Children learning from children of the past: a study of fifth graders' development of empathy with historical characters
Empathy with historical characters provides a gateway into the development of historical thinking in children. When young students look into the lives of other people, especially children who lived long ago, they are motivated to investigate facts that are relevant to understanding the context of the times and can begin to perceive aspects of the events from a historical perspective. A research study with fifth grade elementary students was conducted to determine how these students could develop historical thinking skills using both primary and secondary sources. The students engaged in a background study of the first French colony in the state of Texas, Fort Saint Louis, which existed from 1685 until 1689. The researcher and students focused on the lives of four French children who lived with Karankawa natives after the demise of the adult members of the settlement. Using information about the history of the French settlement, as well as literature that describes the experiences of other children who had lived with Native Americans, the group engaged in discussions about the saga of the Talon children. With this knowledge, the students prepared a script and produced the setting for a drama to share the story of the French colony with the student body. Tape recordings of the group discussions as well as interviews with the individual participants before and after the study comprise the data for analysis of the development of empathy. While the information is almost the same as in the textbook, students are more motivated to learn facts about an historical era when they are engaged in lessons that encourage active involvement. By participating in historical simulations, discussing the lives of children who lived with Native Americans and helping with the creation of a drama, the students were able to advance their historical thinking skills and to develop empathy with the historical characters.