Second Graders Thinking Historically: Theory into Practice

Fallace, Thomas D


In this paper we describe the action research projects of two second-grade teachers. Using the state-mandated content on famous Americans, the teacher/researchers developed foundational levels of historical thinking in their second grade students. To develop temporal understanding, the first teacher employed a time line of visual images to place the historical figures in their social context. The second teacher used multiple storybook accounts of these famous Americans to lay the foundations for further investigations in historical inquiry. We suggest that at the second grade level both the concepts of narrative and historical empathy are in the process of development and that a curriculum centered on the transmission of historical content can also develop these ideas.


The teaching of history in the primary grades has been a source of debate in recent decades. In the 1980s and 1990s researchers began questioning the commonly adopted scope and sequence known as “expanding horizons/ environments.” This scheme began in the primary grades with the near and familiar and then expanded to the distant and unfamiliar in subsequent grades. Some researchers demonstrated that this curricular sequence was based upon outdated, racist theories of the cultural epochs and recapitulation (Akenson, 1987; LeRiche, 1987). Some suggested that it was based on misguided, Piagetian notions that history was too abstract for young children to understand (Egan, 1989; Levstik & Pappas, 1992; Crabtree, 1989). Others used the expanding horizons sequence as a means of attacking the underlying assumptions of the social studies itself (Ravitch,1987; Egan, 1980). Despite these different perspectives, by the early 1990s a near consensus emerged that expanding horizons was no longer an appropriate curricular framework for elementary age students. Educators offered many suggestions to take its place.

Brophy & Allman (1996) suggest that in the place of “expanding horizons” the elementary social sciences should be integrated and centered on powerful ideas and cultural universals such as shelter needs, clothing, or mountain ranges. Egan (1989) argues that content should be delivered in the form of stories and myths with easily discernable dichotomies such as good/evil. Bickmore (1999) and Van Ausdale & Feagin (2001) assert that the curriculum should address real social issues such as race and conflict. VanSledright (2003) argues for the development of historical thinking through disciplinary endeavors. Levstik and Barton (1997) suggest that elementary children should engage in various forms of mediated action directed towards the development of citizenship. Ravitch (1987) and Crabtree (1989) argue that elementary students should learn historical content. Each of these researchers supports their suggestions with enthusiasm and sound theoretical foundations. But ultimately, at the policy level it seems that the Ravitch-Crabtree approach to content has won out, since many states have implemented high-stakes testing regiments that access the acquisition of standardized historical content.

This is certainly the case in the state of Virginia, where elementary students are tested for the cumulative acquisition of historical content knowledge via multiple-choice tests in the third, fourth and fifth grades. ‘ With additional testing during those years in mathematics, writing, reading and science, Virginia elementary school teachers are left with little room for curricular experimentation and flexibility (Fore, 1998). Thus, the content of the social studies is largely dictated by the fact-based standardized curriculum. As a result, it is extremely difficult for teachers to center units on cultural universals and social problems when they are expected to cover the material for the test. In this article, we suggest that all hope is not lost. We believe that powerful ideas can still be explored within the constraints of the curriculum. Teachers can transmit the requisite historical content, while at the same time developing and examining more authentic modes of historical thinking.

In this paper we describe how two teachers developed foundational levels of historical thinking in their second grade students through units on famous Americans. As dictated by the standards, the units investigated the contributions of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, Hellen Keller, Jackie Robinson and Martin Luther King Jr. To develop the temporal understanding of her students, the first teacher, Ms.Biscoe, employed a time line of visual images to place the historical figures in their social history. The second teacher, Ms.Perry, used multiple storybook accounts of these famous Americans to lay the foundations for further investigations in historical inquiry. She had her students draw their own narratives based on what they had learned. The successful implementation of these units support Jerome Bruner’s (1965) oftquoted assertion that, “any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage” (p. 33). We interpret “intellectually honest” to mean teaching specific historical content- in this case famous Americans- in a manner that simultaneously nurtures the development of cognitive tools for future educational uses.

Conceptual Framework

As mentioned above, in recent years the assertion that second graders cannot engage in the kind of abstract thinking needed for an understanding of the past has come under attack. In Barton and Levstik’s (1996) groundbreaking research of elementary children’s understandings of time, they concluded that by second grade most students are in the process of moving from a dichotomous characterization of time (long ago and close to now) to more complex temporal distinctions. Dates, however, had little meaning for children before the third grade. Visual images of social history are critical in accessing and developing children’s understanding of historical time. Allman & Brophy (2004) suggest that second graders can better comprehend historical information when it is organized in a narrative timeline using artifacts and visuals. This supports Thornton and Vukelich’s (1988) developmental historical time viewpoint, which asserts that certain historical time and history concepts are within the limits of young children, but these concepts need to be developed systematically and sequentially by the teacher. They suggest that historical time concepts should be taught in conjunction with history.

Overall, these researchers are not primarily concerned with students’ accumulation of accurate historical knowledge, as many standard-based tests require. In fact Brophy & Allman (2005, 2000, 1997) have demonstrated that second graders are plagued by pervasive presentism and maintain many historical misconceptions and inaccuracies. Instead they are concerned with the development of the cognitive tools necessary for historical thinking. But, what exactly is historical thinking?

Historical thinking is a form of disciplinary knowledge or for the purpose of this essay “protodisciplinary knowledge” (Gardner& Boix-Mansilla, 1994, p. 16). Historical thinking has many meanings (see Barton and Levstik, 2004), but for the purposes of this study we will focus on two related but distinct elements: historical empathy and the construction of historical accounts. Ms.Biscoe’s study addresses the first element and, Ms. Perry’s study addresses the second. Historical empathy (Davis, Yeager, & Foster, 2000) is the ability to appreciate the “strangeness” of the past (Wineburg, 2001). This includes being able to view history through the eyes of those who lived it, while understanding the limitations of trying to do so. Naturally, a precondition for historical empathy is temporal understanding, or the ability to “depict a person, place, artifact, or event in the past using some form of time language” (Thornton and Vukelich, 1988, p.70). Thus, temporal understanding can be conceived as a simpler form of historical empathy because a child must first understand that things change over time before s/he can appreciate how the context of the past affected an historical actor or event.

The second element of historical thinking is an appreciation of the discipline’s reliance upon narrative. This includes an epistemological understanding that history is not “out there” to be discovered, but instead is an imposition upon the past by the author of the narrative (VanSledright, 2004, 2002; Sexias, 1993). A precondition for this understanding is an appreciation that multiple narratives of a particular event, or person can coexist. Narrative is a tool used by individuals and societies to make sense of an overwhelming amount of information (Bruner, 1996). Narratives reflect the inclusions, exclusions and interpretations of the author(s). Thus, multiple narratives of any person or event can exist simultaneously.

Even though second graders may not be able to comprehend the epistemological complexity of historical narratives, nor can they attain historical empathy in its mature manifestation (as an understanding of intellectual and cultural context), the groundwork can be laid for future work in these areas. This aligns with Thornton and Vukelich’s developmental historical view, which assumes that “some concepts are mastered, others are added and old concepts may generate new meaning later in life” (p. 80). We agree with Thornton and Vukelich that historical time concepts should be taught simultaneously with history. Accordingly, we assert that the idea of multiple narratives should be taught simultaneously with the development of narrative as a cognitive tool. We suggest that at the second grade level both the concepts of narrative and historical empathy are in the process of development, and that a curriculum centered on the transmission of historical content can also develop these ideas. The following case studies will present examples how this may possibly be done.

Thornton (2005) recently wrote, “we need far more-examples, well-documented ones, of enacting social studies curricula, including how such curricula were developed or modified at the local level” (p. 108). This study seeks to answer this call and do so in an area- the second grade- that is rarely explored.

Research Method and Setting

These case studies were derived from action research projects that were implemented in Spring 2005 during the student teaching experiences of the second and third authors. Erickson (1986) argues that the reality of teaching is not “out there” to be discovered. Instead practitioners construct their own realities. Their actions are shaped and guided by their own meaning perspectives. Action research is practioner-based. McNiff, Lomax, & Whitehead (2003) suggest that action research “recognizes knowledge not only as an outcome of cognitive activity, but also as embodied; that is, mind and body are not perceived as separate entities but integrated…. knowledge exits as much ‘in here’ as Out there.”‘ (p. 17). The objective of “action research” is to capture the process of how the act of teaching evolves in response to the perceived reality of the practitioner(s) in a particular context. The findings are not meant to be generalizable; they simply suggest the possible as presented through and reflected upon by the meaning perspectives of the action researchers.

The action research projects were designed and implemented in consultation with the first author. Dr. Fallace did not participate in the action research, nor did he collect any data; data collection was done exclusively by Ms. Biscoe and Ms. Perry. The authors worked together on data analysis. Dr. Fallace met with Ms. Biscoe and Ms. Perry weekly to discuss the progress of their projects and to offer suggestions. During the duration of their research, Ms.Biscoe and Ms.Perry had full teaching responsibilities in the classroom of their host teachers.

The research took place in a middle-class suburban/ rural elementary school in East Central Virginia. Ms. Biscoe’s class contained twenty-three students (11 Male, 12 Female). Eighteen of her students were Caucasian, three were AfricanAmerican, one was Latino, and one was South Asian. Two of the students were designated to have special needs and one was identified as gifted and talented. Ms. Perry also had twenty-three students (11 Male, 12 Female). Sixteen of her students were Caucasian, five were African-American, one was Latino, and one was Middle-Eastern. Five of the students in the classroom were designated to have special needs.

Throughout the implementation of their units, Ms. Biscoe and Ms. Perry collected daily anecdotal notes, in which description was interspersed with analysis. In addition to their notes, Ms. Biscoe and Ms. Perry collected and analyzed various assessments throughout the unit. The specifics of their individual methodologies will be described below. Based on this analysis, the researchers constructed schematic continuums and placed their students at the appropriate levels.

Overall, the research was guided by the following questions. Ms.Biscoe asked: How do visual images organized in a timeline help second grade students develop their temporal thinking and historical empathy? Ms. Perry was guided by the question: How do reading multiple historical accounts linked with student constructed narratives help second grade students develop historical thinking? All the researchers considered: How can powerful disciplinary ideas be developed in a context of high-stakes testing?

Ms. Biscoe’s Unit

Ms. Biscoe designed her unit to enhance the temporal thinking of her students. She did this by constructing a class timeline, placing the images of the famous Americans on the timeline, and creating a historical context for each figure with visual images of cultural universals such as clothing, transportation, and schools.

Prior to beginning detailed instruction on each of the six famous Americans, Ms. Biscoe spent a lesson introducing the timeline and the idea of actively looking at images, or being “picture detectives.” She led the class in a discussion about what different kinds of images they see, and asked questions to lead the students to the idea that there were different types of images created during different times. She explained that as they discussed Washington they would be seeing paintings or drawings from the time in which he lived. As they discussed Lincoln, they would see black and white photographs. As they discussed Robinson and King, they would see color photographs. During this initial lesson she also introduced the idea that not all black and white photographs were from the same time period. She also stressed the importance of looking for clues in pictures such as clothing and transportation that would tell them about the time from which it came. At this point she showed the class some historical photographs and let them explore and discuss what they saw.

The timeline she introduced was clearly divided into three distinct sections, depicting the 1700s, 1800s, and 1900s. In addition to the class timeline, she provided each student with a handout including a smaller version of the timeline, which they filled in and frequently referred to during lessons. She used the timeline to make connections with the lives of her students.

As I introduced the six people that we would be learning about, I showed the class on the empty timeline where they fit, and also explained that it was during the 1900s that the students’ grandparents and parents were bora. I asked some preliminary questions like, “Could George Washington and Jackie Robinson have been friends?” About half of the class immediately shouted “No!” but many of the students seemed certain that the answer was yes. One student volunteered that he knew the answer was no because Washington was “way down here” on the timeline and Robinson was “over on that other end.” I then explained that we were going to be using pictures to learn about what life was like when each of these people lived. I stressed throughout the lesson that it was important for us to understand that, while all of these people lived in the past, they were not all alive at the same time, and that we would be using pictures to see this. Based on the discussion and student reactions that I observed during this introductory lesson, I felt that the class was nearly evenly divided in their understandings of time concepts.

The famous Americans unit consisted of two to three days of instruction on each figure. The first lesson on each person consisted of reading and discussing a story or selection about the person as well as the presentation and placement on the timeline of the images that showed the time during which he or she lived. The books she read were Chandra Commora’s George Washington’s Teeth (2003), Louise Borden’s Abe Lincoln and Me (2001), Martha Rustad’s Susan B. Anthony (2001), Ann Benjamin’s Young Helen Keller (1991), Derek Dingle’s First Time in the Field (1999), and Jean Marzollo’s Happy Birthday, Martin Luther King (1993). During each of these lessons, Mr. Biscoe allowed students to pass around the images, which she selected because of their depiction of salient clues such as clothing, transportation, people, and education. She then discussed the details that the students observed in the images and how they were representative of the time period during which the famous figure lived. Following this discussion, the students completed a worksheet, in a teacher-led whole-group setting, that focused on the relevant information about each person and their contributions to America. This was designed to cover the required content for the standardized tests the students would be taking the following year.

The next lesson on each famous American consisted of a follow-up discussion of the images and the timeline and the completion of a page for a Famous Americans booklet. Each booklet page consisted of a brief paragraph telling about the figure and his or her contributions, as well as a picture of the person. As students completed each page, Ms. Biscoe collected them. At the end of the unit, she spent two lessons putting the booklet pages together and completing the books. Additionally, she had her students glue an image showing what transportation was like during each person’s time period behind the picture of the figure. Ms. Biscoe spent the next two days reviewing the content information as well as the images in preparation for the unit assessment, which was a paper-and-pencil test. The test consisted of multiple-choice questions about the characteristics and contributions of the famous Americans. This was to prepare them for the kind of questions the students would see on the state-mandated test. In addition (for comparative purposes), Ms. Biscoe included a matching section, in which students were asked to draw a line from the famous American (Washington, Lincoln, Keller, Anthony, King and Robinson) to the corresponding pictures used in class discussion. She administered the test to the entire class.

When I designed the images section of the assessment, I decided to format it in a matching style, which required students to draw lines from a picture of each Famous American to the corresponding group of images showing his or her time period. I grouped the images by threes, and used images showing education, transportation, and clothing of each time period. I chose to use groups of images in order to provide the students with a wider variety of clues than they would have in just one image. I also used images that the students had seen before, as I had posted them on our classroom timeline. I did this because I felt that using completely new images would almost be setting them up for failure. Additionally, on the written section of the unit assessment, I included multiple-choice questions that asked students to choose the time period that each figure lived in, 1700s, 1800s, or 1900s. I did this in order to gain insight into the differentiation between the students’ ability to match the people with the correct groups of images and their ability to choose the correct time period in written format.

Overall, students performed much better on the image-matching portion of the assessment, than they did on the written multiple-choice format, which essentially asked the same questions but by linguistic means. This supports Barton and Levstik’s (1996) assertions about how images can assess temporal thinking skills unattainable through linguistic means.

Performance Tasks

After the whole class assessment, Ms. Biscoe selected six students as a representative sample of the class. Two of the selected students were identified with special needs (learning disabled), two were of average ability, and two were accelerated students (but not gifted and talented). These six students were pulled individually and given three performance tasks. The first task was to perform the matching portion of the unit test in the presence of Ms.Biscoe. The second task, which was administered four days later, repeated the first, but instead of using familiar images, the selected students were asked to match the famous Americans with images they had never seen. For the third task, which was given eight days after the second, the selected students were given eighteen images they had never seen and asked to place each image with a picture of a famous American. Ms.Biscoe selected images that contained salient clues of cultural universals such as clothing, transportation and schools. To correspond with class discussions, the selected images reflected the prevailing media of the time (i.e. paintings for the 1700s, Black and white photographs for the 1800s, etc…). While the students were performing the tasks, they were asked to explain their answers and respond to Ms.Biscoe’s open-ended questions. Their responses were taped, transcribed and coded for common responses. Based on the students’ performance and explanation for these tasks, the following continuum was constructed and students were placed at one of two levels.

Level 1- Students at this level could consistently distinguish between the different types of media presented (i.e. color photographs, black and white photographs, paintings) and link them to the corresponding periods and historical figure. In most cases these students drew upon their memory of class discussions, and did not seem to be able to place images they had never seen. For example, one student, when asked why he matched George Washington to a group of images, replied “Because they are paintings and I know that’s what they had back then.” Two of the six selected students fell at this level.

Level 2- Students at this level could consistently distinguish between the types of media presented and link them to the corresponding periods and historical figure. They could also draw upon certain clues within the presented images, but they did so inconsistently. For example, one student, when asked why he placed a picture of Lincoln with a group of images from the 1800s, responded “Because of the lady’s big puffy dress.” Four of the selected students fell at this level.

None of the students could consistently make distinctions between the periods based solely on the salient clues presented in the photographs. Specifically, the students could not distinguish between two images in the same media depicting different times (i.e. black and white photographs from the late 1800s and early 1900s).

Ms.Biscoe concluded that the students enjoyed being able to manipulate the images and place them on the timeline; she would often observe students looking at the images in their free time.

They really got into the idea of being “picture detectives” and getting to see how things really were in the past. Throughout the unit, the students were highly engaged, which was due in part to the heavy use of images. During one class discussion, I asked the students if they thought it was easier to get information from pictures or words, and the response in favor of pictures was overwhelming! I also noted many interesting student comments throughout the unit that reflected the students’ understanding of time, continuity, and change. During a class discussion about Abraham Lincoln, I told the class that Lincoln loved books and read all the time. One of my students said, “If he was in our class, he would probably get ‘Reader of the Week’ every week!” Another replied, “No he wouldn’t, he wouldn’t know how to use the computer!” During class discussions throughout unit instruction, I would ask the students questions such as “Could Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. have hung out together?” As the unit progressed, nearly all of the students would respond correctly to questions of this type.

The images helped the students create a historical context for the famous Americans they were studying. Instead of merely memorizing a list of characteristics and attributes, as required by the standardized test, the images allowed Ms.Biscoe’s students to further develop their temporal thinking skills. While the results suggest that at the second grade level this concept is in the initial stages of development, even those students at the lowest level could make some kind of temporal distinctions (recognizing different types of visual media) and link them to the historical figures. As Thorton and Vukelich (1988) suggest, second graders can engage in temporal thinking when it has been introduced in a systematic way. Ms. Biscoe’s unit offers an example of exactly what this may entail.

Ms. Perry’s Unit

Ms. Perry designed her unit to assess and develop her students’ sense of narrative. She also hoped to introduce her students to the idea that multiple narratives can coexist, or that an author must choose what facts to include in a story. She introduced this concept in incremental steps directed towards the final project, which was an individually authored student biography of Susan B. Anthony with pictures and captions.

On the first day of the unit on famous Americans, Perry introduced Martin Luther King, Jr. by reading to the students the biography Martin’s Big Words by Doreen Rappaport (2001). This book contained famous quotations from Martin Luther King, Jr., while also discussing his life from childhood to adulthood. On the same day, she read the book Martin Luther King, Jr.: People Who Made a Difference by Don McLeese (2002). This biography included actual photographs instead of illustrations and was part of a series of trade books available in a class set for the second grade. Lastly she read David Adler’s A Picture Book of Martin Luther King Jr (1990). During the discussion on King, she introduced the concept of multiple narratives and the term “biography” to the children.

At this time, I gradually helped them realize that all of the things in a person’s life could not be included in one single book; therefore we need to read more than one biography because each author includes different things about a person. After I had read each of the biographies I asked the students what they had learned from that book that they had not learned before, trying to get them to see how each of them were different. After reading the third book, the majority of the students could tell me that it was a biography, and, when asked how this book might be different from the others, one of my average students responded, “this book talked about Martin Luther King’s life as a child and how he sang in a choir.” This student was able to remember the picture from Adler’s book showing King singing in a church choir as a child. This showed that this student was in fact learning through the narrative.

After reading all of the biographies, Ms. Perry asked the students to draw a single picture with an explanatory caption, showing what they thought was the most important part of Dr. King’s life. Some students asked if they could copy pictures straight out of the biographies. She replied that they could look at the books, but they were not to copy any pictures directly from it.

The study of Abraham Lincoln followed a similar pattern of introducing multiple narrative accounts and having students draw their own pictures based on those accounts. First Ms. Perry played a National Geographic Society book on tape about Lincoln entitled, Who was Abraham Lincoln?(1993). The next day she read Young Abraham Lincoln, by Andrew Woods (1992). Both accounts included information about the civil war, ending slavery, Lincoln’s presidency, and his assassination. However, Woods’ book focused more on Lincoln’s life growing up and how he became president, while the first book was more about his presidency and the importance of the end to slavery.

When discussing the concept of multiple narratives during this lesson, the students seemed to be picking up on it. I asked, “Why do I have to read this second book when we already read about Abraham Lincoln yesterday?” The responses were similar to previous responses to this kind of question: “Well, he was a very important person.” One of my above-average students, however, responded even better saying “because his life was very long and he did lots of things.” After we read the second book, I asked the students what they learned from this book that they did not already know from the other book. This got them thinking about the concept of multiple narratives more, and they were pretty good at picking out details that were in just one of the books.

This time Ms. Perry asked her students to draw two pictures depicting Lincoln’s life. When asked to draw more than one picture for this famous person, the children seemed to have a little more difficulty. Ms. Perry attributed this difficulty to that fact that the biographies were read on different days. She decided that for George Washington, she would need to read them on the same day.

The study of the life of George Washington followed a similar pattern to the previous two famous Americans. She read two biographies, A Picture Book of George Washington by David Adler (1990) and another National Geographic Society book on tape series entitled, Who was George Washington? (1993). She decided to read A Picture Book of George Washington first, and read the book on tape second. She reversed the books’ order because she wanted to see if it made a difference in what the students were writing and drawing pictures about.

During the read-alouds, I reinforced the idea of a biography and we talked again about why it is important to read more than one story for each person we read. To incite this discussion, I asked the students if we should read another book on George Washington and why. Most of the students responded overwhelmingly “yes.” Their responses mostly centered on the fact that he was important, and I restated the fact that each book includes different things. The students, at this point, had not yet gone past the idea that “he was very important,” to relay to me ideas such as “each book includes different things.” This showed that the “concept of multiple narratives” is a bit harder for students at this level to grasp.

Before drawing the pictures for their Washington biography, Ms. Perry instructed the students to fold their papers in half twice so that they had four squares. She then asked them to number each square 1-4 and to write four things about George Washington’s life and illustrate them. She related to the students that this would be practice for a biography they will be writing about Susan B. Anthony.

One of my much accelerated students asked me before he started writing and drawing, “Are we supposed to write it in order of how it happened in his life?” I instructed this student to write it however they thought was the best way to do it. I did not want to encourage or discourage the students from writing in a story format because I wanted to see how they are thinking about history, as a narrative or as a series of facts.

For the final study of Susan B. Anthony, Perry read the class three biographies: Susan B. Anthony: People who Made a Difference by Don McLeese (2003), Susan B. Anthony, by Martha E. H. Rustad (2001), and Susan B. Anthony: Daring to Vote, by Barbara Keevil Parker (2000). The final book was too long so she did not finish reading it.

Throughout the unit, I had explained to the children that we were drawing pictures and writing captions as a way to practice writing our biographies for Susan B. Anthony. While they knew we would be doing this, the students seemed a little apathetic by the idea of writing biographies. However, once they understood that they would be drawing pictures more than they would be writing; they seemed to get into it a little more. I explained to the students that they were going to write a biography of Susan B. Anthony’s life using all of the things they had learned about her from the books we had read. I emphasized that the book had to be at least five pages with a sentence and picture on each page. At this time, I showed them an example of a blank book I had put together in order to give them an image of what their biography would look like. I first gave out a biography worksheet for the students to use to get their thoughts down. This simply had a space for the students to write a title, their name (the author’s name), and five lined spaces for each of the five pages of their books. Some students chose to have an extra sheet with more lines on it for more pages. Two of my special education students went with their teacher to work on their writing. Most of the students wrote good facts on their preliminary sheets and only a handful wrote more than five items. I explained to the students that each number on their worksheet would mean a page number in their books. One of my lower students asked me “do we have to put it in order?” I told her that she could write her book anyway she chose because she was the author. I asked the students to arrange their biographies in the best way they thought it should be written. I did not want to encourage, nor discourage the students from putting their books in a chronological order.

The students were given two days to work on their biographies of Susan B. Anthony. Each page contained a full-page illustration of the contribution with a brief description below it. Although Ms. Perry aided her students with sentence structure and spelling, she tried not to influence their choice of contributions.

Analysis of Biographies

We analyzed the final biographies of Susan B. Anthony and coded them for common responses and temporal references. Based on this, we constructed a continuum and placed the students at the appropriate level.2

Level 1- Students at this level demonstrated the retention of information from the storybooks. Their responses contained general attributes or contributions of historical actors without any temporal references. For example one student wrote, “Susan B. Anthony was a woman who made women be able to speak.” There was no evidence of using narrative as a cognitive tool. Two of the twenty students were at this level.

Level 2- Students at this level demonstrated the retention of information from storybooks and included some temporal references, but used these references inconsistently and/ or did not place contributions in chronological order. For example, one student at this level wrote, “Susan B. Anthony died on March 13th; She learned to read and write when she was 3; She is on the Susan B. Anthony coin; She moved to New York; She began to teach when she was 17.” Fifteen of the twenty students were at this level, in which narrative seems to be in the initial stages of development.

Level 3- Students at this level demonstrated the retention of information from storybooks, included temporal references, and generally put contributions in chronological order. For example one student at this level wrote: “Susan was bora February 15, 1820; She got arrested but did not go to jail; She learned to read and write when she was 3; She was 1 of 8 children; She died March 13, 1908.” Only three of the twenty students were at this level, in which narrative was being employed more consistently.

Most of the students fell at level two, demonstrating that students are just beginning to use narrative as a tool for organizing historical information. Had Ms. Perry explicitly told her students to attribute dates to the contributions and place them in order, more of her students would have likely been at level three. She deliberately restrained from doing this.

Overall, Ms. Perry found that teaching using a narrative format proved to be very beneficial for the students. In all four projects, the students demonstrated a wide range of responses to the books that were read. By the conclusion of the study, most were able to single out smaller details about a person’s life, instead of making broad statements or listing general attributes. For example, after the first two lessons, most students wrote responses such as “the most important part of Martin Luther King, Jr’s life was when he brought black and white people together” or “an important part of Abraham Lincoln’s life was when he was president.” While these were very important notions, and closely aligned with the content of the standards, they were not specific to either of the narratives she had read, telling her little about what these students were picking up from the books. But this improved as the unit continued.

During these lessons, a select number of students (mostly the higher students) chose specific events from one of the biographies such as “…when he led the March in D.C.” or “when he gave the ? have a dream’ speech.” This showed me that some of the students were picking up different things from the biographies we read, and thus learning from the narratives. During the Abraham Lincoln lesson, some students pulled out specifics such as “he was a lawyer,” “he liked to read and write,” and “he played tricks on his step mom when he was little.”

The above exemplified how the students were not only learning the basic information about Lincoln, but also picking out information that they found interesting from the narratives. This attention to detail steadily increased with each lesson, as the data from the George Washington and Susan B. Anthony lessons were much richer with detail and temporal references.

Despite these gains, misconceptions continued to plague their responses. In their reports on George Washington, ten of the students wrote that he had chopped down a cherry tree. This was not mentioned in any of the biographies, nor had Ms. Perry ever implied this in class. In fact, when some students mentioned it, she responded that the story about the cherry tree was a myth. This confirms Brophy & Allman’s (2000) findings about the pervasive and persistent nature of student misconceptions. Children learn from various sources outside the school curriculum and bring this misinformation to class.


Once again, the findings in this study are not meant to be generalizable, especially since the performance tasks included such a small number of students. But they suggest what is possible in the second grade classroom. The data demonstrates that for second grade children temporal and historical understandings are at different stages of development for different students. second graders can comprehend these ideas, but their understanding is incomplete and/or inconsistent. Nonetheless, Ms. Biscoe and Ms. Perry both observed substantial growth in most of their students in these respective areas. Thus, teaching these concepts was a rewarding and worthwhile endeavor.

In addition these case studies suggest that standard-dictated content can be transmitted in a way that also teaches different modes of historical thinking. Although it is extremely difficult in a high-stakes testing environment to center a unit on cultural universals as suggested by Brophy and Allman (1996), these units demonstrate that cultural universals can be taught if they are tied into the existing history-rich curriculum. The two do not need to be considered mutually exclusive.

Methodologically, using visual images to conceptualize history enabled the young students to engage in historical thinking in a non-verbal/nonlinguistic manner. The images provided an alternative entry point from which they could express their acquired knowledge and understanding. In many cases, paper-and-pencil tests assess reading comprehension and writing skills, rather than the acquisition of factual and conceptual social studies knowledge. By employing visual images in their instruction and assessment, the practitioner/researchers gained a more accurate sense of students’ abilities.

Finally, although this study does not provide the data to support this, it is reasonable to suggest that introducing students to proto-disciplinary concepts such as historical empathy and multiple narratives in the second grade will make these ideas easier to comprehend at a later time. These second graders will have a conceptual foundation upon which they can build their future knowledge. It may also allow them to become critical readers of text (visual and written) in general- skills they can easily apply to other content and disciplinary areas.

1 This is the testing scheme for the particular school in this study. Some Virginia school districts have a slightly different testing regiment, although by graduation all Virginia students have taken the same tests.

2 Three students were not included in the results of this study. One student moved out of the district halfway through the project, and the other two (special needs students) were not able to complete enough of their biographies to evaluate them.


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Thomas D. Fallace, University of Mary Washington

Ashley D. Biscoe, Smith Station Elementary School, Spotsylvania County, VA

Jennifer L. Perry, Wilderness Elementary School, Spotsylvania County, VA

Copyright Journal of Social Studies Research Spring 2007

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved

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