Thursday, November 6, 2014

Revisionist History

 Revision isn’t an easy topic—certainly not in elementary school. It’s understandable because when a young child writes something, it takes considerable effort just to shape the letters. That’s why this same child is understandably reluctant to then toss this writing in the trash or rework it at all. In a similar way, we are often reluctant to let go of our ideas, even when they no longer stand up to scrutiny. How many of us secretly still consider Pluto to be a planet?

Yet revision shakes up our ideas and stimulates our thinking. It’s a re-seeing of our thoughts and ideas. Recently I read a Booklist review of an adult book about King George III, A New Kind of King by Janice Hadlow. The reviewer, Brad Hooper, claims that this is a revisionist biography because the author shows how George III was—contrary to what we have been previously led to believe—determined to be a “moral agent for the common good.”

Is this the same George III that I had been led to believe was incredibly stubborn and not just a bit off balance? What a different picture is presented! While I feel a bit betrayed, I want to know more. Reading this review also got me thinking about revisionist history for kids. It does exist and should be shared with them as part of the process of historical thinking. The Thanksgiving story provides us with the perfect opportunity. are two books about Thanksgiving that focus on re-seeing history. The first is Penny Colman’s Thanksgiving: The True Story, which not only compares competing claims about the “first” Thanksgiving, but also takes the reader along on the author’s search for “the truth.” She ends by posing even more questions to investigate and by acknowledging the complexity of this story.

The second book is 1621: A New Look at Thanksgiving by Catherine O’Neill Grace and Margaret M. Bruchac. This book shows that the Thanksgiving holiday “evolved” over time and draws on recent scholarship to tell a more inclusive, nuanced story that includes more information about the Wampanoag people. A foreword discusses the process of rethinking the past.

As we approach the Thanksgiving holiday, we have the opportunity to question our understanding of the past. In this way, we keep history alive.  And, as my graduate students tell me, analyzing books like these is “Common Core-ish.” That’s an added bonus.

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