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Psalm 78
. . . we will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the LORD, his power, and the wonders he has done. .
so the next generation would know them . . . and they in turn would tell their children.
Then they would put their trust in God and would not forget his deeds but would keep his commands.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Ancient Greek History

One evening during our two-week study of early Greek history, I read aloud to the family the legend of Theseus and the Minotaur. Sprawled out on the rug, everyone listened intently to the story of the brave Theseus who vowed to put a stop to the regular kidnapping of Greek youths by the Minoans. He hitched a ride with the kidnappers, told King Minos he wanted in the famous labyrinth to have a chance to fight the evil Minotaur--half-man and half-bull. Following the secret advice of the king's daughter, Theseus trailed a thread behind him throughout the corridors of the twisting maze, and after bravely killing the Minotaur with his dagger, he found his way out by re-tracing his path of thread. Theseus prevailed and King Minos put an end to the kidnapping.

As soon as I finished reading, Toby asked to hear it again. "The one about the dagger."

Watching our students, first and fourth graders, take in early Greek history (the Minoans at Crete, the Mycenaeans, and the legends of Homer) reminds me why studying history can be so thrilling for kids. Except that for most kids it isn't. It is a rare child in traditional school that cites social studies as a favorite subject.

Why the difference?

I can recall studying Greek city-states as a third-grader in Miss Newkirk's class. It was social studies, after all, so the focus was on the political and community organizing methods of the ancients, rather than the palace art at Knossos, the legend of Theseus and the Minotaur, Jason and the Argonauts, or the Trojan War. In fact, I lacked a foundational understanding of this history and mythology, so when I encountered Homer's Odyssey as a high schooler, I was flummoxed.

But my own experience is irrelevant; what are the state standards today? A quick look at the social studies standards for my state confirms my memory. Social studies is not a synonym for history, after all, but is a study of the development of society. In the younger grades, my state expects kids to learn about citizenship, their own communities (the fire station, city hall, etc.), and finally their own state government. It isn't until fourth grade that the student studies his own state's history, then in fifth his nation's history, and finally in sixth grade the world's history. Five years of school pass before teachers give kids an understanding of ancient history.

Even worse, so many things are presented out of context to the social studies student. Understanding the progression of time is a difficult concept, but without learning things in order it is even more confusing. Second graders are taught about transportation and inventions--but completely isolated from the context in which those inventions were made. The Wright brothers invented the airplane. The ancient Chinese developed irrigation. The Incas connected their communities with highways. What second grader can sort this information out and even care about it?

The social studies methods of traditional schools are so deeply entrenched that one doubts the study of history for America's children will ever improve. Meanwhile, our Edwards Academy approach is entirely different, inspired by classical methods and committed to studying history chronologically.

Each week we put our studies in the proper chronology with cut-and-paste timeline images (thanks to Homeschool in the Woods) then delve into whatever history resources we have available on the topic. We combine this with related picture books and literature selections, along with a look at the art of the period. We color maps of the places we are studying and look up history-related vocabulary words. For our two weeks in early Greek history, we drew heavily upon various children's versions of the Iliad and the Odyssey, as well as wonderful picture books about the Greek gods and goddesses.

Imaginations are sparked. Curiosity is aroused. Playtime is enriched.

Image from Wikipedia. Minotaur locked in battle with Theseus. Bronze by Antoine-Louis Barye (Louvre)

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