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Felicia Arnold


"My love for history truly stems from my years as a student sitting in boring history classes," recalls Felicia Arnold. "I memorized dates and locations but never saw how they affected people. Once I began teaching my eight-year-olds, I became determined to help them enjoy learning about real people and how historical events affect them as American citizens. We also studied some mistakes of the past and how we can learn from them."

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Arnold taught third grade at Rolling Hills Primary School in Vernon, New Jersey, for twenty-five years before retiring in July 2006. Today she does private tutoring and conducts math workshops for K-6 teachers at Sussex County Community College. She remembers laying the foundation for her approach to teaching history when she used the character of Felicity from the American Girl book series to help her students understand the Revolutionary War.

The class enjoyed seeing history from the point of view of an eight-year-old "friend" so much that Arnold began to wonder if real historical figures could be "friends" too. Soon Thomas Jefferson became "Tommy J." and Benjamin Franklin became "Ben" to her students. Making the characters real made the conflicts of 1775 much more accessible for the students.

"They enjoyed role-playing the two adversaries, the Patriots and the Loyalists," says Arnold of her third graders. "They could relate to the peer pressure to follow the Loyalists when they really wanted to rebel with Tommy J. They could also relate to sibling rivalry when Ben and his brother James Franklin would fight in James' print shop."

In their goal to make history more personal, Arnold and her students performed a play about Tommy J., Ben, and their compatriots. The play required the children to learn the historical facts by reading, creating study guides, and conducting research. Tyler, one of Arnold's most memorable students, loved her lessons so much, his mother said, that he became hooked on watching the History Channel with his dad. After the programs, he and his father would discuss and debate the issues of the Revolutionary War.

"When Pierre L'Enfant could not get along with his fellow workers, he picked up the plans for Washington, D.C., and left for France," explained Arnold. "Kids know how it feels to be left holding the bag. They really appreciate the fact that Benjamin Banneker had such a great memory and got along with his workers and created Washington, D.C. They also realize how fantastic that was, considering that Benjamin Banneker was a free black man in the 1790's."

Arnold suggests teachers find an historical figure to employ when they introduce any history unit. Her students studied Alice Paul when they discussed women's suffrage. Harriet Tubman was their guide through the Underground Railroad, and Carry Nation led them on the journey against alcoholism.

"To learn about women's roles in creating our great nation, we researched Annie Oakley, Amelia Earhart, Rosa Parks, Helen Keller, Sojourner Truth, Clara Barton, Sybil Ludington, and Molly Pitcher," added Arnold. "I truly loved teaching these historical units."

Article by Cara Bafile
Education World®
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