A Proven Strategy

Three female students receiving an award.

Chinese American storyteller Charlie Chinn.

Copyright © 2002 Smithsonian National Museum of American History | Photograph by Smithsonian Institution.

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Program Goals

In 1998, the National Museum of American History, Behring Center, launched a history education and literacy project called The Story In History. The goals of the project were to:

  • teach children about history through the use of objects, documents, oral histories, and quality children's literature
  • improve student attitudes about reading through exposure to quality children's literature and the opportunity to own books
  • interest the families of at-risk metro-area students in becoming Museum visitors

As part of the project, fourth graders from participating metro-area at-risk schools:

  • visited the Museum's Hands On History Room (HOHR) twice
  • enjoyed a classroom visit from Museum volunteers
  • selected three thematically related books to keep as their own
  • attended the Family Literacy Festival with their families

The Festival's goal was to provide students and families with an opportunity to experience an enjoyable evening in the Museum. This after-hours event featured award-winning authors reading from their books, storytellers, and hands-on, object-based Museum activities. Five hundred children, their families, and teachers attended the event each year.

Fourth graders from at-risk schools were selected as the focus of the project because research indicates that fourth grade is the year when the thrill of learning to read is diminished by the association of reading with homework. Consequently, it is also the year when most students begin to fall behind. There is a direct correlation between students' inability to read at grade level at this age and the dropout rate for high school students.

Stories are a perfect way to introduce children to the study of history. As educational theorist Kieran Egan states, "Stories serve as building blocks for mature historical understanding."

Like reading and being familiar with history, understanding how to interpret objects helps students understand their world. The Hands On History Room (HOHR) was a learning lab in which students begin to develop the tools for interpreting the past through objects.

The ultimate goal of this project is to plant the seed for lifelong learning. Over fifty percent of the nearly 500 children who participate in The Story In History visit the National Museum of American History for the first time, and many own their first book as a result of the program.

Project Success

Program evaluation studies conducted in 1998 and 1999 demonstrated that children who participated in the Project had an increased interest in visiting museums, learning about history, and reading. These findings held true a year after their participation in the Project. One student wrote:

"Thank you for giving us the books (about the Navajo Indians). I have read my book over, and over, and over again . . . I'm looking forward to going (to the museum) again."

The combination of stories and visits to the Hands On History Room have been particularly important to children and their parents who are new immigrants to America. Mary Ann Ryan, the principal of the Annandale Terrace Elementary School, commended the program for the impact that it had on the lives of these children and their families,

"Most of our children are newly immigrated to the United States from many countries (more than 20) around the world. For our students, the opportunities The Story In History Project provided were a series of 'first' experiences. As you know, in order for students to fully understand new concepts, they must have experiences to build upon . . . The opportunity to look at, touch, and work with genuine artifacts made history come alive."

Since its inception, 2,000 children have improved their reading skills and enjoyed exploring history at the Museum through The Story In History. In addition, 7,000 books have been distributed through the program.

About OurStory

Girl reading a book.

Playing Fan Tan with author Laurie Carlston.

Copyright © 2002 Smithsonian National Museum of American History | Photograph by Smithsonian Institution.

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Smithsonian's History Explorer