History and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

By Vicki Shelter, Lower School Teacher

When we started our annual study of the Renaissance period, I mentioned some of the famous personalities from the Renaissance: Michelangelo, Leonardo, Donatello and others.  One of our students exclaimed, “Oh, so we are studying the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles!” All jokes aside, while he wasn’t totally correct, he had made an important connection – a connection that grabbed his and his classmate’s attention. The characters from that franchise are named for some of the most famous “Renaissance men”. We put his thought up on our “What Do We Wonder About?” chart. Making connections is one of the many things that teachers hope their students will learn. While I didn’t love the commercial aspect of the connection, I appreciated that a connection was made.


That moment popped into my mind one day as I meandered my way around the curvy, ancient walls into Florence. Is history really an important subject to teach kids about? I began to remember other moments of excitement from this past spring. One student connected with the Duomo. When he was able to see a photo of the Duomo and realize what an accomplishment it was, he ran up to me and exclaimed, “I want to study whoever created this building.” Another scholar was convinced that she wanted to study Bach. She dutifully read about Bach and Vivaldi, however, when she listened to “Four Seasons” by  Vivaldi, it connected with her on such a level that she was inspired to change her mind. “I thought I wanted to study Bach, but Vivaldi’s music is so uplifting.”

Kids do seem to get excited when they make a connection with something from the past. So I did some research and I found an interesting article in Eric Digest called Teaching History in the Elementary School. (http://ericdigests.org/pre-928/history.htm). One of the questions that this article pondered was “What are the Practical Purposes of Education in History in the Elementary School? To paraphrase a few of the answers: for young elementary school students, an important purpose of education in history is to make the past seem real; students may achieve a second purpose of building insights into their own lives and contemporary events; the past can be used to illuminate the present.

When children are given the opportunity to explore and read about historical events and  people and can make a connection with the present, they can begin to see history in a much different light. Some kids might empathize with the purpose that a figure from the past strove to change. Others might make a valuable insight into the connections between different people and how they were inspired by others in a historical sense. An example of this occurred this past term when I found a child studying our Renaissance Time Line. He was deep in thought. I asked what he was thinking about and he said, “If we have Sir Isaac Newton and Galileo up on our timeline, shouldn’t we also have Copernicus up there, too?” Bingo!  Another connection was made and up went Copernicus on our timeline.

Which got me back to thinking about the student who made the connection with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. While he was initially interested in the Renaissance because of his connection to the cartoon, he ended up studying Michelangelo because he recognized the brilliance and talents of this historic figure. He read every book we had on Michelangelo and pondered his life. He wrote an outstanding report and after a few attempts at trying to sculpt an angel out of soap, he succeeded and made his own masterpiece. History does matter. Who knows, maybe this child will become a modern-day Michelangelo.


About Westtown School

Westtown School is a Pre-K through 12th grade Quaker, coed, college preparatory day and boarding school in West Chester, PA.
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2 Responses to History and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

  1. Connections are everything! I had my US History students do a Wikipedia crawl last year. They had to start with something that interested them in our current unit, then they had to choose a hyper link from within that article, read the article they landed on and repeat the process three more times. Then they wrote about the experience, where they had started and where they ended and how the starting place and ending place were related. When we studied the first 15 amendments to the Constitution students went looking for current events related to the amendments. This helped them connect the dry language of the Constitution with their own lives today. We even stretched this further to see how interpretations of the amendments by the Supreme Court had changed over time.
    By the way the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were favorites at our house once upon a time!

  2. Victoria Shelter says:

    Thanks for your comment and your support. I have had an amazing sabbatical and I have learned so much. I am still processing the whole experience.

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