Developing Historical Thinking Skills at an Early Age
My fascination with history—and specifically with women who made it into the history books—was ignited at an early age.
It came about when I learned that Betsy Ross—yes, the flag designer—was living in my small town in northern Iowa in the late 1950s.
I learned this from my older brother one winter afternoon as we delivered newspapers. My brother subbed occasionally for his friend on a paper route, and I was honored when invited to tag along. It gave my big brother the opportunity to share his vast knowledge of historical lore with his little sister.
On that cold winter afternoon as I followed my brother from house to house, he pointed to a huge white “mansion” set back on a deep lot.
“You know that Betsy Ross lives there, don’t you?” he said.
“No, I didn’t know that. Who’s Betsy Ross?” I asked.
“She made the American flag!” he said—incredulous that I was ignorant of this important piece of information about our little town.
Everyone knew the tall, thin elderly woman who lived in the house. She was well respected but known as an “old maid.” In my six-year-old world it made sense that this historic figure lived in the grandest house in town.
Already I must have developed some historical thinking skills because I went to school the next day hoping to corroborate this story with a second source—Sister Mary Julita, my second grade teacher. I told her that Betsy Ross lived in the big, beautiful house a few blocks from the school. I wanted to see her reaction.
She laughed, “No, Betsy Ross lived a long way from here, and she’s dead.”
I was baffled. But I knew Sister Julita wouldn’t lie and that my brother had a habit of spinning tales (all those stray dogs that “followed” him home for years, for example). So I filed this episode away in my long-term memory.
It was years later, when as an adult I ran across this photo of an early resident of our little town, that I remembered the incident. The photo was labeled:
“Elizabeth—Bessie—Rolfe strolling on Main Street with her sister.”
So Sister Mary Julita was right. But my brother had managed to spark my interest in the past while teaching me some valuable lessons in historical thinking.
Betsy Ross House Official Site
Contrary to previous reports, Betsy Ross lived in Pennsylvania—not Iowa. This site tells her story.
Reading Like an Historian
Stanford University’s site offers guidance and lesson plans for teachers to help students develop historical thinking skills—such as corroborating and sourcing.