Why Teach Ancient History in Kindergarten?
People are often surprised to hear that one of the four classes taught in Kindergarten at The Saint Constantine School is Ancient History. As a Kindergarten teacher, I am frequently asked questions like, “Don’t your students get bored?” “How can they understand it?” And my personal favorite: “No offense, but why bother? They won’t remember it anyway.”
It is true that the ins and outs of Ancient History can get very technical, especially if you are really delving into the politics and technical military aspects of the stories. But I can’t help feeling, when people ask me questions like these, that they are remembering the worst history textbook they’ve ever read, and then imagining me droning it over the din of a dozen bleary-eyed five-year-olds. I promise you: Ancient History at our school looks very different than your nightmare textbook memories.
A long string is pinned to the wall of our Kindergarten classroom, and any one of my students could tell you that it is called a Timeline. Pictures are clipped up to it when a new civilization or major figure is introduced. We begin Ancient History class with a reading or discussion on the topic of the day, generally following the ordering of events given by Susan Wise Bauer in her book, Story of the World, Volume 1: Ancient Times. We talk a lot about maps, modern and ancient, and are working on learning cardinal directions. We talk about event sequencing, and discuss the ordering of historical events as well as of our own personal stories. We talk about time and how we can see it pass. Recently we’ve been talking a lot about calendars since reading that the Babylonians were the first to divide a year into twelve months. My students are quick to pick up on connections between disciplines – a fact I noticed again today during Science, when during a conversation about seasons, one student reminded us that we use months, days and hours just like the people in Babylon did. Ancient History in itself does not go over their heads – only boring teaching does. They are intellectually fully capable of processing, at least basically, the world events that have led humanity to today.
But I believe that there is an even greater good in teaching Ancient History to five-year-olds. I’m always glad to see the lessons sink into their heads, but am even more glad when I see it sink into their hearts. Early this week, we read about the Babylonian ruler Hammurabi and his famous Code of Law. I read some choice examples from the Code, and the class listened with rapt attention (The fact that several of the laws ended with someone losing a hand or a head was particularly gripping to a few of my students). Afterwards, I asked them what they thought of Hammurabi’s Code; whether the laws were good or not, and why. There was some debate over whether it was ever “okay” to cut off someone’s hand or their head.
I then asked, “If you were the ruler of your own kingdom, what rules would you make?”
It was like a light switch turned on inside each student. Suddenly each of them had unlimited power; the imaginative work actually caused a physical change in the way each of them sat in their chairs, the way they held their heads.
“I would make it so that no one could hurt anyone else,” one student said.
“Yeah,” another chimed in. “And if they do, they get in trouble. But not killed. Maybe just put in jail.”
A third added: “And everyone has to be nice to people who don’t have food, and share their food with them.”
“And no one can bring guns into schools or gas stations or libraries.”
“No one can rob houses. If they do, they have to give everything back and say sorry.”
“People who are stronger should help people who aren’t.”
“Everyone has to protect each other.”
This conversation continued for a long while. Generally, the students ruled that kindness is good while selfishness and violence are not to be permitted. Eventually I asked, “Do you think there has ever been a time where laws like that were followed all of the time?”
A busy silence followed, and then one student raised his hand: “Probably just in Heaven.”
Another student added, almost to herself: “Someday in Heaven.”
In Kindergarten’s Ancient History class, a bullet-point list of memorized trivia is not the end goal. True consideration of time, and our place in it, is. We study the past because we have so much to learn about the world, ourselves and our Maker, and maybe if we ask the right questions, we will be better equipped to step into the future. Equipped not only because we’ve learned from our mistakes, but because we’ve seen Goodness, and Goodness is transformative.
During late afternoon recess on the day we discussed Hammurabi’s Code, I saw one of my students – an exceptionally active and energetic little boy – crouching over a small lump in the dirt. Approaching, I saw that it was a damp leaf with seven or eight snails clinging to it. When asked what he was doing, the student replied, “I’m protecting the snails. They’re very small.”
“That’s kind of you to protect them,” I said.
“Well, someone might step on them. I’m bigger, so it’s up to me to keep them safe.”
And he did.