We have certainly come a long way from the days when American schools began to introduce media – ever so cautiously – into the curriculum to stimulate interest and enhance the learning experience. As a Boomer, I was constantly subjected to experimental instructional programs sparked by the launch of Sputnik, which sent the entire American educational system into a panic and launched a massive effort to “catch up” with the Soviets. I consider myself lucky to have survived. Remember filmstrips?
One of the most egregious – and certainly a monumental failure, at least in my case – was televised classes. The benefits of reaching hundreds of students at once obviously appealed to many administrators struggling with massive new student enrollments, inadequate facilities and teacher shortages. But the implementation left something to be desired. It’s hard to imagine that nobody had a clue how powerful this new medium could be, but thanks to innovative producers like Ken Burns, and enlightened broadcasters like PBS, we now know that history is not only interesting but highly entertaining.
But in the early sixties, a televised class consisted of a static camera trained on a clueless teacher who acted as if her shoes were nailed to the floor. (The unused chalkboard in the background was a nice touch). My favorite history lesson, in which the teacher actually used a prop (a step in the right direction), was when she held an ordinary stringed instrument and apparently in an inspired moment, said, “Let’s count the strings. One… two… three….” I absolutely lost it!
Which brings us up to our own enlightened time period, and my discovery of Tim Groves’ eye-opening book, A Grizzly in the Mail. I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this book. Every single theory he espouses and practices in the successful sharing of history is what I believe to my very core, and although I’m not a teacher, have always practiced in both my professional life and as a parent.
Tim Groves isn’t a teacher either, and is a seemingly unlikely proponent of history as an “active” rather than a “passive” pursuit. He started out as a designer and builder of museum displays – a behind-the-scenes job if ever there was one.
But his communication skills and enthusiasm are infectious. And his theories are spot-on. Not only does he espouse hands-on learning, but the activities have to be actually interesting. What a concept!
I took copious notes, but you’ll have to read his delightful book to get the full impact of his message. In the interest of space, I’ll summarize the points which resonated the most with me:
He ranks “sweeping people into another time”, “humanizing the past”, and role-playing as particularly effective. He refers to the study of history as “detective work”, and the importance of engaging the mind and piquing curiosity. “The chief aim of presenting history is not instruction but provocation.” And for those educators (or would-be teachers) out there: “it only takes a spark to kindle the fire of a lifelong learner”.
Wow! A lot of powerful ideas here. I not only agree with them whole-heartedly, but I practice what Tim Groves preaches.
Our tours are full of living history, period music, “authentic” meals (with some bows to 21st century sensibilities. I don’t have a great deal of confidence that bear grease would pass muster with my travelers). We also include demonstrations of how to use all manner of 18th and 19th century tools, guns, clothing, and cooking implements (sometimes even demonstrated over an open fire). Over the years I have noticed that this way of planning and conducting tours has inevitably led me to subconsciously reject the commonly used term of “passenger” to describe our travelers, in favor of the more accurate “participant”. To me it more closely describes our travelers on what we call “Journeys of Discovery”.
For travelers who wish to go where history happened, explore our shared past, and gain a better understanding of what our forebears endured in order to better their condition, you can’t do better than participate in a Vanishing Trails Expedition. You won’t have to saddle up every morning, or paddle a canoe, or face a very angry grizzly after your one bullet already missed the mark (or did, and failed to impress him). But you will arrive at the end of your own journey of discovery with a deeper understanding of those who came before, and how they persevered.
See you on the trail!