Well, I'd eventually discover, my kids did. But, tyranny was only a minor part of their enthusiastic attraction to history, so they ended up - in ways much more persuasive than any teacher I'd ever had - taking me in and showing me the excitement that could be had by studying history. In a way, their tabula rasa innocence allowed them to accept the past 'as is' and skip the moral judgments which made me categorize things as 'good' or dismiss them as 'bad.' More effectively than Shakespeare, they put the play-fulness into historical drama, bringing individuals' personalities, the fascinating interplay of flaws & virtues, back into the stories. Of course, we also end up learning "the lessons" - both academic and ethical - intrinsic to the events, but without our primary concern being the weapons used or detailed listings of physical wounds inflicted (and without the requirement to demonstrate ultimate subject mastery in the form of a unit chapter test).
When Mikaela wanted to learn about WWII in fourth grade, I initially practiced my usual evasive maneuvers & put it off, hoping she'd forget about it until she was "old enough to handle it." I'd taken a college course on Holocaust literature that was thought provoking, mostly depressing, yet sometimes uplifting, and I solemnly looked forward to the time - when she was in high school, maybe - that I would be able to share those books with her - Night, Schindler's List, Survival in Auschwitz, Judgment at Nuremberg, What's to Become of the Boy? But, there was no way I felt she was ready for that now... or seeing war footage... or watching the compelling but brutal movies that even overwhelm adults...
I couldn't figure out how to teach WWII to the under-10 year old set besides the pedantic "just the facts, ma'am" approach, so I did what any thoughtful parent or teacher would do in that situation: I stalled. But, it wasn't long before Mikaela started independently building her own reading list and surreptitiously checking out WWII books from the library. She'd easily defeated my curriculum-setting axis, so my next strategic move as a homeschooling mom was clear: I allied myself with her efforts and she immediately began teaching me and her sister.
Freed from my preconceptions or didactic objectives, I was soon able to find excellent, age-appropriate resources & made several suggestions, but mainly I relied on Mikaela's instincts. Some books she started and then stopped after a few pages or a couple of chapters because they were "too scary." And, although I very anxiously put aside my apprehensions about letting her read The Diary of a Young Girl with its abrupt, wrenching conclusion, in an outcome I couldn't have foreseen, she never reached the end. Stopping halfway through, she declared that Anne was "too boy crazy" for her to continue. Since she had read other accounts of Anne's fate (including letters by Anne's father) and I know she will one day reread and finish the diary, I found this temporary assessment rather telling - it was clear that she saw Anne as a full person, not just a symbol of war, and, ironically, that genuine identification made her realize (even inadvertently) that she would better understand Anne's situation when she was more mature herself. She put Anne Frank's diary back on the shelf "for the next time we study World War II, Mom."
In the time we devoted to WWII, Mikaela learned an enormous amount and taught me even more as we followed her student-led syllabus (recorded in my teacher's log):
HISTORY - JANUARY: WWII for Mikaela, brief overview for Katrianna (studying dinosaurs instead)
Create collage of WWII drawings & symbols for portfolio theme divider
NY Times The Complete Front Pages & NY Times Greatest Stories collections: read 'real time' newspaper articles leading up to war, during war & victory celebrations; discuss tone of war-time ads in paper; read current articles about Pearl Harbor 65 yr anniversary & google for more info
Read fiction & non-fiction books: One Eye Laughing, The Other Weeping: Julie Weiss (Dear America); Number the Stars; Lily's Crossing; Sadako & the Thousand Paper Cranes; I Am David (too scary); American Girl: Molly on the Home Front series + A Spy on the Home Front + nonfiction study guide; The Devil's Arithmetic; Introducing Shirley Braverman; My Secret War; Diary of Anne Frank (1/2) + Nonfiction book w/photos, Anne's report cards & various info about her; The Causes of WWII; Witnesses to War: 8 True-Life Stories of Nazi Persecution; WWII Days: Projects ideas + background, facts; The Bombing of Pearl Harbor; A Time to Fight Back-Stories of Resistance; Growing Up in WWII; Memories of Survival; Children & War; Rescued Images: Childhood in Hiding; Hey, Don't You Know there's a War on?; Ten Thousand Children: Kindertransport; Carrie's War; Early Sunday Morning (Pearl Harbor); Journal of SP Collins, WWII soldier; Journal of Ben Uchida (Internment camp)
Watch movies/videos: Sound of Music; Miracle of the White Stallions (Vienna's Spanish Riding School); What Have We Learned, CB? (Omaha beach, France, poppies); 60 minutes show @ just released WWII records w/interviews of camp survivors, original Schindler's list document, Anne Frank's papers, etc; K's Egypt video: section on Egypt's involvement in WWII; PBS documentary @ women pilots program in TX (WASP); PBS show @ 1949 Berlin airlift; Bedknobs & Broomsticks (movie has WWII references, book does not); Molly on the Home Front tv movie
Fold 100 origami cranes based on Sadako book
Learn terms: anti-Semitism, Axis powers, Allies, D-day, blitzkrieg, dictator, inflation, fascism, Gestapo, Holocaust, kamikaze, isolationism, nationalism, U-boat, Nazi, Aryan, crematorium, concentration camp, deportation, genocide, ghetto, swastika, yellow star, atom bomb - Hiroshima, Nagasaki
Complete workbook pages; look up definitions in encyclopedia for terms; make battles list
Discuss artists, ie Paul Klee, labeled as "degenerate" by Nazis who removed works from museums
Write & type original WWII story: diary format @ US kid & her soldier dad serving overseas 12 pg
Interview grandparents about their experiences as children during war
Write & type 1000 word research paper on kids' contributions to war effort, cite primary & secondary sources + include bibliography (narrowed to 5 topics, started with Women Airforce Service Pilots & then switched to kids' contributions)
Attend talk given by former WWII female resistance fighter at university memorial event
Visit Holocaust museum, view & discuss exhibits
Visit Los Alamos "Manhattan Project" museum,view exhibits, A-bomb, talk with docents @ G-pa (M invokes moral absolutism here and insists bombs were wrong)
The following year in Europe, we got the opportunity to apply what we'd learned. One result of my newfound, daughters-inspired appreciation for history was an insistence that we not only see "fun" & touristy sites, but that we take some time to pay homage to the past, recognizing both the bad & good in history. I'd always struggled with the dichotomy of regarding war as wrong and ignoble, while I believed most soldiers were exceedingly brave and honorable. In WWII, the moral imperative for military engagement made 'right' & 'wrong' and the heroism of those involved uniquely evident. Yet, even when we cannot extol noble causes or justify a particular war, we will continue to glorify the people who sacrifice for our sakes and a victorious human spirit that often emerges most distinctly amid conflict. Having children - and relearning history with them - only deepened my sense of debt, humility and thankfulness to those who are willing to stand up and serve for their own and others' families.
For twenty years, I was an 'A' history student, but never retained - & usually couldn't forget fast enough- what I'd learned for the tests. History was summarily lumped in with my natural aversion to villainy, horror movies and obscure, irrelevant minutiae that, outside of a classroom, only occasionally showed up as Trivial Pursuit questions. But, apparently, what they say is true - even for the most incorrigible student, all it takes is the tutelage of motivating teachers: Katrianna, who began her Egyptology & Ancient Rome dual PhD program in preschool, and Mikaela, who so far has instructed me on medieval times, the British monarchy, the American Revolution and WWI & II. I'm receiving a first rate education this time around. In fact, I think I'm majoring in History...