Manitoba History: Review: David Weiztman, My Backyard History Book & Ontario Historical Society, Discovering Your Community
by Karen Nicholson
Manitoba History, Number 17, Spring 1989
These two books, which educators of young people should find informative, are dedicated to dispelling the myth that history is something that happened a long, long time ago, in a far away place, to unknown people. Both books advocate the philosophy that history begins with what is happening today, here, to you. Both publications stress the need, when searching for one’s roots and heritage, to examine the local environment first. Hence, the titles include words like “backyard” and “community,” indicating a smaller frame of historical reference, adaptable for growing minds.
Discovering Your Community, produced by the Young Ontario Committee of the Ontario Historical Society in 1984, utilizes a more conservative approach than does My Backyard History Book. This doesn’t detract from its originality however. The book is laid out in eight chapters, each covering some aspect of local history. These include family history, food, clothing, structures, artifacts, natural environment, transportation, and crafts and industry. For each chapter an introduction, a discussion of the relationship of the topic to the overall study of history, five sample activities, and a list of resources are given.
The program is aimed at ages six to sixteen and is meant to be used as a handbook for anyone dealing with youth. A few of the programs are rather nebulous or too difficult for the younger age groups, but overall the suggestions are interesting, subtle and often unique. For example, in the section dealing with food, the children are encouraged to arrange an historical picnic, complete with food, clothing and deportment of the period. Even adults would find that challenging! On the other hand, the idea of having a theatre group loan its costume collection, for students to examine and try on, is unworkable.
In the section focusing on changes in transportation and communication, children are asked to consider life without a telephone. For any teenager this would be a thought-provoking exercise, to say the least! In the natural environment chapter, students are encouraged to investigate the historical impact of community structures other than buildings (i.e., bridges, fences, dams), thus widening their focus of research. This exercise promotes consideration of every aspect of our environment and lifestyles as a future source of historical data.
While most of the resources listed as aids in Discovering Your Community refer to Ontario agencies, these have cornparable organizations in Manitoba. Therefore, with some adaptation, the program ideas laid out in the handbook are as relevant here as elsewhere.
Unlike Discovering Your Community, My Backyard History Book speaks directly to the child. While an adult may act as intermediary, most children over the age of ten would find the programs self-explanatory. This book was prepared as part of the “Brown Paper Bag Series” which contains volumes on various school subjects, all designed to give children a good time while learning.
Weiztman suggests that children begin the study of history with an examination of their own names. “Did your name belong to someone else before you? How did your name develop and change through the ages?” Discovering the answers to these and other questions will stimulate the student to question parents and grandparents. This is one of Weiztman’s main purposes: to make children aware that history is a celebration of time passing, and has a lot to do with people who are alive today. In their pursuit to discover the past, children should not only collect family treasures, documents, and memories to create a family archives, they could also examine the slang expressions used by their parents and grandparents, or look at the changes in music and dance during the last two generations. Teachers would find that even the most indolent student would rise to the challenge of such an assignment.
Weiztman also considers it important for the young to examine what their society discards. Old hubcaps, license plates, machinery parts, bricks from dismantled buildings — all these provide insight into our past. Weiztman is striving to create ‘backyard historians,” suggesting that you can always find something interesting tucked away in the backyard. In other words, he wants students to examine their immediate world for historical data. If this leads them backwards to the study of chivalrous knights in Medieval Europe, so much the better. But if it only teaches them that history can be fun, then the book has served its purpose.
Weiztman’s book, complete with cartoons, takes a more light-hearted approach to the same topic addressed by Discovering Your Community. For this reason alone it may prove more amenable to young minds. Both books, however, if properly used, could create an exciting new attitude towards history in the minds of the same young people who will one day be in charge of heritage preservation.