Hidden Lessons in History

by Lisa VanDamme

You know that over the course of the three-year cycle of history, VanDamme Academy students are learning about the progress of human civilization: from the hunter-gatherers, to primitive agriculture, to industrialization; from Greek democracy, to limited government in England, to the constitutional republic in America; from primitive superstition, to the early science of Ancient Greeks, to the scientific revolution.

But did you know that your kids are simultaneously making a progress of their own?

Built into our history classes are important skill-building progressions. The students progress from short answer questions to essays, and from dictated notes to independent note taking. Since so many graduates have said that these skills were some of the most valuable in their repertoire as they moved on to high school, I thought I’d share a little more about this progress the students make in history class.

In 4th and 5th grade, classes alternate between lecturing and note writing. Mr. Lewis will talk for about five minutes, and then stop to record the essence of what he has said in note form. All the notes are written on the board, and the student’s responsibility is merely to copy them faithfully.

The notes are written in a formal outline structure, with headings, subheadings, and supporting points. Over the course of two years of seeing and recording these notes, the students start to develop an implicit understanding of the hierarchy of ideas in the lecture—of what is the central point, and what are the pieces of evidence that support, explain, and flesh out that main idea.

The students’ notes are checked nightly for omissions and errors, including grammar and spelling mistakes. Well-written notes earn hand-drawn smiley faces, and perfect notes earn smiley face stickers and sometimes even the coveted wombat stamp of approval.

At the start of 6th grade, the notes are still provided, but they are more comprehensive, and more writing is demanded of the students. Also, it is at this point that Mr. Lewis suggests they make their own additions to the notes, for which they are rewarded with smiley faces and public acknowledgement, as he shares with the class the kinds of things that can be helpful supplements to the notes provided. Then, at some point in their 6th grade year, they make the big transition— they begin taking their own notes, with only the headings provided.

The first reaction of the students is always, “Eek! No! Impossible! I can’t take notes on my own!” It usually takes two or three classes to convince them otherwise. Mr. Lewis explains the note-taking process, demonstrates it by lecturing and then asking the students to suggest what should be written in the notes, and then gives them a few days of follow-up discussion of their notes, discussing common mistakes and omissions and praising notes well done. As always, the notes are checked nightly and each class begins with corrections to those notes written the previous day.

In 7th and 8th grade, the responsibility of taking their own notes continues, and after two and a half years of this process, the ability to take notes is part of their DNA. (Won’t it be great when our grown students start sending their note-taking offspring to VDA?) Graduates thank Mr. Lewis for helping them to seamlessly develop this skill before they enter high school and college, where their peers are terribly intimidated by this process that our graduates have mastered.