Thursday, January 26, 2012

Books, not textbooks

Yesterday I read a Globe and Mail article about a Canadian Spanish War veteran finally being honoured for his role in the conflict. (Wow, I can't believe that only took 73 years!) I really enjoyed the article and reading about Mr. Paivio's experiences during his time in Spain. I always like reading stories about the very interesting lives other people live.

But today, my post isn't about that, although I think it's wonderful this 94 year old man is finally getting some recognition for his service. Reading this story reminded me of something from my childhood. It's about what students don't learn in school (although, remember this is just from my perspective.) I learned lots of really important and valuable information during my 13 years (including kindergarten) of pre-college education. But there was one subject that I was consistently disappointed in. In early elementary school I kept asking my mum when I was going to get to have History class, like I'd read about in many 'old time' books. It sounded so fascinating, and I couldn't wait to dive right in to learning about the past! But I had to start with Social Studies. I kept waiting for that magic time when Social Studies would turn into History. Maybe in grade five, I remember thinking. Hmmm, OK, maybe next year in grade six. But, sadly, that day never came. Not until I was in university. And while I was sitting in Social Studies classes, waiting for History to happen, I missed out on learning about some pretty interesting past events.

It wasn't in a textbook that I first learned about the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). No, it was Chaim Potok's coming-of-age story, "Davita's Harp," about a Jewish-by-birth, later Jewish-by-religion girl. That book touched on many aspects that fascinated - and still fascinate - me. The intriguing life of Hasidic Jews. Certain pieces of artwork, significant historical events in America and around the world during the 20s and 30s, and interesting snatches of creative writing. And, of course, the Spanish Civil War. I had learned about many wars and conflicts in Social Studies, but not once had the Spanish Civil War come up. A mysterious textbook omission eerily similar to the seldom talked about Halifax Explosion. (Wouldn't you know, I learned about that disaster from another young adult book, "Irish Chain." Why, again, isn't history taught by reading historical books?)

I believe that History - or Social Studies, whatever is the preferred term these days - shouldn't be taught by textbooks. No, not at all. It should be taught by historical books, either fiction or nonfiction, that draw the reader in and take hold of them, never letting them forget the fascinating past of this world. If it weren't for reading so many young adult books as a child and teen (and adult), I would have never discovered so many interesting facts about history. Turns out I didn't need History class or Social Studies. I just needed books!

Note: To be perfectly fair, there was one Social Studies textbook that I adored. I had moved to Alberta just in time for grade three. That year our textbook was about a girl who watched the news and found out, completely by accident, that she was able to climb through her TV and into the actual news stories. She explored all of the provinces in Canada that way and I was hooked. Hooked on history. Hooked on learning about my country. Hooked on traveling. Hooked on reading. Hooked on inventing my own crazy stories. In recent years, I've tried to find a copy of that grade three textbook but, with no idea of the title or how to figure out what textbooks the Alberta government approved for grade three in 1993-1994, I've never succeeded. If any of you know how to figure that stuff out or ever saw or used this textbook, I would love to get my hands on it. Any help would be greatly appreciated!


  1. Ali, You made my day!
    I'm glad someone else thinks Chaim Potok, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Jean Little, American Girls, whoever wrote "Underground to Canada", and countless other children's books - fiction and non-fiction - are the best way to get interested in social studies.
    I guess I taught my kids right.

    1. Awww, glad I made your day. You just made mine by commenting and reminding me of all those great authors that I love! Jean Little is without a doubt my favourite author, but Sarah Ellis and many other Canadian young adult authors are all right on her heels. ("The Baby Project" by Sarah Ellis is probably my favourite book of all time.) I think Barbara Smucker wrote "Underground to Canada," also a great book. And those Dear Canada books, well I've eaten them up as an adult, so I can't imagine how much I would have loved them as a kid/teen. Having a class read through that set would more than cover all the Canadian history ever required throughout elementary and high school.

    2. oh, what a great topic!!!
      i hope it is fine for me to add my book list...
      Looking at the Moon by Kit Pearson
      The Lights Go On Again by Kit Pearson
      A Doctor in the West by Morris Gibson taught me that you can diagnose appendicitis by if the patients breath smells like rotten apples.
      Anna is Still Here and Hide and Seek by Vos
      and Janey's Choice and Amy's Promise by Hunter
      This Rough New Land series by Sollitt
      and the set of books by Borntrager
      of Ellie and all the rest of the large Amish family.
      I have read so many good things and learned so much by good books.