Young Readers collection were selected because their subject was a man or woman "of action" whose life story would be of considerable interest to younger students. They are fast-moving rather than contemplative, and emphasize adventure and daring-do in order to appeal to younger students. The biographies are among the more challenging of the books in the Young Readers collection, and are likely to be of great interest to older students as well.

Historical Criticism

The modern method of history instruction involves pointing out associations, themes and lessons of history to students even in grammar school. There is a strong desire among many educators that students learn, not only "what" happened, but "why" it happened. For this reason modern textbooks frequently devote as much time to explanations of events as to the events themselves. This is a trend with which we disagree, and the authors of books in the Young Readers collection spend little time explaining "root causes" or "social factors" that influenced historical events. Reasons why we believe that teaching analytical history to younger students is not appropriate are given as follows:

First, interpretations of historical events are invariably world view dependent, whereas simple stories from history are much less so. We strongly believe that students do best when they are taught an explicit world view rather than learning to infer one from second-hand interpretations. History is a fascinating subject to analyze in light of a given world view. It is a very clumsy tool to use to impart one.

Secondly, most grammar school children are concrete thinkers and are bound to misunderstand complicated political, social, and human factors that are thrust on them at too early of an age. Political philosophy is no more appropriate to teach to elementary school students than calculus. The "grammar" stage is perfect for learning facts and stories, and time spent on "rhetorical" arguments is largely wasted. Stages of learning cannot and should not be rushed.

Third, young students are inherently naďve about politics and naturally gullible. A mature view of history will require them to be skeptical of one-sided explanations and wary of political posturing, but this wisdom can only develop gradually over time as students mature and learn to balance trust and distrust in their community and institutions. Forcing the issue too early will produce apparatchiks and cynics, but not thoughtful or reflective young people.

Modern educators are likely to object to any contention that older histories are "less biased" than modern histories and to some certain extent they are correct. Whether Cortez, Napoleon, or the pope is a hero or a villain certainly depends on world view, and older authors had very definite ideas on these subjects. But writing children’s history stories from a flagrantly Protestant, pro-imperial, or Whiggish point-of-view is not the same as the verbose scoldings of modern historians that are intended to "balance" innate patriotic sentiments. It takes very few words to convince fifth graders that they should be proud of their nation’s traditional heroes, but many bewildering words to convince them otherwise.

We are strong advocates of self-reflection and internal criticism—at an appropriate age and with a broad knowledge of history already absorbed. When imposed on young and ignorant students it is worse than ineffective—it is boring.

Remembering and Forgetting

Much to the frustration of instructors, it is sometimes difficult to tell just how much history a student comprehends and remembers. Classroom history teachers often prefer textbooks just because they are organized to present "testable" facts efficiently. Even if students do learn more effectively from story based history, until a way is found to objectively evaluate story-based learning, classroom teachers are likely to stick with textbook methods.

Homeschoolers have ways of evaluating their student’s progress that are not available to teachers with a large number of students. The Charlotte Mason method, for example, recommends oral review to evaluate learning. However, even this technique has some limitations:

I once asked our fourth grader (a day-dreamer extraordinaire) to relate to me a story he had just read from one of his Greek history books. He gave an interesting account about "some guys" who defended Athens from the Persians: "Some guys" went to see "a guy" who told them they would be saved by wooden walls. "The guy" said they should build some ships. When the Persians arrived "the guy" wanted to attack but "the other guys" didn’t want to, so "the guy" got his "slave guy" to tell the "Persian guy" they were going to run away . . . eventually the "Greek guys" won and the "Persian guy" went back to Persia. I was able to follow the story well enough, but when I tried to get him to identify all these "guys", or even the name of the battle he had just described he was at a complete loss.

Maybe our young man would have been able to remember familiar names—such as "Stark" and "Bunker Hill" better than strange Greek names such as "Themistocles" and "Salamis", but a great many names from history are either unusual or confusingly repetitive (Louis, Henry, etc.). This experience shows the difficulty of evaluating how much history children really absorb when they learn from stories rather than textbooks. When students read interesting stories they are far more likely to remember the essence of the story rather than superficial details—especially over time. And even when they do retain much, students with poor communication skills may be unable to reiterate all that they learned.

At Heritage History we believe that it is better to read story-based history than to study from textbooks, whether or not it is easy to discern the full extent of a student’s learning. First of all, as this example illustrates, the student did get a great deal of value from the story, even if he forgot the labels. He knows the Greeks beat the Persians in a great naval battle. He knows the Greeks depended on prophesies to make decisions about strategy. He knows there was trickery and intrigue involved in their affairs. These are the essential ideas behind history, not names and dates.

Second, the Heritage program involves reading history for several hours a week over many years. Our day-dreamer will inevitably tackle Greek history again sometime in the future and will re-read these stories with more maturity and sophistication. The Heritage program involves a mix of new learning, in depth learning, and review of all historical eras. The Young Readers program is mostly "new learning," but virtually all of the material will be covered again in later years.

Finally, as long as a student is reading age and interest appropriate material, he will absorb as much information as he is capable of. Some students will retain more than others. Some can communicate what they have learned better than others, but there is no magic method of forcing a student to absorb and process more than he is capable of at any given time. Parents, instructors, books, and learning aids can only do so much. At some point it is the students himself, working with his God-given faculties that must do the learning. Teachers who have provided the best possible opportunities for learning have done all they can do.

How Children Differ

In the previous section we discussed methods of learning that pertain to all children and how the Heritage Classical Curriculum, and the Young Readers collection in particular, is suited to grammar school age learning. In this section we will discuss differences between students, and how the Heritage program can be adapted for individual interests, preferences, and learning styles.

One of the wonderful things about history is that it is a very easy subject to adapt to individual interests and abilities. The process of designing a history curriculum for large groups of students—in either a public or a private school setting—is that teachers are required to normalize the material, limit it to the essentials, and spoon feed selected facts and ideas so that students may be tested on their common knowledge. In other words, the first thing a classroom instructor needs to do when teaching history is to put aside the differences between students and focus on their common abilities.

Obviously, talented classroom teachers can do much to spur individual interest, but by necessity, it is a secondary concern. It is simply impossible to teach any subject as multi-faceted as history to a large group of students without simplifying and bringing history within a narrow scope, appropriate for the average child. The point of this section is to do the opposite—to explore the full range of student abilities and interests, and to help instructors customize learning programs that are of special interest to individual students rather than groups of students.

Girls and Boys

Not all students’ interests fall neatly within their own gender’s traditional categories, but there is, in general, a wide divergence between the native interests of boys and girls. There is a great deal of overlap of course—many historical tales appeal to just about everyone, and learning the basic outline of western history is essential to all students. The issue of boy-girl preferences becomes most relevant when choosing supplemental material and encouraging independent reading. The basics are the same for boys and girls, but the electives can vary considerably.

While girls tend to enjoy the personal drama of history, most boys prefer action. The two are of course related. Many stories from history have plenty of both, and so are appealing to both boys and girls. High-action stories, however, are often intentionally written to appeal to boys and contain rather extraordinary feats of valor and dire misdeeds. Boys seldom need much encouragement to delve into stories that feature pirates, cannibals, sword fights, despicable villains, harrowing sea-battles, horrific trench warfare and general dangers. Fortunately, many such stories are terrific sources of information as well as entertainment, and are a great way to get boys hooked on history. These same stories, however, frequently have limited appeal to girls, who often find combat and blood-letting distasteful.

The features that most reliably attract girls to history are dramatic stories and interesting character development. Girls are often just as interested in mythology, legends, and hero stories as boys are because the stories are dramatic and involve plenty of romantic heroes and appalling villains. But true stories from history are most interesting to girls if the character at the center of the story is of unusual interest. A chivalrous knight is a more attractive hero to most girls than a brilliant general.

The most dramatic difference between girls and boys in regards to historical preferences has to do with war. Almost all boys are interested in war, even if they are not particularly aggressive and personally disapprove of most wars. Many girls on the other hand, are repelled by the idea of wars, disinterested in war stories, and generally disapprove of boys' fascination with the subject. This is somewhat unfortunate since war is an exceedingly important aspect of history and boys gain a real advantage in understanding historical conflicts by studying them.

At Heritage History we believe that the great difference in attitude towards war should be respected and accommodated as much as possible, without denying the enormous importance of war within history. No matter how much one loves peace, it must be acknowledged that war is an essential facet of history, and girls who would prefer not to study it—that is most girls—are cutting themselves off from understanding an enormously significant aspect of human civilization. That said, we do not believe it is wise to force the issue one way or another. Uninterested girls should not have to deal with war stories except at an introductory level, and fascinated boys should have free rein to bury themselves in war stories.

It is an over-statement to say that history, because it is more-or-less based on true facts, is a "boy" subject, whereas literature, because it deals more profoundly with human drama is a "girl" subject, but there is certainly an element of truth to the assertion. When left to their own devices, boys are generally more interested in true stories and non-fiction than girls are, and they are certainly more interested in the many "unpleasant" aspects of history that girls sometimes find disturbing.

Instead of denying these tendencies, we recommend allowing both boys and girls to follow their own interests, once the essential stories of history have been taught to all. If girls prefer historical fiction, mythology, legends, and biographies, then these interests should be encouraged. If boys prefer pirates, knights, hoplite battles, stories of adventure, and horrific trench warfare, then so be it. All should read a few core texts to familiarize themselves with the basics, but their optional reading should reflect each student’s genuine preferences.

Aptitude and Retention

As many frustrated parents already know, the ability to read and the ability to retain the essential information that one has read are two different abilities. Some students read a book and seem to remember every detail. Others may read the same books and will have a hard time recalling and reiterating its most basic facts. What can be done to help poor learners remember more of what they read?

First, simplifying a student’s reading material is an option. There is a tendency, especially among ambitious parents, to want to "challenge" their children so they won’t be bored, but this can backfire. A student will learn more from a book that they can easily grasp than they can from one that is over their head. Sometimes this means that slower students should spend more time reading children’s biographies and episodic histories—which focus on a few incidents in detail, and fewer comprehensive histories, that present many different stories and facts.

The Heritage History Young Readers collection is full of fascinating books, and many can appeal to older students and even adults. The biographies included in the Young Readers collection are the perfect size for someone of any age who wants to read the story of a fascinating character in forty pages instead of two hundred. If children’s books are dumbed down or patronizing they will not interest older students, but all the books in the Young Reader collection are appealing to readers of any age. It is perfectly appropriate to encourage students to read worthwhile books "below" their reading level, especially if they are getting bogged down or struggling for any reason.

Second, repetition is key to helping some students grasp the material. Many students simply will not remember something they are exposed to only once. The method that Heritage History uses to help students retain information is to make sure they read similar material at least twice. Instead of reading the same book, we suggest that older students read two or more books that cover similar material. When dealing with younger students, however, reading the same book more than once may be very effective. Books that are enjoyable the first time are often even more enjoyable the second. As long as students are encouraged to read books that they enjoy they will likely be willing to read a particularly important book more than once.

Third, if your student enjoys a particular book in a series there is a good chance that he will enjoy others by the same author or from the same series. The majority of the books in the Young Readers collection are part of a series and more information about these book sets can be found on the Series Descriptions page of the Young Readers Compact Library.

Fourth, patience is important. Some students are late bloomers, and others, even after they are more mature, will never possess outstanding memory or reasoning ability. In either case, there is no terrific rush to "get through" historical material in a pre-defined period of time. As long as a student is making progress, proceeding at a pace that is comfortable for his individual abilities is critical to holding his interest. One of the great benefits of the Heritage program is just this—students really can proceed at their own pace. At Heritage History we have kept the grade and age-level designations for our introductory, intermediate, and advanced books intentionally vague, and each of the civilization-based Compact Libraries includes dozens of books at all reading-levels.

It is a disservice to children of all ages and capabilities to hold their progress in history up to a golden standard so they can be identified as "ahead" or "behind" their age group. History is so poorly taught in most schools that it is meaningless to discern how a sixth grader who has been learning social studies for six years compares to a homeschooled 11-year-old who has read dozens of books from the Young Readers collection and worked their way through a year of Ancient Greece. Likewise, an exceptionally bright high-schooler who aces his AP History tests but then abandons the subject altogether cannot be compared with an average student who becomes a lifelong military history buff, but never masters the modern art of "historical criticism".

It is certainly desirable for all students to become familiar with the outline of western history, but there are any number of paths a student might take to get there, and having a superficial framework of events, while useful, is not the same as having an in depth understanding of them. Mastery of history is an excellent goal to work toward, but it is ultimately unattainable. It is just when a student becomes self-satisfied with his understanding of history that his knowledge becomes an obstacle rather than a pathway to greater learning.

Sociability and Introspection

A final way that students differ in their approach to learning history is their sociability. Some students are very motivated by peer interest and others are almost entirely self-reliant. History, more than most other fields of study is a "social" subject—that is, a knowledge of history can be a common bond between friends. Probably the most obvious example of this might be boys playing at war—a situation where detailed knowledge of actual battles, generals, and outcomes can affect strategy and endow status. When you have a group of ten-year-old boys who all know details of some famous Greek battles it can lead to some very interesting and instructive role-play.

On the other extreme, some children are independent, reflective, and internally motivated to pursue their own interests, rather than those of a larger group. Introverts sometimes enjoy being the only one who knows obscure facts and knowledge of unfamiliar cultures—all of history is a feast of information for solitary day-dreamers. The study of history can be of great interest to both extroverts and introverts, but it is helpful to know which type of student you are dealing with when helping him select appropriate material.

Extroverted, socially-oriented students may benefit from group learning, which is not necessarily the same as classroom learning. Many homeschool co-operatives use a common curriculum and the Heritage program is perfectly suited to such a co-operative—even one whose purpose is primarily social rather than academic. If older students are involved it may be appropriate to choose a civilization-based curriculum, each of which includes reading lists for all age groups. If a co-operative consists mainly of grammar school students then the Young Readers collection is a good choice. Families can agree on which books should be read in common so that students will have a shared learning experience. In terms of group activities, projects, or lectures, co-op leaders can be as ambitious or lackadaisical as they desire—the benefit of common learning can be experienced formally or informally.

Introverted students, on the other hand, are often good readers, and it is not difficult to inspire children to do more of what they are good at. If introspective students are given a wide selection of reading materials and motivated appropriately they have great potential to become lifelong history enthusiasts.

All history students, whether introverts or extroverts, should be required to do a minimum amount of history reading every week—instructors should not rely on native interest and incentives alone. But providing appropriate external motivators can help turn a good history student into an exceptional one. Each family is different so it is hard to generalize on the subject of providing incentives—one student might be motivated by privileges, treats, or money—others might be motivated by access to video games. The difference between introverts and extroverts in terms of incentives can be quite stark. Extroverts, for example, may be motivated by play dates or games that they can enjoy in the short term, while introverts are usually more willing to work towards long term goals.

History, by its nature, is a social subject. It is the essence of "common culture" and the recorded expression of all known human experience. Learning history can create bonds not only between friends but also between generations—and perhaps most importantly—between the living and those that lived before us. The idea that our forefathers have much to teach the living is an alien concept to the narcissistic generation that currently controls most government sponsored educational institutes, but it is the essence of traditional wisdom.

History, unlike fashion, popular culture, social networking, and contemporary politics is a permanent reserve of knowledge and insight of enduring interest. Friends, fashion, technology and political exigencies come and go, but history remains—as rich in wisdom and warning for our generation as it was for our forefathers. It is social at its very heart, in a way that transcends time and personal circumstance. In this sense, an introvert reading history alone in his room is being every bit as "social" as a group of ten-year olds re-enacting a hoplite battle—in the grand scheme of things, probably more so.

What Parents can Do

The Heritage Classical Curriculum has been designed to make learning history as easy as possible. There is much flexibility built into the program and virtually no busy-work. Every student, regardless of background or aptitude, who reads a selection of these excellent books will benefit from them. But in order to gain the most value from a self-directed history education, a serious time commitment is necessary. The goal of the Heritage History is to encourage a life-long interest in history, but until students are mature enough to work independently, it is the job of parents to provide an impetus to learning.

Given the information provided about how children learn history in the previous sections, the obvious things that parents can do to help their students make progress in history are: 1) help them make appropriate reading selections; 2) hold them accountable for a certain amount of weekly reading; and 3) read history along with them.

But there is one more thing that parents can do that is less obvious. In order be the best possible mentor to their children, parents can take the opportunity to learn history for themselves. Instead of just reading along with their students, adults can use the Heritage Classical Curriculum to pursue their own interests and increase their own breadth of knowledge. Nothing will help parents guide their students through a program of history better than firsthand knowledge and a personal interest in the subject.

Making Selections

The Heritage Curriculum encourages students to choose the books which most interest them from a selection of high quality texts. For older students this is a simple process, but younger students will almost certainly need help. Most grammar school age children are more comfortable with conventional books than electronic libraries, and may have difficulty selecting the most appropriate books from the available descriptions. Parents, on the other hand, can easily survey the options, and knowing their children’s preferences, help select and prepare reading assignments.

Most middle-school students can use e-reader devices and many even prefer them to conventional books. Some younger children can also use e-readers, but others—especially those who are easily distracted—do much better with printed copies. Older students are often able to download or print and bind the e-books that they have selected, but a younger student will almost surely need a parent’s help. Even if a parent takes an active role in selecting and reproducing books for their students we recommend allowing students some choice in their reading material. Giving children a choice of books to read—even a carefully screened choice—helps them see history as a field of variety and interest rather than a narrow assignment.

Providing Accountability

The most important thing that parents need to do to help their students make steady progress in history is to provide accountability. Reading history can be very enjoyable but most school age children have many distractions and will not persevere without consistent guidance. Even students who read willingly and enjoy history need help staying focused. The Heritage History library provides a selection of readable and enjoyable histories that can entertain as well as inform. But even engaging history books are no match for video games, social networking, fantasy novels or personal hobbies.

It is certainly true that some history books are appealing enough to read for pure entertainment. Boys, in particular, have been known to read books about pirates, wars, naval adventures, mythical heroes and other sensational endeavors strictly for enjoyment. These high octane history stories are certainly worthwhile, but there is also a great deal of value in more reflective histories, such as biographies and comprehensive histories. A balanced history education needs to include staples as well as indulgences.

In order for a student to thrive in history and make steady progress in his learning goals, parents must make history reading a regular part of each student’s weekly schedule and hold students accountable. For older students we suggest three hours a week minimum, with incentives provided for additional reading time. This may be too ambitious for some younger students—parents should decide a level of commitment that both they and their children are comfortable with and stick with it. History is learned best through a long term commitment to consistent study rather than in jumps and starts.

The topic of incentives is a difficult one to generalize upon because it depends on both individual and family preferences. One student might willingly read hours of history a day if history-reading time is tied to computer or video privileges, while another might remain indifferent. Some students are difficult to motivate with external rewards while others are anxious to earn credits. For this reason, one should never depend only on incentives. A minimum reading requirement is essential no matter what approach is taken to encourage additional efforts.

Heritage History has provided several accountability forms which were designed to help students and their instructors track progress. The reproducible Book Selection register can be used to create a permanent record of all of the books related to history that a student reads during the year. The Weekly Reading register can be used to record how many hours of history reading per week a given student actually does. More information about using these forms is provided in the Preparation and Scheduling section of the Curriculum Users Guide along with a few other tips for tracking student progress. Copies of these forms can be found on the Compact Library and in the appendix of this Teacher’s Guide.

Learning as a Family

There are many different approaches to learning history and the Heritage History curriculum can be used with a variety of different styles. It is not strictly necessary that parents become involved with their children’s history lessons beyond helping with selections and providing accountability, but there are many benefits to doing so. History is, as noted previously, a "social" subject. One of the benefits of learning history as a family is that it fosters this social aspect and provides a subject of common interest.

The idea of learning as a family can take many forms. Parents with very young children—even those who don’t read well—may read history aloud with them. Almost all of the history stories in the Young Readers collection are appropriate for this purpose. Families with older children can also read more advanced histories together.

As students mature and become more independent, parallel learning can be just as interesting as group learning. Having individual family members each read and retell their own history selections is one alternative to having everyone study the same history at the same time. History selections that all members of the family read together can be entertaining and informative, but family history discussions that cover many disparate topics may be even more so.

A final benefit of learning as a family and conversing regularly with your children on the subject of history is that such communication provides the best possible way of reflecting your own values and world view through history. The idea that a history book can "teach" a specific world view is flawed—history is best interpreted through the lens of a pre-existing world view rather than used as a tool to impart one. But that said, history provides an almost infinite field of reflection on human achievements and foibles. Obviously, older students will be able to understand issues related to world view and politics better than younger students but very young students are quite capable of understanding irony, morals, and wit. The fact that Aesop’s fables and Bible Stories for children are so popular with young children is proof that they are quite adept at seeing purpose and moral values in human activity.

Families, as well as individuals vary greatly in their approach to learning. Some are activity oriented and enjoy field trips and special projects, while others are homebodies. Some prefer to integrate history into a unit study, while others consider it an individual subject. Some families are talkative while others are more inclined toward individual reflection. Some families are likely to delve deeply into the Heritage History library and read dozens of the available books, while others will probably only avail themselves of a much smaller selection. We hope that whatever approach your family takes to learning history, the Heritage History library can incite interest and expand horizons.

Recovering a Lost Generation

What we need is to have a culture before we hand it down. In other words, it is a truth, however sad and strange, that we cannot give what we have not got, and cannot teach to other people what we do not know ourselves.
–G. K. Chesterton

We have already covered the essentials—providing accountability and making sure children spend the necessary time to learn history is the most important thing that parents can do. But there is one more thing of enormous significance that parents can do for their own benefit as well as that of their families, and that is to study history themselves. The Heritage Classical Curriculum provides a marvelous opportunity for parents to teach themselves the history stories they never had the opportunity to learn—while at the same time helping their own children.

Each civilization-specific library in the Heritage collection was intentionally designed to include reading material that appeals to older students and adults as well as children. The Heritage curriculum is intended to encourage a life time interest in history, and this means engaging mature readers as well as novices.

Besides the inherent value of learning history for one’s own edification, children benefit from having a parent actively engaged in history. Children learn to value what their parents value and leading by example is worth any number of exhortations. If parents find history enlightening and worthwhile, their actions as well as words will communicate this interest to their children.

A small minority of contemporary parents already have an outstanding education in history—but such persons are unlikely to need much encouragement to continue studying the subject. The main thing an excellent background in history provides is a clear vision of how much more of interest still remains. Unfortunately, parents with a poor education in history are much more common and they frequently don’t have any idea what they are missing. Simplistic "lesson-plan-in-a-can" history curriculums are most appealing to parents with a very limited view of history; but parents who want more for their children should want more for themselves as well.

The fact is, most parents who were educated in public schools after the 1960’s came of age during a time when learning authentic history rather than social studies was out of vogue. One only needs to read a few of the history books included in the Heritage History library to realize how seriously deficient one’s knowledge of history really is. Most of the books in the Heritage collection were widely available in children’s libraries at the turn of the century, but very few history books of comparable value were still in school libraries in the 70’s and 80’s. And fewer still, on subjects other than American history, exist today. Our generation simply had no opportunity to learn classical history in the manner of our grandparents and great-grandparents.

This was certainly the case with the founders of Heritage History, so for parents who are concerned about their own lack of historical knowledge, we hope to serve as an encouraging example. We ourselves did not begin seriously studying history until our mid 30’s when we began homeschooling. And one of the things that we have come to realize since that time is that the collective ignorance of our entire generation regarding history is astonishing—even many of the "brightest" students who have attended the "best" Universities have a very poor background in history.

We, at least, have the excuse of being technical graduates, but even many history majors of our age—who were encouraged to focus on esoteric or contemporary topics rather than general subjects—lack breadth and historical perspective. Most modern Universities so are committed to promoting "specialization" and "innovation" at the expense of general knowledge and traditional wisdom that they are no longer capable of teaching or even understanding classical history. The whole notion of history and the modern University’s idea of what constitutes valuable knowledge has been transformed into something that would be unrecognizable, and undoubtedly deplored, by our forefathers.

Given that we live in an age where Universities see their role as providing credentials rather than promoting classical knowledge, anyone who desires to learn traditional history as an adult is probably better off learning independently. For a motivated student, the Heritage Classical Curriculum can provide a better opportunity for learning the stories from history that inspire, enlighten, and entertain, than a college classroom. Traditional history has been suppressed and derided by the modern educational establishment, yet for all its genuine faults, it remains a more interesting and edifying field than most of the social sciences and academic specialties that displaced it.

In terms of breadth and readability, the selection of books in the Heritage History library compares favorably with the history section in almost any modern library or bookstore. And parents who are who are interested in studying history themselves should know this as well—many of the books in the Heritage library that are designated for beginning and intermediate students can also be of great interest to adults who are not already familiar with the subject. One doesn’t need to confine oneself to "advanced" history, just because one is advanced in age.

Reading full-fledged adult histories can be time consuming since most devote much space to details, quotes, and opinions. In contrast, story-based juvenile histories are easy to read, get right to the point, and are devoid of tedious analysis. The fact is, most adults with a mature view of human nature will be able to understand juvenile history better than their children can. This is because they have more insight into politics, institutional duplicity and human foibles than younger persons do so they can read between the lines, particularly when studying political conflicts and infighting that are somewhat above the heads of ingenuous children.

Furthermore, mature adults with a coherent world view are likely to enjoy history just as much, and get more out of reading history stories, than young people. This is not to say that the study of history should be put off until middle age—only that life experience does bring its own insights. Many subjects, such as math, music, and foreign languages are best learned when one is young, when the mind is sharpest and large blocks of time can be given to concentrated study. But history is different. What is required to get the fullest appreciation of history is discernment, not mental acuity. It is a valuable subject to teach the young, but a subject whose insights grow keener, not duller, with age.

The mission of Heritage History is to help re-popularize traditional juvenile history with adults as well as children. It is easier to correct systematic problems in an educational system early on, rather than in midlife, so we emphasize traditional history’s appeal to a "new generation". But in truth, we haven’t given up on the "old generation". Our goal is to help produce history lovers of all ages. It is never too late to learn history.

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