Phil Leonardi

The Devil In The Details

The use of primary accounts through personal letters and journals is much like fishing an unfamiliar creek for the first time.  First, without exploration and effort, one can never tell if there are any fish in the water.  Secondly, that next step you take in shallow water might actually be the one into a deep pool that is well over your head.  You should have left your wallet in the car if you didn’t want it to get wet!  Students, like novice anglers, should start in the slower waters, something simple so that nuance and detail are easily recognized.

I’m utilitarian.  A rock makes a fine hammer in almost any case but a hammer rarely makes a good rock.  Imagine trying to “skip” a hammer on the river while fishing.  Context and specific detail are most important in my teaching.  Below is a birthday card for “Robert” dated September 2, 1956.  Look for some of the detail.  What areas need clarification?

Sep 2 – 1956
Happy Birthday Robert
We been thinking of you all day today knowing it is your Birthday.  We are taking a siteseeing tour of Belgium and Holland it cost us 48 dolar each for the 4 day by buss with a guide explaining everything and the Hotel room and meal included.  They bought us to the vary last Hotel.  We left yesterday morning from Paris.  We treveled 7 hours throw Belgium stoping three different time.  We are now in Ansterdam Holland, we seen most of this city today it is vary nice.  Holland and Belgium are the most modern and cleen country we seen.  The people hear dress liche in the U.S. more than any other.  All the women wear hats.  We also seen a tour where people dress like the old Holland stile but very nice and clean.  We are enjoing this trip.  Tomorrow we will be treveling to a different city agin returning to Paris Tuesday night about 8.  Hoping everybody is fine at Home.

Love and best wishes,
Mom & Dad

These are the facts:
-Modernity seems to be a guide to quality
-Fashion, especially women’s hats, is important in 1956
-The cost of travel seems to be inexpensive
-If it’s “clean” then it can be “nice”

These are the areas that need more detail through exploration:
-How old is “Robert”?
-Are “Mom & Dad” frequent travelers?
-What is the condition of transportation systems in post-WWII Europe?
-What efforts were undertaken to “modernize” Europe in the post-WWII?
-What is the value of $48.00 in 1956?
-How would a trip today compare with the itinerary described in the card?

Style, voice, topic, theme, diction are important but basic statements of fact are the launching pad for additional inquiry in the social studies classroom.  This card doesn’t provide a great many details but opens the door to discussion and research.  A sequential diary is a gold mine of material but a much easier source is a postcard.  Postcards usually contain very brief but detailed descriptions along with a supporting image.  Additionally, depending upon the source, postcards are sequential in that they document different stages of the same journey.  The romanticism associated with writing is better left to the teachers of English.

The devil in these details?  Robert is my father and it’s his 27th birthday.  Mom & Pop are my grandparents, born in Italy, who are making their first trip to Europe in 40 years.  They were “tidy” people but not obsessive/compulsive by any means.  These facts are important to me but not a requirement needed by the student to initiate research.  I am never too worried that the student will get in over their head – most kids know how to swim.image

Posted by on 03/11 at 11:25 AM
  1. Very nice Phil.  Seems to be plenty of romance in spite of your cold objective social studies perspective.  Keep dropping them into deep water.  They might flounder a little, but they gain appreciation for tides and currents.  Thanks.

    Posted by  on  03/12  at  03:06 PM

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