Making History, One TV at a Time

The story of the past can be just a boring account of events. It must not be given this way. It must be given like a fairy tale.
— Dr. Maria Montessori
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“I got an old-fashioned TV this summer for my antiques collection, you know, the big kind with antenna from the ‘80’s. Can I bring it?”

This was the greeting I received from one of the almost eight-year-old boys in my Lower Elementary class on our first day of school in September. Aside from realizing (with a smile) that a television set from my own childhood years was an antique in the eyes of a child in the early 21st century, I had some thinking to do. How could I recognize and honor this child’s growing interest in antiques, while also helping him share his television in a way that would connect with his work in our classroom and help all of us learn something new?

“That sounds really interesting. What could you teach the other children about your TV?”

This was something we both needed to think about. Over the next few months, I heard about an antique phone with a dial instead of buttons; an oil lamp from a flea market that might be from the 1890s; a typewriter that would still work if it had ink; and an old- fashioned camera, the kind with film instead of a memory card.

In our mixed-age classroom of 6 to 9 year-olds, we started to make connections. This wasn’t hard to do. In a Montessori classroom, the study of history is given “like a fairy-tale”, full of interesting characters and stories. When we talked about where bread comes from – beginning with the person who grows the seeds and ending with the person who sells it – this child thought about an IPhone. Think of all the work involved in making one of those! A little later, we learned about imports and exports, and he made a series of maps showing trade webs among different countries. When we revisited about the Fundamental Need of Human Beings – the needs that every human being from every time and place shares – this child illustrated a series of beautiful charts, including one about technology.

As he explained it, “The early humans had technology because to them fire was new and that was technology.” He was making real connections now, and the television hadn’t come up in a while, although every now and then I heard about weekend trips to the flea market and new additions to his collection.

Shortly after we returned from Winter Break, we started exploring more about United States history, and I brought out an illustrated timeline to show some important developments. We talked about early European explorers, Native Americans, Lewis and Clark, the time Maria Montessori visited the United States for the Panama-Pacific Exhibition in San Francisco, and the first radio.

“Remember my TV?”, this child said, as he started to draw his own timeline and write about the events on it.

“I do!”

A week or two later, this child had almost finished creating a beautiful timeline. The antiques came up again.

“Could I bring them in when I share this with the class?”


The morning after Valentine’s Day, the antiques came in. We set up a mini-museum on one of our classroom shelves, and the children looked and wondered all morning. Just before lunch, we got our presentation – a very informative look at United States history with a focus on technology, and of course the antiques! There was a full 5 minutes of questions from the children afterwards. All this from an old television set!

This particular story could only come about from this particular child, but all of the children in our Lower Elementary community explore history by making connections between different people, times and places, based on the knowledge they’ve gathered about the world and guided by the five Great Stories we tell each fall, and the many history lessons we give through the year. These stories take us from the origins of the universe to the development of writing and numerals, and all of the discoveries human beings have made with those two gifts. Eventually, they lead the children to develop a deep-rooted sense of time and place, and become true “historians”, eager to do their own research and make their own discoveries, just as this child did.