As seen in the October 2001 edition of W&ET Magazine
Standing Up For History
By: Ed Fedory
History was never one of my favorite subjects at school. It had too many numbers in it- 1620... 1776... 1865... 1941- and it seemed as if everyone we studied about was dead. It wasn't like physical education, art, or even lunch, where you could get your hands working, except for when the teachers wanted you to take notes or do that thing they called homework. I never cared that much for English classes, either. They always seemed to be nagging about "getting your ideas down on paper," and the worst day was the one when you were asked to stand in front of the class and do some public speaking. It always seemed that the words public humiliation would have been a lot more appropriate!
Few people ever get a hands-on experience with history. A variety of recovered relics, in this case a Revolutionary War bayonet, helps to illustrate the fact that history lies just below the soil.
How I came to love history, have a passion for writing, and enjoy speaking to groups about relic hunting and history, is certainly beyond me. Maybe it had something to do with those early lessons about sharing what we were taught in kindergarten, or maybe it's kind of like "show & tell" for big people. Whatever the case may be, it gives us, as relic hunters, the opportunity to fan a small spark of interest in our nation's past, and kindle a fire of understanding in the young people of today.
Feeling relaxed with your audience is essential, whether you're speaking to a group of Boy Scouts, elementary students, or a local historical society. The focus of their interest, and the type of words you choose to use, will vary. Feel comfortable with your audience... and make them feel comfortable.
Although your immediate reaction might be a resounding, "Yeah, right! I couldn't do that!" the truth of the matter is, that you can. And it can be not only a gratifying experience, but a heck of a lot of fun in the process.
The echoing sounds of a cannonball rolling across a floor can give a far more graphic idea of its destructive power than a picture from a history book, especially to young and imaginative minds. Leave plenty of time for questions. They're sure to have a million once the presentation is over! (Photo by Charles Ashby)
Knowing your audience is the primary key to any successful presentation. With younger audiences, the more "hands on" material you have available, the better your talk will go over. Large and heavy artifacts should not be passed around from student to student... they are still not as coordinated as we often think they should be, and I always refrain from passing around any artifacts which are delicate and shouldn't be dropped, for the same obvious reason. Larger objects can be displayed on tables, or on the floor if the students are permitted to gather around.
Keep any props that will help illustrate your talk close at hand. Avoid turning your back to the audience. Keep eye contact, and address all segments of the group. (Photo by Harvey Durham)
When I speak before school groups or other youth organizations, it is never a "free ride." I expect and encourage questions, and I am never afraid to ask questions of the audience. This open interaction between speaker and audience is a good "ice breaker." Children are naturally curious, and you can expect the hands to be up and flailing before you. This is desired, but how you control the situation is very important. If you attempt to call on every raised hand, your presentation will be lost, and within ten minutes you'll be hearing "pet stories" or the details of Aunt Ida's latest operation.
Giving a presentation before local historical societies can have additional bonuses. Don't be surprised if you are invited to search some old cellar holes or colonial era dwellings once your talk is over. (Photo by Harvey Durham)
Handouts are another way of keeping a younger audience focused. When I do presentations on the American Revolution, each student has a sheet of paper with an unlabeled line drawing of a musket, and as I go through an explanation of how the musket worked, and how it is different from the types of longarms used today, the students usually begin to label the parts I have described. The handouts usually include several questions about the everyday life of a soldier in the field during Colonial times.
A Brown Bess musket and Colonial era flintlock rifle illustrate the types of weapons used on the battlefields of the American Revolution. Note: Administrative authorization by principals and superintendents is a must when bringing any weapon into a school building. (Photo by Charles Ashby)
When giving a presentation to young people, always expect the unexpected. You may wonder, at times, where they are coming from with some of their questions or perceptions. Generally, they are serious questions, and should be accorded serious answers. It's always a good idea to leave some time at the end of your presentation to allow for questions you might not have been able to address during your talk.
Often, a slide presentation will be a great asset to your talk. There should exist a common thread in the presentation, but the subject matter and length will often be determined by the interest and age level of your audience. (Photo by Harvey Durham)
Adults can sit for a longer presentation than can young people, and you can dig deeper into your subject matter with them. A longer slide presentation can be given to illustrate your talk, but it is essential to remember that the slides are not the show... they are only being used as a support mechanism for the points you are attempting to bring across to your audience.