- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 3, 2004

Christopher Copple’s love of history is organized onto a three-panel display board where he has detailed the origins of the 50-star flag the nation salutes.

“The flag is the face of our nation,” Christopher explains in his project. “It is the symbol of freedom, democracy and opportunity.”

Christopher, a 13-year-old from Midland, Mich., is presenting his project in the lobby of the National Museum of American History as a finalist in National History Day, a nationwide history fair.

Christopher’s love of history is a family affair. His parents, Janet and William Copple, enjoy the subject, too. They have woven historical sites and documents into family vacations and story times for their three children since the children were very young.

“We didn’t just read ‘Pat the Bunny’ at our house,” Mrs. Copple says. “We told them about politics and presidents. Since birth, we have dragged the kids to every battlefield. We always stop at historical sites.”

The story of how the first settlers got here, the struggles they endured and the events that shaped the United States are an important foundation for all Americans, says Cathy Gorn, executive director of National History Day and an adjunct professor of history at the University of Maryland.

“History is critical for good citizenship,” Ms. Gorn says. “It provides us with the background we need to understand our community and our nation. By studying history, we create good thinkers. We can look at historical events and, hopefully, create more thoughtful voters. Every kid should know how Americans have struggled to expand democracy.”

What’s more, children naturally are drawn to the subject. Tales of long ago, the conflicts between good guys and bad guys, acts of great courage and folk-tale-like stories appeal to young people, says Kenneth C. Davis, author of “Don’t Know Much About American History” and several other children’s history books.

“Kids have an innate sense of curiosity about the past,” Mr. Davis says. “We see pictures on the walls, on dollar bills, and think, ‘Who was he? What did he do?’ But adults need to know, too. Unless they are prepared to answer history questions well, their kids’ curiosity is going to lead to disinterest.”

Parents shouldn’t always depend on the school system to foster a love of history, Ms. Gorn says. More than half of social studies teachers in this country did not major in history, she points out. Also, recent educational reforms have placed an emphasis on reaching benchmarks in reading and math. History often gets slighted, she says.

“History has become a stepchild to those subjects,” Ms. Gorn says. “Kids are generally excited by history, but some lose that excitement when they get to school.”

Quick lessons

An afternoon in the District is one of the best places to lay the foundation for learning about America. Even very young children can see items from the past and learn in simple terms what they mean.

The starting point should be the U.S. National Archives. Seeing the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights makes the founding of America real.

“We hear about George Washington and John Adams, but they lived so long ago,” says Lee Ann Potter, director of education and volunteer programming for the National Archives. “But when we see materials they held in their hands and signed, it takes on a new relevancy. Documents are our link to the past.”

Ms. Gorn agrees.

“These are documents that document the American experience,” she says. “This should be the first place you go. It is history uninterpreted.”

Other key places to visit for a quick history lesson:

• The National Museum of American History — This museum offers a glimpse of all sorts of history, from exhibits about the presidents to the 1812 flag that inspired “The Star-Spangled Banner,” to pop-culture displays about transportation and music.

Darise and Mark Fillmore, along with their three children, ages 9, 12 and 14, included a stop at the museum on a recent trip to Washington and Williamsburg. The Belle Plaine, Kan., family also enjoyed the National Archives, the Air and Space Museum and Arlington Cemetery.

“I was a history major in college,” says Mr. Fillmore, who runs his family’s grocery store. “Now I’m just really good at Trivial Pursuit. Seriously, I enjoy seeing historical sights now as a parent. I think [the children] are absorbing what they see, but it will have more meaning later on.”

• The Lincoln Memorial — Mr. Davis says it is about more than just the man.

“To see Abraham Lincoln sitting there, along with the words he spoke, is, to me, one of those spine-tingling moments,” he says. “It personalizes the drama and impact of the Civil War.”

• Arlington Cemetery — The sacred monuments that represent the fight for freedom all through American History will have a significant impact, Mr. Davis says.

“One of my favorite side trips in Arlington Cemetery is the Robert E. Lee house,” he says. “When you explain that the cemetery is built on land confiscated from Robert E. Lee, it puts the Civil War in perspective.”

• Just taking a walk through it all — Walking through Washington and seeing the White House, the Capitol and the view on the full expanse of the Mall is one of Mr. Davis’ favorite things to do in Washington.

Child-level learning

No matter how history is explored, there are ways to introduce it to children that will have the maximum impact. Kathleen Steeves, associate professor of secondary education in history and social studies at George Washington University, says to think hands-on when involving children.

“As a historian, of course I feel history is important,” she says. “Here in America, we have so much diversity. We need to teach what we all have in common with one another and how what we have is how we got from Point A to Point B. The way you involve kids is to show them how we are connected to places, objects and documents.”

For young children, that means more than seeing. Touching and hearing will keep children a lot more interested, Ms. Steeves says.

She likes the National Museum of American History’s new “America on the Move,” exhibit, which explores the evolution and impact of transportation through, among other displays, life-size subway cars to sit in and touch screens with which to communicate.

Another great place for young children at the museum is the Hands-on History Room. Children can try on Colonial costumes, spin wool into yarn and see how household items worked 200 years ago.

Phillip Hoose, author of “We Were There, Too! Young People in U.S. History,” says children identify with stories of young people like them.

Mr. Hoose got the idea for his book when a student he was talking to for a different project told him there “was not one single person my age in my history book.”

Mr. Hoose researched and found that aside from Pocahontas and Sacagawea, that was true. He also found that young people did play roles in many important events in U.S. history.

“The American Revolution was filled with 14-year-olds,” Mr. Hoose says. “Young people died and sacrificed their lives at the Boston Massacre. Scratch anything in history, and you can find young people.”

Mr. Hoose’s book tells the tales of several youngsters who played a role in the founding of the country. Among them are Sybil Ludington, a 16-year-old girl who rode 40 miles through dark woods of New York (much farther than Paul Revere’s 14 miles) to round up soldiers to fight advancing British troops in 1777, and John Quincy Adams, who as a teenager traveled with his father, John Adams, and acted as a French translator.

“Young people were very important in the founding of our country,” Mr. Hoose says. “They acted as spies, warriors and night riders in an effort to save our nation.”

His advice to young people is to remember that history is ongoing — even in the 21st century.

“History is always happening,” he says. “It is important to take the time you are here seriously. Keep journals; it will help you understand your time and place.”

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