Teaching history by telling stories


So much of what I do as a museum educator is about telling stories. For example, I write parent guides to help families read stories together, or I read exhibition scripts to help curators tell stories at the museum. And, recently, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about what makes stories compelling learning opportunities.

In July, we took OurStory onto the National Mall during the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Visitors were invited to join us for storytelling and enjoy OurStory books together.

I grew up as a total junkie for historical fiction (you’ve already checked out my bookshelf and I’ve loved hearing all the comments), but now I work on a project for my favorite audience: kindergarten through fourth grade learners.

There’s so much to be said for sparking interest in history at an early age. Of course, you set the groundwork of facts that students will recall later on as they study American history more deeply, and you begin developing the skills students will need to develop their own understandings of primary sources. But most important to me is that you set the attitudes they’ll have when they approach a new subject in history, or in their contemporary worlds. If we all started off thinking that history was full of exciting details, hairpin turns-of-events, and figures with “character,” who wouldn’t want to learn more?

Educational theorist Kieran Egan dives deeply into the role that narrative can play in learning content knowledge. When we read, many readers get emotionally involved with the characters in the pages—for reading biography or historical fiction, this gives us an entry point for empathizing with a historical topic that could seem dull if it was read in a textbook’s standoffish third person. For example, in The Flag Maker, the story of the Battle of Fort McHenry in the War of 1812 gets an extra boost of excitement by telling the story through the eyes of a young girl who helped her mother create the giant Star-Spangled Banner that flew above the fort.

So many learners find it difficult to remember facts related to historical events or figures, but the fluid narrative of storytelling can tie facts together into a more meaningful pattern. Learners can use one piece of knowledge as the anchor for another fact. For example, in Martin’s Big Words, the story repeats phrases and uses illustrations to help tie the historical facts (segregation, activism, empowerment) to points in the life of the main character, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Children reading on the National Mall during the Smithsonian Folklife Festival

As I continue to work on the museum’s OurStory program, I am constantly searching for more outstanding works of historical fiction and nonfiction for the K-4 age group. Do you have a favorite history-related picture book you’ve read with a young person? Tell me the name of the book and YOUR STORY of enjoying it with a young person.

Jenny Wei is an education specialist at the National Museum of American History.