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The “Now & Then” Approach Teaching History to Younger Students

To take children’s knowledge where you want it to be, start with what children already know. That’s the concept and basis for the Museum of the Cape Fear’s “Now & Then” tour for students in grades K – 3.

The Museum of the Cape Fear, located in Fayetteville, North Carolina, is a branch of the North Carolina Museum of History located in Raleigh. The museum’s galleries interpret the history of southern North Carolina and include exhibitions about Native Americans, early exploration and settlement, Scottish migration, the Revolutionary War, the Antebellum period, transportation, the Civil War, textiles, a pottery exhibit, and a turn-of-the-century general store.

The museum’s education unit, charged with developing programs, believes that “history did not happen in a textbook,” and although programs and tours are designed to coincide with school curriculum, the museum is able to lift history from the textbook pages. The “Now & Then” tour compares the way students live “now” with the way people of earlier times lived “then.” “Then” could be a time focused on the lives of Native Americans, early European settlers, slaves, yeoman families, and so on. Touch items are used to enhance the “Now & Then” tour and to allow students opportunities to interact with history.

All tours begin with an introduction to museums. The docent explains the purpose of museums and how our museum got its name. As a result, new vocabulary words are introduced: preservation, artifact, region. The tour then proceeds with the story of southern North Carolina.

Starting with what children know “now,” docents ask them to describe the kind of houses we live in today. Students typically respond with such answers as, “My house is made of brick” or “I live in a mobile home.” As dialogue and discussion ensue, we learn that houses today contain several separate rooms, indoor plumbing, large electrical appliances, and climate-control units that heat and cool our homes. After this exchange, the docent describes the type of structures in which Native Americans of this region lived”then.” (The museum is located in an area of the state densely populated by Native Americans, who today live in the same types of structures as everyone else, and we do not want to give any other impression.)

Food is another example of how we compare lifestyles. When asked what kinds of foods Native Americans ate, students respond with the typical, textbook-learned answers: corn, beans, deer, bears. The docent then reaches for a cob of corn and a bear fur, passing them around for each student to hold. Other touch items such as gourds, baskets, and seashells aid students in visualizing the life of these first peoples of the Cape Fear region. It is this type of experience that lifts history from the textbooks.

As the tour proceeds chronologically, the next discussion centers on the exploration and settlement by Europeans. The docent asks students what it means to explore and why we do it? The students’ responses lead into the docent’ s interpretation of why and how Europeans explored and settled our area. While describing an early settlement, students can compare not only their own lifestyle to that of the early settlers, but also the lifestyle of Europeans to that of the Native Americans. The students learn, for instance, that Native Americans used gourds (as well as pottery) for dishes. They compare that with the delftware and earthenware used by the European settlers, which they can see in the exhibit.

A key principle of interpretation is making the tour relate to the visitor’s own experiences. This is particularly important when interpreting with children. When discussing the antebellum period in North Carolina, we compare the student’s daily routines “now” with children’s daily routines “then.” Since their daily routine is mostly attending school, the docent talks about children who would have received an education, and those who would not. This gives us an opportunity to discuss the value of education. They learn that children of wealthy parents were sent to one of North Carolina’s many academies, or the parents themselves taught their children how to read and write. As discussions continue, the students see that education certainly meant more opportunities for the future.

Furthermore, students become aware of how labor intensive life was “then” and how modern conveniences make life easier “now.” (Many students claim they would like boiling soap, dipping candles, and doing chores different from their own.) We compare and contrast using touch items — a bar of ivory soap with lye soap, candles to light bulbs, and irons we use “now” with sad irons used “then.”

One of the museum’s exhibits addresses the topic of transportation. After defining transportation, students are asked to tell the docent of the many modes of transportation we have “now.” The docent inteprets transportation “then” by comparing it with the forms of transportation the students offered. A recreated plank road in this exhibit usually grabs the students’ attention. After talking about how roads are made “now” compared with how they were made “then,” students are asked to imagine what it would feel like riding in a horse-drawn wagon on a plank road. Would they prefer riding on a plank road or a dirt road, which might be muddy or dusty?

The next topic of discussion on the tour is textiles. The docent defines the word, or if the group seems to have recognition, asks if anyone in the group would like to offer a definition. The main difference discovered about textiles from our exhibits is that “now” students buy their clothes, while “then” they grew the cotton or sheared the sheep, spun the thread, wove the cloth and sewed the clothes. A workable loom sits at the beginning of the exhibit area, reminding docents to tell students how the textile industry, so important in North Carolina, started in the home. A rag rug, which was woven on the loom, is passed around to each student. The rag rug, noticeably different from carpets “now,” provided the only floor coverings “then.”

An area of southern North Carolina is known for its pottery. The museum’s pottery exhibit includes a working treadle wheel. Again, we compare not only the uses of pottery, but also the way pottery has been made through the centuries, starting with the Native American coil pottery, to kick wheels, to the electric potter’s wheel. The Native American coil method is particularly familiar to children who play with modeling clay or playdough. Students make long snake-like coils similar to the way Native Americans did. Examples of Native American hand-built pottery are compared to pottery thrown on the treadle wheel. Students can actually hold pottery shards and discover differences in texture and color.

A turn-of-the-century, re-created general store completes the tour. The store is filled with artifacts. We ask students to do a visual hunt, looking to find certain items, such as an old toaster, an old sewing machine, coffee grinders, and other items. For those artifacts that they cannot identify, the docent explains what they are and compares them to modern equivalents, if they exist. If they do not, the docent explains why these items are no longer used. Then, we talk about the way that shopping malls “now” serve a similar purpose to the general stores North Carolinians relied upon “then.”

The “Now & Then” tour is a useful introduction to history for younger students who are just learning the concept of historic time. The tour accomplishes several important goals, including:

  • putting students in a time line, and giving them some idea about the progression of events and technologies;
  • making the past relevant;
  • enhancing what they are hearing and learning in the classroom;
  • allowing interaction with history through touch items; and
  • giving students a better understanding of, and (hopefully) an appreciation for, museums as institutions.

Given the abbreviated attention spans of children ages 5 through 8, the “Now & Then” tour lasts only 45 minutes. In that time, the docent reveals a whole new world to students and provides them with a foundation from which they can continue to build. Start with what students know “now,” “then” you can take them where they need to be.

Leisa M. Brown is Education Coordinator at the Museum of the Cape Fear in Fayetteville, N.C. She has been employed with the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources for over 7 years, working at three state historic sites before joining the museum staff. As Education Coordinator, Ms. Brown is responsible for recruiting and training docents. developing tours, programs, and special events, and aims to create a close partnership with the local school system.

Brown, Leisa M. “The ‘Now & Then’ Approach: Teaching History to Younger Students,” The Docent Educator 4.1 (Autumn 1994): 14-15.


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