How to encourage kids to learn history

WASHINGTON, DC – Educator and award-winning author Robyn Gioia encourages the use of historical fiction to stimulate a love of reading and–more important–of learning, says David Bruce Smith, co-founder of the Grateful American Book Prize. In fact, her Web site features a space for teachers looking to find classroom resources that will excite young learners about the genre.

It is “back to school time” and Robyn’s notions of how best to teach a dry subject such as social studies might be a timely topic for first PTA meetings, according to Smith.

In her most recent blog, Gioia writes that “historical fiction … transports you into the past where life and a culture previously existed. You become part of a world where you walk-the-walk alongside characters dealing with the trials and tribulations of an era long gone.” The piece describes how she uses factually accurate books, including fiction, to stimulate discussion among her students.

One reviewer noted that “she has been referred to as Scheherazade because of her character driven, can’t-put-them-down, page turning stories”—the kinds of history books that can inspire kids and leave them wanting more. Her America’s REAL First Thanksgiving, St. Augustine, Florida, Sept.8, 1565, created quite a stir for challenging the idea that the holiday was first celebrated by the Pilgrims.

Gioia’s technique for teaching social studies to her pupils brings results. She reads works of historical fiction out loud to her class in “my best dramatic voice.” It’s her way of bringing the past to life. And, she inspires them to ask questions in order to elicit curiosity. In fact, she says, many actually ask her if they can take notes as she reads—a sure sign that she is getting through to them. “I know that annotating their thoughts helps them to develop a stronger understanding of the material and organize the details.”

Smith, also an author, points out that the Prize he established with Dr. Bruce Cole, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, was created for the express purpose of “rousing authors and publishers to produce more works of engrossing historical fiction and nonfiction so that students in middle and high school could be spared the boredom of textbooks.”

In its three years of existence, the Grateful American Book Prize has established itself as an important award in the publishing field. “It has put a new focus on historically factual books,” says Smith. The 2017 winner will be celebrated at an October 12th reception at The National Archives in Washington, DC.

Gioia had this to say about the Prize: “The forging of America was entering unknown territory, historically speaking. Diverse peoples from many countries vied for a place in the new world, a land that grew to be one of the most powerful in the world. It did not happen without sacrifice, hardship, survival, and forward-thinking vision. Engaging historical fiction, imaginative illustration, and intriguing non-fiction books, transports us back in time. It helps readers internalize the unique events that created our country by breathing life into a subject that would have otherwise been unrelatable to many young minds. The Grateful American Book Prize highlights the importance of our history by encouraging young readers to experience the trials and tribulations of a nation that fought to become America.”

Book Review: Reflections of Our Gentle Warriors by Brad Hoopes

Brad Hoopes’s Reflections of Our Gentle Warriors: Personal Stories of World War II Veterans, is a heartfelt tribute to the American soldiers who served in the European and Pacific Theaters. The author recorded oral histories of more than sixty veterans; from their testimonies he wrote efficient biographies of each. Their stories offer a different angle on the War, but for the most part the narratives are triumphant and celebratory, reflecting Hoopes’s great admiration and respect for the Greatest Generation that preserved democracy. The army’s Dick Scholl, for instance, survived the lethal fighting in the Philippines, where life was always hanging in the balance, according to Scholl. He told the author about the Japanese who would climb palm trees under the cover of night to use as sharpshooting nests. From there they would begin their deadly work as soon as the sun rose. Scholl remembered seeing men fall – suddenly – with horrific wounds while standing in the chow line because of the murderous Japanese snipers. By the end of School’s service, the toll of active campaigning had wrecked his body. He was weak and emaciated from malnutrition, with rotted gums and teeth, and malaria that besieged his body. None of that seemed to matter when he returned home to San Francisco, a moment so emotionally poignant that he broke down when he recalled the incident.

Hoopes shows a commendable sensitivity to the ways in which the War inflicted terrible physical and emotional pain on these soldiers, but the histories generally speak to the importance of cause and comrades as a coping mechanism, and not to the issues associated with PTSD. To conclude from Hoopes’s book that veterans just did their duty simplifies the complicated and contradictory thoughts and feelings of men who endured incomprehensible violence. I wish he had probed deeper into their struggles to “assimilate” afterwards.

During an interview with infantryman Bob Forrest, for example, the author noted: “He had a wide spectrum of experiences from the humorous to the bad. One memory Forrest could not repress was the moment he entered battle. “I remember thinking. I’m trying to kill that German, and that German is trying to kill me, and we don’t even know each other.” This admission is hardly rare among veterans of all wars, but Forrest reminds us that killing other humans – even if they fight for a reprehensible cause such as Nazism – is not just a question of courage, but a difficult moral quandary; they feared that committing murder would destroy their humanity.

Hoopes lets the men speak for themselves – and in most cases – keeps a respectful distance during the interviews, but in so doing, we don’t get access to the deep recesses of their minds. The author allows the reader to look to the historical scholarship on the issue of battlefield trauma, and how soldiers remember war, but the reader should not expect Hoopes to unravel all the intricacies and mysteries of battlefield survival. Veteran Mike Martinez, for instance, remembered that he jumped from his bedroom window when he returned home because of a bad dream, and that when he worked in the fields, the sound of a crop duster sweeping overhead caused him to leap for cover. From that section on, the author avoids any psychological explanation about PTSD and concludes: “He had one good postwar experience when the man whom he had helped save looked him up to thank him. After so many years of wondering whatever happened to that soldier, one ugly memory could now be erased.” It is hard to imagine that memories could be erased or compartmentalized so easily, but Hoopes is to be commended for recovering such valuable and interesting material from a generation whose voices grow fainter by the year.

Peter S. Carmichael
Fluhrer Professor of History
Gettysburg College

Mr. Hoopes continues to preserve the veterans’ stories; he is also a member of the committee which built a plaza in their honor.

Brad Hoopes, Reflections of Our Gentle Warriors: Personal Stories of World War II Veterans (Bradenton, Fl.: Booklocker.com, 2015).

Book Review: Reflections of Our Gentle Warriors by Brad Hoopes

September 2017 Book Recommendations

Brooke Hayward’s, HAYWIRE; a famous and beautiful actress-mother, a successful-agent father, and a secret, hellish household.

Dr. Haim Ginott’s, BETWEEN PARENT AND CHILD; raising and communicating with sons and daughters.

E. L. Konigsburg’s, FROM THE MIXED UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER; a sister and a brother run away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

William Shakespeare’s, THE TEMPEST; in the Bard’s last play, a former duke is exiled to an island.

September 2017 Book Recommendations