Friday, March 16, 2018

Kids and History: Bringing the Past to Life in the Age of Electronics

Imagine you are a school-aged kid. It doesn't matter what age: it could be elementary school, middle school, or high school. But think back to that time...and your teacher was having someone come in to give a presentation on history. You were probably excited because you knew you were going to get out of class for a while. But after a few minutes with this natty-dressed person trying to explain the Revolutionary War or the Civil War or any other American historical event, you were ready to head back to class. The droning voice of the man or woman standing there in their suit and tie or librarian-style dress just seemed to go on forever!
Yeah...I remember what that was like - - - - do I ever!
Well, there are some schools trying to make boring old history fun and personal for the kids.
And I have happily played a part in our area.
My friend (and partner in time) Larissa and I have formed our own historical interpreter group we call "Our Own Snug Fireside," and we travel around to various schools, libraries, historical societies, and even reenactments, to speak about everyday life in the past. We have even presented as the historical Patriot figures of Paul Revere and Sybil Ludington (we are sometimes joined by a third member of our group who portrays Benjamin Franklin). One of the things we have learned over the years was how to speak to the younger set in a way they can understand without dumbing it down; rather, we try to convey our 'lesson' in a manner that they can identify with.
And it works very well.
Not too long ago, Larissa and I spoke to the kids at a school in Detroit. We gave them our everyday life in the 1860s presentation, and in doing so we kind of spoke as if we were their parents. We described what their daily chores would have been 
as well as the type of entertainments they would have had rather than their modern electronics.
The thing about speaking to children is they really do get excited about us being there and appreciate all that we put into our presentation. We try to work their lives of today into what their lives may have been like in the past, and their response is usually pretty thought-provoking.
Holding up farm tools, such as a sickle used in farming...
...or objects from inside the home, such as this tin candle holder with a beeswax candle made from a tin mold, allowed them to see, first hand, a little bit of the 1860s come to life. In fact, if you look behind Larissa, you can see a few other period items sitting on the table, including a chamber pot, oil lamp, and butter paddle.

Teaching the students about everyday life through sight, sound, and touch in the era of the Revolutionary War is one of our specialties, and the interest of this time in America's history seems to be growing, much to my happiness.

I work as a high school classroom paraprofessional (i.e., a sort of teacher's aid), and one of the classes I help in is an American History class. Well, yeah...I have the connections, and as such, many of my living history friends have helped out by willingly coming to my school to speak to our kids.
How cool is that?
My friend (and fellow reenactor) Jillian portrays Civil War nurse Annie Ethridge, and she very willingly and happily came to our American History class to show the students a little of this young woman's opportunities in helping out the military in as many ways as a female in the 1860s was able to, including nursing duties.
Yes, she is carrying cloth bandages that she made.
But they were not nearly enough...

More material to be cut into strips for the wounded men of the north, and the students helped her, and some even wore the bandages as if they were wounded.
Jillian, who also works as a historic presenter at Greenfield Village, really engaged the kids, and they enjoyed having such a guest in their classroom.
Seeing that we had a female speak of her Civil War adventures, we thought to also have men of color give us a telling of their heroics during that bloody war as well.
I was pretty excited to have my friends in the 102nd US Colored Infantry come to the high school where I work to speak to the kids about the military lives of African Americans during the Civil War. They gave our students an eye-opening history lesson that only recently has been told. The kids were riveted.
The guys passed around a few items in their Civil War collection, including a 58 caliber bullet.

I am very pleased that, in this day of anti-gun, my school understands that the musketry the men from the 102nd brought in are historical and, because they played a large role in their presentation, were allowed to bring their guns in without concern.

The school where I work is pretty open to having presenters come in and teach the kids about life in the past. We have a leisure and enrichment class for who we call 'super seniors' - kids that have graduated but have stayed on for further instruction to help them in various aspects of their lives. These childr----I mean, adults have physical or otherwise health impairments, and therefore may need a little extra help and instruction to guide their futures. And every once in a while we like to have a little fun lesson, including from my favorite subject. These students just love the opportunity to learn new fun things, even if it's an old craft such as making a corn husk doll.
Now Candy, seen here, is a Civil War era reenactor, and she has made corn husk dolls for our Harvest presentation we put on every fall. So last autumn we had her come in and show the class this craft.
No, she didn't dress in her period clothing, but since this is not one of our history classes, we can forgive her (haha).
The girls especially were excited about this old-time doll-making and paid close attention in order to try to make their own, as you see below:
In fact, November of 2017 was deemed "old-time month" for the class, and I was happy to be able to get a couple of my friends to come in to entertain the kids, such as Candy (above) and Pearl the fiddle player (below).
If you look near the center of this picture, you will see my friend Pearl, also a Civil War era reenactor, posing with the kids, fiddle in hand. She played a few of the old-time songs that they were somewhat familiar with, including Goober Peas, When Johnny Comes Marching Home, and Old Susannah.
Again, they loved hearing the music, even if their favorite tunes comes from 
the top 40 stations of today.

Do you know what else we did for old time month?
Yes! We made home made ice cream from a period recipe!
I brought in my own ice cream maker - the very same one we use during out historic reenactments - and let the kids turn the crank to churn the ingredients into a Victorian delight.

No, I did not wear my period clothing for this. But, like everyone else, the students thoroughly enjoyed this period experience.
(above picture courtesy of C&G Newspapers)

And just looked how it turned out:

To be honest, since these kids have not been at or experienced a historic reenactment, this sort of activity is very exciting for them, but their modern taste buds are not acclimated to those of the 1860s, therefore they were not too keen on the cream. However, a few of them liked it a lot!
Either way, at least they got to try it.

We have a captive audience in schools, but how about in other areas? Do you think young kids might have an interest in history outside of school?
Statue or the real deal?
The Plymouth (Michigan) Museum's "A Night at the Museum" is really a fun and exciting way to help kids celebrate and learn about America's past. The Museum, not too far from Detroit, will, for a fee, show one of the "Night at the Museum" movies to the young ones in the small hall on the bottom floor. When the film ends, the kids will then enter the main museum. As they walk around, they notice 'statues' of historical figures dotting the area, and when they hold up the "Tablet of Akmenrah," they discover that not all is as it seems. This tablet is a recreation of the one used in the movies that brings the statues to life, which the children soon realize seemingly works in this Museum as well. 
These statures, as you may have guessed, are reenactors, and they silently wait for the kids to bring them to life with the Egyptian tablet. Now, I've been doing this 'event' for a number of years, and, more than anything else, it is seeing the excitement emanating from the kid's faces as each character comes to life. To see lovers of history at such a young age (usually the ages range from seven to about 12 years old) makes me get just as excited as the kids. It tells me the future of the past will hopefully be in good hands.
Hopefully. Time will tell. 
So - - would you like to see the late winter edition of Plymouth Museum's version of "A Night at the Museum"? It was with the local Cub Scout troop, and these kids were very excited as well as respectful, and it was easy to see they were very interested in what the living historians had to say.
The tour began with the 1st Lutheran pastor in Michigan, ---------
Guy Purdue portrayed Friedrich Schmidt, the first Lutheran pastor in Michigan. 
In the mid-19th century, Schmid founded more than 20 churches in Michigan, from Ann Arbor to Saginaw.
(Photo courtesy of the Plymouth Historical Museum and Marty Kerstens)

Next up we have a real Pirate of the Caribbean, Mrs. Anne (McCormac / Cormac) Bonny, famous female pirate who was born in Ireland around 1700 and was brought over to Charles Town, South Carolina by her father. Anne married a man named James Bonny, much to the dismay of her father (who disowned her), and the two moved to the Bahamas where Annie fell in with a number of pirates living there.
Anne Bonny tried to entice the scouts to join her crew. Some were willing!
(Photo courtesy of the Plymouth Historical Museum and Marty Kerstens)

As I've been doing since 2014, I come as Paul Revere.
(Photo courtesy of the Plymouth Historical Museum and Marty Kerstens)
I only have 5 to 7 minutes to speak, so I concentrate on my famous ride that took place on the night of April 18, 1775
This year I began my turn by reciting the first few lines of Longfellow's poem, "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere." I tell them how honored I am to have such a poem about me. Of course, I then go on to explain that many of the verses are not telling the true story, of which I then proceed to correct for the kids.
(Photo courtesy of the Plymouth Historical Museum and Marty Kerstens)
The Cub Scouts responded with such enthusiasm. And I let them know that just over a year after my ride that we, the colonists of the thirteen colonies, have claimed independence from England and we now consider ourselves a free nation known as The United States of America.
I am a firm believer in instilling patriotism, and I hope what I do here helps.

Let's jump about a hundred years (or so) into the future from Paul Revere's time to visit Thomas Edison.
Inventor Thomas Edison created, with help from his his workers, such great innovations as the telegraph, phonograph, the first commercially practical incandescent electric light bulb, alkaline storage batteries and the Kinetograph (a camera for motion pictures).
This reenactor really did a fine job in his attempt to 'become' the great inventor
(Photo courtesy of the Plymouth Historical Museum and Marty Kerstens)

And now we go to the Civil War - -
Mike has portrayed a Civil War chaplain for something like 15+ years. He prays over the "wounded and dying" men after battles, reads letters from home to those who have a hard time reading, and has actually performed real period-style wedding ceremonies at reenactments and inside historic buildings, for he is truly an ordained minister. Thus, the kids hear of his adventures during the most tumultuous time in America's history.
(Photo courtesy of the Plymouth Historical Museum and Marty Kerstens)
The final stop on the "Night at the Museum" tour is none other than a visit with Abraham Lincoln. A foremost Lincoln scholar, Fred Priebe has been portraying our 16th president for 20 years. When Fred puts on his Lincoln clothing, he becomes the president, and stories flow of his early life as a young boy, or a bit older as a lawyer, and even his time as President. He has memorized the famous (and a few not-so-famous) speeches, so he is ready no matter what the history-loving public may want to hear. I've been to his cabin (yes, he lives in a log cabin home) to see his extreme Lincoln library - he has hundreds of books in his collection to draw information from.
Simply amazing!
Yes, we in the Michigan Civil War reenacting world believe him to be our Abraham Lincoln.
All of the reenactors involved did a fine job, but I believe this man was the favorite for these scouts. He told stories of his youth, taking the boys back to when he was right around their age, and they really enjoyed hearing them. It put flesh on the bones of this almost mythical figure in a way they could relate to.
And that, to me, is what it is all about.
(Photo courtesy of the Plymouth Historical Museum and Marty Kerstens)

And because of Mr. Priebe's uncanny look in comparison to the 16th President, I am sure each Cub Scout left the room feeling as if they met President Lincoln.
(Photo courtesy of the Plymouth Historical Museum and Marty Kerstens)

Imagine if you were one of these Cub Scouts - how would you feel if you were surrounded by all of this history that came to life?
Me? Man! I would have thought I was in heaven and wouldn't want it to end!

(Photo courtesy of the Plymouth Historical Museum and Marty Kerstens)

And finally, let's head back to the high school where I work. My son, Tom, is a former reenactor. Now with wife and children, he holds down a pretty decent job as well as performs as a musician in various locations in Michigan (and other parts of the U.S. and even Europe!).
But he came in to give the students a lesson on the guitar. He also
performed a few songs for them, including a couple by the Beatles.
They loved it! And even though it wasn't necessarily history per se', it still was a wonderful lesson the students enjoyed and gave them a chance to hear a live musician, something that doesn't happen often for many of them.

Helping kids get into history, and showing them that it can be exciting and fun rather than bland and boring, is, to me, of utmost importance. In this age of gaming and electronics, it is our job to bring them into the world of the past and make sure their interest is held. me it's our duty.

Until next time, see you in time.

~   ~  ~


Kat said...

Bravo 👏. You and your fellow reenactors are a treasure to your state and especially to all of those students. I wish historical reenactors all over the country we’re doing this. I remember oh so many years ago way back in the mid seventies, a professional Mark Twain reenactor came to my high school and presented an outstanding oratory that I still remember fondly. I would be willing to bet these students carry their experience with them always. Thank you for your enthusiasm and your love for teaching. May we always remember our country’s history.

Historical Ken said...

Thank you so much, Kat. Your kind words mean a lot to me.
We really do have such fun...and, like you said, hopefully they will remember our country's history.

Miss Dashwood said...

I love this concept! I wish I'd had more opportunity to see this kind of presentation when I was in school. I think you are making more of an impact than you may realize on those kids - maybe even sparking an interest of their own in pursuing living history in some capacity!

Ryan said...

This is a wonderful thing to do. I wish these sorts of programs were more widespread.

BTW I've just discovered your blog and am enjoying it immensely. Been reading posts for a while now, but I'm going to stop and save some for later!