In Search of America’s Past: Learning to Read History in Elementary School – VanSLEDRIGHT (CSS)

VanSLEDRIGHT, Bruce. In Search of America’s Past: Learning to Read History in Elementary School. New York: Teachers College Press, 2002. 189p. Resenha de: BRADLEY, Jon G. Canadian Social Studies, v.39, n.1, p., 2004.

The first thing that caught my eye regarding VanSledright’s volume was the title. Not the bold title but, rather, the secondary or subtitle. Specifically, the notion of learning to read history appealed to my own orientations and resonated with my professional sensibilities. Too often, in my own experiences, charged and channeling words such as ‘learn’, ‘know’, and ‘teach’ (and their various conjugations) have dominated the professional social studies landscape, particularly at the elementary levels. Here was a volume, at least by its cover, that offered a glimpse of another avenue and dared to go beyond the apparent acceptable norm by venturing into a more complex and multi-layered landscape.
In the last couple of years, a growing number of respectable investigations have been reported that generally challenge the oft-repeated myth that children and/or young adolescents do not like, do not understand, and really have no interest in history. The practical professional experiences of elementary and middle school classroom practitioners clearly indicate that children have an unbending interest in and a connection with history (their own, their families, their cultural group, for example). It is perhaps one of those unexplained educational paradoxes that those who tend to design curricula and those who actually produce the supposed learning materials do not seem to be in communication with the front line professionals regarding what is and is not of interest to children. In a nutshell, history matters to children! Similar to recent investigations by Seixas (1993), Levstik and Barton (1997), as well as Barton (2001), to cite only a few, VanSledright continues this evolving investigative avenue of really studying in detail via actual classroom participations how elementary students deal with, confront, and narrate history. This is important work especially as the totality of the data being disseminated demonstrates how curriculum decisions might and ought to be made. Furthermore, these studies most pointedly illuminate how elementary teachers might reconfigure their own classrooms (physically and educationally) in order to take academic advantage of what the study of history has to offer.

In Search of America’s Past may be divided into three major segments. In chapters one and two, VanSledright chronicles a variety of contemporary pedagogical and historical threads that have a bearing on his specific study. Chapter two, in some colourful detail, describes the pupils and the classroom in which the author practiced his history teaching. As a former elementary school teacher, I found chapters three through five most illustrative in that they represent a sort of personal/professional narrative of VanSledright’s historical experiences with his fifth grade charges.

The final couple of chapters of the book contain both general and specific conclusions. The author is careful to note what can be absolutely taken from the experience and what might be more generally inferred. An interesting set of appendices complete this wonderful little volume as the various primary sources, documents and materials used throughout the whole of the in-class experiences are reproduced or clearly and carefully referenced.

As might be expected, VanSledright arrives at a number of conflicting or, at least, messy conclusions. Recognizing that the elementary classroom is a place best avoided by the faint hearted as well as those who demand neatly executed plans of action, the author’s narrative is a wonderfully honest sketch of the chaos, missed opportunities, constant interruptions, and lack of resources that is the real world of the North American elementary classroom. The author paints a scattered landscape which highlights the honesty of the pupils as well as the hard-nosed reality of that special place inhabited by pupil and teacher. In analyzing his own classroom observations within the historical and pedagogical framework that exists, VanSledright perhaps best sums up his own growth in noting:.

For my part, I was (and still am) convinced that children as young as fourth and
fifth grade – perhaps even younger – can learn how to investigate the past
themselves and benefit from the higher-status substantive and procedural
knowledge such a practice can confer upon children (p. 25).

In Search of America’s Past: Learning to Read History in Elementary School is an important book that should be read by anyone who is in the least interested in elementary education. The author carefully documents a case for the reading of history as opposed to the memorizing of history. VanSledright is cognizant of the historical narratives that the children have already acquired through association with the outside world (home, family, friends, televisions, for example) and he captures their intense interest in learning more about the history that impacts upon them and their environment. More generally, this volume is important because of the questions that are raised concerning teacher preparation and curriculum development. VanSledright offers the reader a realistic glimpse into that special world of the eleven/twelve year old pupil and how these budding individuals deal with the learning and internalizing of that unique subject called history.


Barton, K. (2001). I just kinda know: Elementary Students’ Ideas About Historical
Evidence. Theory and Research in Social Education, 29(4), 407 – 430.

Levstik, L. Barton, K. (1997). Doing History: Investigating with Children in
Elementary and Middle Schools
. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Seixas, P. (1993). Historical Understanding Among Adolescents in a Multicultural
Setting. Curriculum Inquiry, 23(3), 301 – 327.

Jon G. Bradley – Faculty of Education. McGill University. Montreal, Quebec.

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