Sunday, July 22, 2012

History in context

My daughter has developed a keen interest in the lives of others. It began, I think, when we took a trip to Washington, DC, and in the National Air and Space Museum, we were fortunate at the very beginning of our visit that day to catch the start of a docent's tour, at a plane built by the Wright Brothers. The charismatic older gentleman then took us over to the beautiful cherry-red plane flown by Amelia Earhart, described the woman's bravery, and Lucy was simply captivated. At the end, after hearing the story of the Mars Lander, we went over to the gift shop to see what was there. It was there she spotted it -- the Doring-Kindersley biography of Amelia Earhart. Up until this point, at just seven years of age, most of her reading revolved around cartoons like Garfield and Peanuts, children's fiction novels in the Warriors series, and any book about dogs.

My parents, with whom we had traveled, and Erick and Everett, all had things they still wanted to see. But since it was my third journey to the museum, and Lucy's feet had long ago exceeded their quota of steps for the day, we headed to our rendezvous point within the museum and waited for the others. It was only a few seconds after finding a place to sit that she eagerly pulled her new book out of the bag and began reading.

Sometime in the next few days, we went to the Lincoln Memorial, and naturally, its gift shop, a tiny little closet of a place, hid many biographical treasures, as well. A biography on Lincoln himself, from the same series of books I mentioned before, was the treasure found there.

We didn't have a lot of time to hang out at the place we rented near Union Station, but when we did, she was reading. Some mornings, it was difficult to get her to leave, as she was busy reading her "bio-graffies."

When we went to the National Museum of American History, which had wonderful things like the original Muppet Puppets, we saw a wooden boat -- The Gunboat Philadelphia -- which had been sunk in Lake Champlain during the Revolutionary War, and had been in Brigadier General Benedict Arnold's fleet. I'm never sure exactly what she is thinking when we are traveling through these very educational, yet fun, and sometimes overwhelming, places. But standing there, reading the sign at the bow of the Gunboat, she announced, "Wow. So this ship was sunk about 100 years before Lincoln was President." I think I've only done two pages of Singapore Math with her in her entire life, when she was about five years old, so her proclamation came as a huge surprise to me. Somehow, she has picked up this ability outside of the context of endless math drills.

A segue -- I loved that museum. I hated history as a teenager. Learning it was a requirement to apply to the prestigious universities I once wished to attend. In the early afternoon, I simply was not able to force myself to listen to the stories told by my teachers. If the lights went down and a movie was shown, I took the opportunity to take a nap, almost every time. Trying to read those dry textbooks at home after a long day of school didn't go much better. In fact, my focus and attention were so poor during those classes, although the rest of my grade point average was excellent, at some point during every history class I took, I risked passing with a "C." Apparently, what I did learn stuck pretty well, because when the kids ask me questions about history, I am usually able to give them an accurate answer (I always double-check, because I'm just not confident in that area). History, to me, is much easier to learn in the context of something meaningful.

So, when we got down to the basement of the museum, and I got to see the plastics revolution in the 1950's, and the advent of the Birth Control Pill (which I like to call "The Bitter Pill") in the 1960's, coupled with the atomic bomb, and all the things made from coal tar (toluene, trinitrotoluene or TNT, food colorings), I was in Nerd Heaven.

A trip to Washington, DC was more educational for me than many years of schooling, with regard to learning about history. This was my third trip, but it was my first trip in the context of owning my learning, and having some life experience under my belt. It was my first trip in the context of being an adult, having to pay bills, actual taxes, and really seeing suffering that happens in the world.

Most of the great learning experiences there are free -- the monuments and the Smithsonian Museums -- but there are a few which cost a pretty penny that are worth the price. The International Spy Museum was out of this world. Now, I was a big fan of Agents 86 and 99 when I was a kid, and read all the Encyclopedia Brown I could get my hands on, and geeked out on Mulder and Scully as a young adult, but this museum brought my appreciation of spies and spy technology to a whole new level. It's clear that the spy industry drives technology, for one thing. But it's also interesting that espionage has been a huge part of history. (I would love to write more, but I don't want to spoil anything, in case you decide to go).

Another great, but not free, museum to visit is The Newseum. Admission gets you in for two days, and if you're not with little kids, you will need two days to see it. I have a few journalist friends, but never really thought about how important journalism is. If you are even reading this, you are so lucky. There's a big map in the museum showing which countries have uncensored internet, for example, and those countries are few and far between. The fact that I can write this blog, which in many ways has information which flies in the face of the American Educational System and Medical Establishment, is amazing. Forget about TV news and newspapers -- the next time you complain about the partisan news establishment, imagine living in China.

Continuing my segue, we were there on the weekend that the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial was opened. Erick and I took an evening after seeing the Kennedy Center with the rest of the family, to walk around and see all the monuments at night. I think we walked four miles that evening. We met the family one last time to see the Einstein Memorial in front of the National Science Foundation, and the kids sat on Einstein's lap. Then, we forged on.

Since my last visit to DC, with the National Young Leaders Conference in 1991, a monument to Franklin Delano Roosevelt has been installed, inscribed with his quotes from a time the nation faced similar problems as it does today. How could we have forgotten? How?!

We got to walk through the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial the night before the opening ceremony. We could hear James Taylor rehearsing (which sent chills down my spine, as his album was the one I chose for Lucy's birth), and walked to the brightly illuminated area, filled with African Americans from all over the country, many crying, taking it all in. Earlier in the day, we had heard Al Sharpton giving a speech at the base of the Washington Monument (which was closed for repairs from the damage during the earthquake) on the President's American Jobs Act. It felt like we were witnessing history in the making. Again, these things Martin Luther King, Jr. said... how could we forget?!

All that to say, for less than the cost the federal government pays a local school district to educate one child for a year, we took four people to Washington, DC, and had a profound educational and cultural experience. Perhaps it is not worthwhile, though, because nobody has tested us to see if we learned the required bits.

This spring I was feeling a little stir-crazy, and took a trip up to Avon, CO for a week with the kids. The plan was to drive right up there, settle in, and do whatever it was the kids wanted to do. But as I was driving west on I-70, nearly at Genessee, I was suddenly overwhelmed with nostalgia, and took a detour. As a kid, we regularly drove up to the mountains, not because we were skiiers, but because my father worked for the Colorado Highway Department (before they changed the name to the Colorado Department of Transportation, or CDOT) as a bridge designer for 33 years. He designed the retaining walls in the Glenwood Canyon, which keep the mountain from sliding down onto the road. He designed or checked the designs of all of the bridges in that corridor. So, we stopped to see the Buffalo Herd Overlook, and then went to see Buffalo Bill's Grave. Unfortunately, the museum itself was closed, but the gift shop was open!

"Oooh, Mom! Maybe they have some bio-graffies!"

Yes, they did. They had Annie Oakley and Buffalo Bill. Lucy woke diligently each morning before the rest of us, to read them. I was very surprised to find her laying on the sofa, reading. I never asked her to read those books. She wanted to read them. When she saw that I was awake, too, she would share what she had read.

"Mom, Annie was adopted by this person who promised her mother that he would put her through school, but he didn't!"

Before our trip, she had decided she wanted to be a journalist. She carried a notebook with her, and write down everything we did and said for the first day and a half.

We made sure to stop on the way home and catch the museum on its open day. I didn't know that Buffalo Bill was the first comic book superhero.

She hasn't exhausted her enthusiasm for learning about people and history yet. We watched all of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s genealogy shows on television -- Finding Your Roots, Faces of America, and African American Lives 1 & 2, and the NBC show, Who Do You Think You Are? After watching those shows, she was so interested in learning about the history of families that she wanted more shows, and we started watching a genealogy show on Brigham Young University Television called The Generations Project. She still enjoys that show, even though it's about everyday people, rather than celebrities.

We ended up visiting a local homeschool curriculum store and discovering a series of historical fiction books about regular people throughout history, called Dear America. She has read about a French Slave in Nova Scotia, traveling on the Oregon Trail, and is currently reading about the voyage of the Titanic.

We watched all of A History of US on Netflix, and when that was done, she wanted to watch biographies. Last week, after watching National Geographic specials about the White House and the Presidents' Photographers (which ended up being an extension of an exhibit we saw at The Newseum), we watched documentaries on Nancy Reagan, and then on Jimmy Carter. The next day, she wanted to watch two two-hour long documentaries on John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. She had exhausted my patience. I could no longer pay attention. I didn't know how she could possibly want to watch any more. I wasn't sure she was actually getting anything out of them anymore.

Many of the topics covered, even in the children's versions of these biographies, are very serious. I do not censor what my children read; for one thing, I am not able to read books as quickly as they do. For another, I have no dreams of protecting them from the "Real World." I don't want there to be too many surprises when they finally leave this nest. I would rather help them navigate these difficult topics while we are close, and use them to help grow our foundation of trust. I want them to know that no discussion topic is off limits with us, that our love is unconditional -- that we are a safe place.

Her brother had recently read Larry Gonick's Cartoon Guide to Economics: Microeconomics, and since then, the Cartoon Guide to Economics: Macroeconomics had been released, so I got it (along with a huge stack of other books) for him to read. He still reads a lot of Peanuts and Garfield when he doesn't feel like reading "more serious" subjects, but as soon as that book on Macroeconomics came, he read it. Not having studied economics myself, I asked him the morning after he read it, what the difference between micro- and macro-economics was.

"Well, microeconomics is like personal finance and businesses. Macroeconomics is like countries and planets," he explains.

"Oh," I said, "Well, what's something interesting you learned from reading those books?"

"The government can help control the economy by raising or lowering taxes in a recession."

"Really?" I said, thinking of the current economic climate in this country. "What does the government need to do right now?"

"Uh, I don't remember. I may have to read it again."

And then, right on cue, Lucy came into the doorway of the kitchen from the next room, where she was listening, and said, "Well, when the government lowered taxes when Ronald Reagan was president, it *created* a recession."

<Ba-doom-boom, ching!>

She has since given me a list of about nine more biographies she wants me to procure.