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“But when am I ever going to use this?”

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This post is by Stacie Moats of the Library of Congress.

Image of person in graduation cap and gown holding a globe
Scupture of a figure in cap and gown, holding high a globe, outside Stong Hall at the main campus of Missouri State University (long called Southwest Missouri State University) in Springfield, Missouri.

Most teachers have heard some variation of this “so what?” question. I hear it frequently at home from my twelve-year-old. He’s frustrated by having to learn and often re-learn everything from sixth grade math concepts to (wait for it!) historical topics like the American Revolutionary War, which he views as completely irrelevant to his life. After spring break, his motivation for learning seems to decrease with each day that brings him closer to the end of the school year and his elementary school years.

“But Stacie, why don’t you unleash your primary source-based superpowers to inspire, engage, and connect with your child?” Or so I imagine you might be wondering. To be fair, both of my children have endured prompting from me to observe, reflect, and question such a variety of sources for so many years that they probably mumble, “What do you notice?” “What makes you say that?” and “What else do you want to know?” in their sleep. I respect and empathize with older adolescents’ developmental need for detachment from most things their parents hold dear. But I will confess to my nostalgia for the joy of primary source-based learning with my kids, such as the activities described in past blog posts about Lucy the Elephant and The Question Game.

So perhaps you’ll understand why I burst out laughing on a recent weekday morning when my son walked into our kitchen wearing his new “Class of 2023” t-shirt. Emblazoned across his chest were the words, “See. Think. Wonder.” He simultaneously grinned and rolled his eyes at me while moving quickly to make his breakfast, both acknowledging our shared recognition of the irony and attempting to end any further investigation of him as a source for more information.

Maybe this almost-teenager who attended Library of Congress teacher workshops in utero is not quite ready to acknowledge the value of learning with primary sources. But he now applies historical research skills learned at home and in school to his everyday life. In preparation for our meeting with several of his teachers about transitioning to middle school this fall, he wrote responses to a page of prompts provided by one of his teacher mentors. What did he write about?

  • Observations relating to his challenges and successes as a learner based on nearly seven years of classroom experiences.
  • Reflections on how he might apply this learning to achieve his academic goals.
  • Questions asking what, specifically, the future might hold for him next year in a new school with different schedules, workloads, friends, and teacher expectations.

He referenced his notes and advocated for himself using all of this information at the meeting. When my son’s teacher complimented him on being so well prepared, the depth of his smile indicated to me that, perhaps for the first time, he truly understood why the knowledge and skills gained through research are so useful when advocating for himself and others, now and in the future.

So, thank you for guiding your students in analyzing primary and secondary sources. Please continue encouraging their questions and further investigation, especially when they ask, “So what?” And I hope that you, too, get to be in the room when they experience that “A-ha!” moment of applying skills gained through learning about what may have seemed to be only a lesson on unrelated history to benefit their everyday lives.

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Comments (3)

  1. How fun to see that your super powers are real…like we all knew!

  2. Loved this piece! Observe~Reflect~Question….way to apply LOC to your lived life! Thanks for sharing!

  3. Not only was this funny, but it was also very heartening to see! I’m currently in a teacher preparation program and I love to utilize the “see, think, wonder” prompt. I think it’s a useful way to get students thinking about what they’re looking at and it can prompt some interesting discussions! It’s especially helpful in analyzing historical pictures and cartoons, and it promotes deeper thinking about the topic. I think the “when am I gonna use this?” is a tough thing to tackle in history, which is seen as “boring stuff that happened a long time ago.” However, analysis skills that are gleaned in historical thinking can help people throughout their lives! Thanks for the read 🙂

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