To those who answer “nothing” or “they don’t need to learn it,” I have two responses—you’re wrong and you’re not trying hard enough to see the world through the preschoolers’ eyes. Do they have some grand concept of human history and arrive eager to see how the American experiment fits in? No. But they are routinely confronted with hints that some unknown past exists, and that it must be pretty important—important enough to take a day or so off school.
Although in later grades the calendar is unlikely to be the most logical, efficient, or coherent way to teach content, for preschoolers, all those special days off with funny names offer a way to connect their present to our shared past. (In a nutshell, that’s why CKLA Preschool’s intro to American history follows the calendar, but the U.S. history domains in CKLA K–2 are in chronological order.)
Most of the content in CKLA Preschool is the standard stuff of early childhood: families, animals, Goldilocks, etc. It’s important, but too typical to capture my interest. The “Important People in American History” domain is different, raising questions about what we ought to expect of 4 and 5 year olds and what the purpose of preschool is. What I find particularly interesting in this domain is both how complex concepts are introduced and that a simplified (simplistic, even) introduction is enough.
Take the lessons on Barack Obama (which are done in conjunction with lessons on Martin Luther King, Jr., before and after his birthday). Preschoolers learn that Obama is our president—which is likened to the school principal—and that he became president because “many people” voted for him. (You weren’t expecting the Electoral College, were you?) In a read-aloud and discussion, the role of president is boiled down to things like talking on the phone to important people, reading and signing important papers, and thinking about what laws (or rules) the country should have. Some images and text are devoted to conveying that Obama is a real man with daughters who have to do homework and walk their dog. Fair enough. To me, the most interesting aspects of the lesson come after the read-aloud, when time is spent on two essential concepts: laws and voting. The teacher begins with a discussion of laws; while the teacher is free to do the discussion as s/he sees fit, the domain guide has suggestions for how to explain what laws are, such as:
Laws are special rules that everyone in the country must follow. Laws keep everyone safe and help everyone get along with each other. There is a law that we must wear a seatbelt in a car. There is also a law that all children must go to school. Laws are rules that everyone in our country obeys.
Laws are like the rules in our classroom. Rules in our classroom keep us safe and help us all get along with each other. One rule in our classroom is _______. What are some other rules in our classroom?
A teacher could take this as far as s/he likes, expanding into family and school rules and/or helping the children create laws.
To understand voting, teachers are encouraged to pick something the class may choose, such as whether to have goldfish or graham crackers for their next snack, and have the students cast ballots. The choice itself is not monumental (though some 4 year olds may beg to differ), yet critical aspects of voting become concrete: marking one’s choice, dropping the ballot in the ballot (shoe)box, counting the votes, and—perhaps most importantly—having to peacefully accept the majority’s choice. It’s a social skills lesson as much as a citizenship, history, and academic vocabulary lesson.
Those lessons alone are worthwhile, and they become even more so in later lessons. (You were expecting that—it’s Core Knowledge after all. CKLA Preschool’s content is coherent and cumulative even when it’s following the calendar.) The presidency is reviewed while learning about Abraham Lincoln (for Presidents’ Day) and the concept of laws is revisited in the context of learning about Justice Sonia Sotomayor (during March, Women’s History Month).
I thought the concept of a judge would be difficult to convey, but the domain guide offers suggestions to make it comprehensible—especially for children who have already thought about what laws are and why we need them:
A judge’s job is to listen to different people and help make decisions about rules and laws.
We have a rule in our class that everyone plays nicely, but sometimes not everyone knows that this means sharing your toys. Sometimes, I act like a judge and help everyone understand what playing nicely means.
After a discussion, the children are ready for the read-aloud, which focuses as much on Sotomayor’s childhood as her career. Which brings me back to the purpose of preschool—not just preparing children to do well in school, but to embrace school as an opportunity to find out what life has to offer. When we introduce preschoolers to important people in American history, we begin showing them just how diverse and significant the choices before them are. Those are the lessons that will last a lifetime; the sooner they grasp them, the better.
This photo of Sotomayor being sworn into office (with her mother holding the Bible) by Chief Justice Roberts is image 7A-7 in CKLA Preschool’s “Important People in American History” domain.