I have written earlier about our out-of-the-book and into-the-world approach to the study of history, a process that is driven by questions that multiply each time one of them is answered.
What happens when a child who has grown up questioning the world and the past in this way encounters a history textbook? I had heard about the improvements that the National Council of Educational Research and Training had made in the approach to history and was impressed by the names of the members of the Advisory Committee for Textbooks in Social Sciences.
We decided to find out. One fine day I unceremoniously pulled the NCERT textbook Our Pasts from the shelf and suggested to my daughter that she read the first chapter.
The first chapter was excellent. Right along her wavelength. About what history is and is not. Sources of information, difference in perspective, critical questioning. They raised the kinds of questions that made us feel right at home: How do we Know? On what basis do we decide which dates are important? It spoke to me as well – using a tea bag as a source document, comparing media representations, and talking about “What Official Records do not Tell.”
The second chapter however read more like a traditional history textbook. They did this then some others did that. Yawn. DD put forth a sincere effort but it was slow going. As it was very unlike her not to find something interesting in whatever she read, I snuggled up beside her and offered my own take on the events under consideration.
“Wow, it sounds so much more exciting when you put it that way!” she exclaimed.
I pointed to the sentences in the book that said exactly what I had said. It was not any extra information that I had provided. The key was to put it into action.
It reminded me of something DD had told me from one of the drama workshops she had attended. “Everyone wants something from someone else.” If we could show that then we could probe the motivations at play.
That is what led us to stage little re-enactments of moments that we picked out from the history book. Usually it was just a couple of sentences that we would portray in a 3-4 minute scene, casting dolls as characters from history. It came at an opportune time for the dolls, who had exhausted the usual repertoire of stories to enact.
And so the doll named Ayomayam Papa donned the royal robes and became Queen Elizabeth while the humble Ankle Baby entered the stage as the representative of the East India Company. Writing the dialogues, choosing props and staging the scene sent us to various sources outside the textbook for further tidbits that would add to the story. For example the charter was granted in December, so it would be cold outside. This made it easy to tie in a reference to a poem actually written by Elizabeth I (though probably many years before 1600), in which she compares her heart with “melted snow.”
And with this we have started a History Channel of our own. Its name is ChannelKKP. Our neighbours joined in to put on one of the recent episodes. It has proved to be great fun. Who knows when we will get beyond chapter one …? The joy of not having to answer to this question gives us the freedom to go on asking the big and small questions of history, learning and making new connections as we go along.
Above is our History Channel … starring our dolls, aka The Bommala Players!
Trails to the Past in Teacher Plus, October 2013.
Everyday History in Home Education Magazine, March-April 2013.