HISTORY YAY, OR HISTORY NAY?

Confusion

So, why do some kids like history, and others hate it?

It might have something to do with presentation. If a teacher views a historical event in terms of facts and dates to be memorized, and presents his/her students with nothing but facts and dates, that’s all they’re likely to get out it. If, on the other hand, the teacher views a historical event as a story to be told and tells it well, kids tend to get much more out of it. I was lucky. Almost all my history teachers fell into the latter category, and by the time I came across a couple who weren’t, I was already hooked.

Take today’s date, for example. Does it have historic significance? Aside from being my Aunt Hilda’s birthday, I mean?

Yes, it does!

Samuel Johnson was born on September 18th, 1709. Though quite a sickly child, he grew up to be a noted writer and scholar. In 1755, Johnson produced the first comprehensive English dictionary.

Short, and to the point, that’s probably all youngsters writing a history test would be required to know. And a week or two later, chances are most of them would have forgotten all about Samuel, other than a vague notion he had something to do with dictionaries.

But what if they’d heard it this way?

Baby

On September 18th, 1709, a baby boy was born to Sarah Johnson and her husband Michael in Lichfield, England. It was an extremely difficult birth, and unlike most newborn babies, this one didn’t cry. Afraid he wouldn’t survive, his family quickly had him christened Samuel. He did survive, but more trouble was in store. His mother, who was over forty, wasn’t able to feed him, and since ready-made baby formula wasn’t available back then, that meant he had to have a wet nurse (a woman who has enough milk for more than one baby). Unfortunately, this wet nurse had more than milk to offer. She also had scrofula, an infection she passed on to him, leaving him with poor vision, facial scars, and deafness in his left ear. Later on, he developed a tic now thought to be indicative of a condition called Tourette Syndrome.

And if all that wasn’t enough to make him a target for bullies, Sam was SMART. He was in school by the age of four, went into the lower level of Lichfield Grammar school at seven, and by nine had been moved into its upper level. Luckily for him, one of his uncles was a boxing champion. Uncle taught the frail boy to defend himself so well that when four thugs attacked him in London years later, he managed to hold his own against them until the local constabulary arrived to help.

Bully

Failure to cry at birth did not mean little Samuel would not one day have a great deal to say for himself. In fact, he’s the reason parents and teachers can now say, “Look it up”, when you don’t know the meaning of a word or want to know how to spell it. Before Samuel Johnson came along, English dictionaries were inconsistent, hard to understand, and took decades to complete. It only took Sam eight years to complete his, and it was much better. His dictionary standardized spelling, traced the origins of words, and revealed how they should be pronounced. He also used quotations from the works of famous writers like William Shakespeare and John Milton to illustrate word meanings – along with several quirky comments of his own! This approach eventually made Sam pretty famous as well. For almost two centuries, his dictionary, and later editions of it, was the one people used most, even though using the first edition might have been a bit of a chore. You see, when it was first published in 1755, it weighed twenty pounds and was eighteen inches thick! Not exactly something you could slip into your pocket. Or even have in your desk. Now, of course, it’s online. It’s currently being uploaded by Brandi Besalke and you can find it at http://johnsonsdictionaryonline.com/.

Dictionary

The second way of presenting Samuel Johnson shows children that he wasn’t just a stuffy old maker of dictionaries. First he was a baby, struggling to survive. Then he was a schoolboy – a very clever schoolboy who was probably not all that popular with the classmates he outshone. And throughout his life he lived with disabilities that he had to overcome.

Hearing about a historical figure’s early life serves as a lure for children. Kids like to hear about kids, and once they know a little about a certain kid, they tend to be more interested in learning about the man or woman that kid became.

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