The value of social history

By Sandra Watkins

This article explains how social history can be taught in the classroom, with suggested lesson plans that encourage students to inquire and learn more about the social history in their families and in their communities.

Who is your hero?

Mine is Andy Thomas, an Australian astronaut. How did a boy from Adelaide talk his way into the US Space Program? I would have to say that I am less interested in where or when he did his training, or what degrees he has, as to how he managed to teach himself enough Russian in order to work alongside cosmonauts on the Mir space station. These are not your everyday ‘order a coffee’ or ‘catch a bus’ language skills, but technical, scientific and mathematical language for 130 days in space.

If you ask children who their heroes are, their eyes will often swivel to the popular children for their choice of sports stars. What about the unlikely heroes such as the farm boy who went to war for his country, or the family of shopkeepers who served the Chinese at a goldfield against public opinion? I once read about a postman who climbed tortuous Mt Hotham in snow, delivered mail across the top, then went down to Dargo, several times a week – a return journey of about 97km on foot!

This is social history. It has a significant place and long-lasting value in our history curriculum.

As a Year 7 student in Queensland in 1968, I was required to memorise all of the towns along the Sunshine Route and the other rail lines in the state. I had never been on a train, nor had I visited or even seen pictures of these places. Although the teaching and learning of history (formerly social studies, then SOSE) has developed magnificently with the inquiry approach, we still learn the facts of the great and the mighty when the why of the small and unremarkable is where our lives begin and end.

History is the compendium of facts and concepts of times past, whereas social history is lived in our everyday lives by thousands of family researchers, weekend railway enthusiasts, and medieval re-enactors. Social history reflects who we are and what is important to us. Matthew Flinders had a cat called Trim who sailed with him, and Tom Petrie learnt more about the local Turrbal people by playing with them as a child in Brisbane in the 1840s than most anthropologists ever did by asking questions. It is about the ordinary people, or finding the human face of the people who achieve big things.

Historians debate their views of the big questions, leaving authors to fill in the gaps for children with quality historical fiction such as Playing Beattie Bow (Ruth Park) and The Rat Catcher’s Daughter (Pamela Rushby). This is a strong and valuable way to understand history, although children need to learn how to differentiate between historical fiction based on accurate research, and that which is based on fantasy.

The books I write are about the sideline stories of the big events, such as the outbreak of the plague in Brisbane: telling children about the ordinary townspeople who lived and died at the time, how the plague was dealt with (plenty of rat-catching dogs), as well as the men and fox terriers who still maintain pest management in the city today. There is a clear link between the past and the present with reference to what people were thinking.

Lesson plan: How to teach social history

Social history in the community

Ask the children to tell you the oldest person, object, or structure they know from their area. Choose one and explain that you are going to model some social history research. Together, you are on the trail of discovering your own area’s history.

The problem with this kind of research is usually a lack of resources, but some material is archived by local councils either in their workplaces or sent to their state archives, which are good places to check first. These sources, along with a list of museums that have good social history collections are catalogued on my webpage.

Trove is also a good resource with a huge collection of scanned newspapers and magazines that provides access to primary sources. Sometimes the advertisements reveal as much as the articles themselves.

Ask the class to brainstorm search words for your research item. Begin your research using a smart board and nominating a reliable student to operate the laptop, leaving you free for questioning and crowd control. The larger screen gives everyone a good view. Of course, no good lawyer or teacher asks a question to which they don’t already know several answers, so it helps to do some preliminary research yourself.

Follow research threads as a whole class with children involved in note-taking on sticky notes (one fact per sheet), depending on their abilities. For example, a couple of children could catalogue what interested them; a second group could be looking for questions to ask about what came up; a third group could be making notes on what the information made them think of; and a fourth group could record how information on a site relates to the project. Print out the sites you found useful.

For the following lesson, gather the sticky notes onto a large sheet of paper as a whole group. This will become the mind map for your research. As a new sticky note is read out, it goes up on the board grouped with others like it. Groups can be rearranged according to new information. Have a child who reads well talk through the grouped items so the whole class can decide if there is something missing or a point of interest to follow. This process enhances a child’s schema by relating a new topic to their real world. For example, linking the date that a bridge was built with the year the school was built, or linking theage of an object as something a child’s grandmother would have used, helps to make it real. Add photos, printouts and timelines from other studies to this research as a link. Social history is meant to be real and tangible.

Brainstorm a method of presentation: it might be a series of photos with some poetry, a recordable interview for the school’s webpage, a booklet for the local council’s archives, or a model to demonstrate to a younger class. Try to include multiple intelligences. Finish this one yourself at home, and then do a presentation as child would; remember that you are modelling.

Personal social history

Show the students a collection of things your family values: a photo of your grandmother, a pen and inkwell, a toy train, an old map, a photo of your pop on his horse on the way to school, or an old wedding dress. Ask the children to have a quiet two-minute think and make a note or two about an idea they have for a similar presentation, based on their own family. Glue it into their home book so they can check with their families over the weekend. Anything valuable might have to be photographed, although a big lockable box lined with some soft velvet might add to the drama and historical value. My class once received a lockable trunk of resources from the Queensland Museum which seemed like a pirate’s treasure box.

Go through the whole process again as you modelled, but this time on individual laptops or home question sheets. Let the children make their notes, sort out a mind map, and choose a presentation style themselves. Ensure that their presentations are short and at the right depth for all levels of achievement. This is their personal social history.

Self-directed research

The third step is to let them choose a person, item or structure from the district (brainstorm or use a prepared list) to work on as individuals, pairs, or small groups. This might be a bridge, signpost, elder, shop, song, or house. Check the local council or state archive records beforehand so you know that there is a resource available for each research project; a teacher aide, parent or community member could help you with this. Alternatively, you can enlist the help of locals through the school newsletter or community paper. The object is to find a remarkable story from the past.

I was checking out a garage sale years ago and found a heavy collection of beautiful silver cutlery wrapped in a brown paper bag, sitting in a plastic dish drainer.

’What do you want for this?’ I asked.
‘Oh… 20 bucks,’ replied the seller.
‘It was only Grandma’s’.

Poor Grandma – forgotten already! I am sure the cutlery had its own story to tell.

Sandra Watkins

Sandra Watkins

Diploma of Teaching (Primary)

Master of Educational Studies

During her 40 year career as a Queensland primary teacher, administrator, home school teacher and tutor, Sandra has been passionate about promoting involvement and engagement between content and learners. She wants children to feel at home with history, and finds a good social history story to be the catalyst, especially for reluctant readers. Her website is a storehouse of information to make teachers’ jobs easier and more interesting.