First grade students at The Saint Constantine School learn Medieval History, beginning with the Council of Chalcedon in 451, and ending with the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press in the 15th century. Early in the year, when much of the class is still reading at a CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant) level, we spend a significant part of our school day learning about the separation of the Eastern and Western Roman Empire, or the invasion of the Visigoths, or how monks illuminated Scripture on parchment.
When I first began teaching first grade at TSCS, this made me anxious. I worried that we ought to spend more time on reading fluency, spelling, or math sense. It is not typical to carve out 3+ hours every week to study events that occurred one thousand years ago. Can’t we save it for when they can read this history themselves?
But after several years of watching six and seven-year-olds absorb the stories of history with joy and thoughtfulness, my thinking has shifted. When asked, many students name History as their favorite class of the day, and I don’t think that’s just due to the art projects or class reenactments. First Grade History is not a "brain break" or a sneaky opportunity to slide in more ELA enrichment. It’s a crucial part of early education for several reasons.
Providing History as Moral Formation
History class provides wide scope to discuss matters of the heart, along with stories of kings and queens. In our introduction to the Medieval Ages, first graders learned about the feudal system, with its kings, lords, knights, and serfs. As the students examined little wooden figures representing each feudal class, I asked, “Would you rather be a king, a lord, or a serf?”
King was the resounding answer – they have the biggest castle, the most colorful clothes, the tastiest feasts. I added that Jesus Christ left his position as the king of kings and came to the lowest place, the place of artisans and servants, in his obedience to His Father.
Scriptures and the teaching of the Church are full of these references to kings, servants, and thrones. Studying history allows this vocabulary to come alive to contemporary children, providing rich context for deeper understanding.
We also study canonized saints and other exemplary members of the faith, like St. Benedict of Nursia and St. Tekla of Ethiopia. But as we know, history includes many who professed to be Christians while causing harm to others. In the spring semester, our first graders will learn about the Crusades. As complicated as the subject can feel for an adult, for a child it may not be so hard. Did the cross on the Crusaders’ shield mean that they were acting like Jesus? The students can and do recognize the discrepancy between the symbol and the action.
Closing the Knowledge Gap
Another reason to teach history is children’s sheer appetite for information, knowledge, and ideas. They crave it! We cannot afford to wait several years until they are fluent readers to start feeding them the nutrients their minds will devour and benefit from now.
Education pioneer Charlotte Mason wrote, “Our business is to give children the great ideas of life, of religion, history, science; but it is the ideas we must give, clothed upon with facts as they occur, and must leave the child to deal with these as he chooses.”
By fifth or sixth grade, we expect students to be able to engage with history texts with strong comprehension skills and sequential understanding. This can and should be practiced in early education, but possibly the worst way to practice these critical thinking skills is to divorce them from knowledge itself. This is sometimes what teachers do: we pass out short texts from a patchwork of eras to “compare or contrast” or to examine a text feature, like a caption.
A child will, rightly, become bored with this. In The Knowledge Gap, Natalie Wexler writes,
“But it’s not just that students can understand and enjoy the stuff we’ve been withholding from them. It turns out that it’s also good for them; if young children are introduced to history and science in concrete and understandable ways, chances are they’ll be far better equipped to reengage with them with more nuance later on. At the same time, teaching disconnected comprehension skills boosts neither comprehension nor reading scores. It’s just empty calories. In effect, kids are clamoring for broccoli and spinach while adults insist a steady diet of donuts.”
Who said that a child would not be interested in the empire of Kubla Khan, or the salt trade of West Africa? Not the child! More likely, we as adults silently decided such things were not worth studying. There will be time to spell and learn abstractions. For now, let us feed the voracious appetite of their minds.
Developing Visions of Grandeur
The third reason, framing vision, is closely united to the first two. We study history to give the child the best our world has to offer. Especially in early education, we want to develop in our students a deep awe for the wonders and beauties of our world. In History class, I love to hear the hushed “wow!” as we see the dome of the Hagia Sophia, the spectacularly strange inventions of Leonardo da Vinci, or the holy devotion of a saint.
This sense of wonder and curiosity is a glorious fuel to the classroom environment. I will continue to carve out time for decodables, math facts, spelling, and all the other essentials. But I no longer begrudge the time devoted to the story of the world. The students are hungry, and so am I.