Telling tales out of school

Teach children to love a good story, and you may just get them hooked into history.

At a conference on human rights in Connecticut last week, a South African artist pointed out how natural it can be to document the events that create that formal thing called history (see story, right). "Our history is captured by composing a song or staging a play," Meshack Masuku noted. "If you did anything, the next day there would be a song about it."

In the United States, that approach might not fly with a lot of people, especially teens. But each day, whether in classrooms or at the kitchen table, people are telling stories in a way that may not seem like history, but certainly qualifies.

Oral history has gained ground as a way to capture kids' interest. I remember how the Depression began to come into focus when I interviewed family friends about life in the 1930s as part of an 11th-grade assignment. Their reminiscences made a very human connection to what had been an abstract, if dramatic, moment in time.

At the UConn conference, high school students came face to face with human rights activists from South Africa. The kids knew little about the fight against apartheid before the discussion. But it didn't take long to learn about the human calculations, hopes, and struggles that go into what, once recorded in a textbook, can appear to be a neatly organized series of events.

They heard from a student leader who spent two years running from police. They learned about schools with no water, a legacy of a separate and unequal education.

It's the kind of event that can enliven words on a page - and get students to realize that history is taking shape around them, if they'll only start looking for it.

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