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Teaching American History Grant: Timeline to Turf

By Abbey Becker

2011 summer institute participants at Mount Vernon

2011 summer institute participants at Mount Vernon

Professors Kate Haulman, Kathy Franz, and Adrea Lawrence spent their summer vacations trekking through the streets of Philadelphia and Mount Vernon with 19 District of Columbia Public Schools teachers and one charter school teacher as part of the first of three years of the Teaching American History program. “We used those places to open up larger discussions about the relationship between ideas and experiences in the late eighteenth century,” Haulman explains. “We met all day, every day, for two and a half weeks. It was really intensive.”

Lawrence in the School of Education, Teaching, and Health (SETH), in conjunction with Department of History’s Franz, received a $964,000 grant from the Department of Education for a three-year professional development program for DCPS social studies and U.S. history teachers in grades 4, 5, 8, and 11. The graduate-level program consists of a summer institute worth six credits, and fall seminars and workshops on history pedagogy for two credits. “We planned the courses together,” Lawrence says of her co-teachers. “We tried to figure out how the pedagogy part could feed off of the history part, and how the history part could buttress the pedagogy part.”

The three-year DCPS history teacher training program focuses on “The Power of Place: Landscapes as Historical Texts.” “We considered the places themselves as texts, both as primary and secondary,” Haulman says. “They are primary sources on and in the landscape, but then they have been interpreted by historical societies, the city of Philadelphia, and Independence Hall, and that makes them into secondary texts.” The first year specifically explores the role of landscapes in eighteenth century revolutionary times.

Next summer, the beginning of year two, Lawrence and Franz will focus the program on the Civil War, which will be fused with Alan Kraut’s Civil War Institute. He will also be in charge of the history portion of the summer institute. Year three will cover civil rights across the 20th century. The summer institute site locations will change each year, though they have not yet been finalized.

While using landscapes as historical texts isn’t a new approach in terms of scholarship, the technique is a departure from how the majority of history is taught at the primary and secondary level. “Rather than thinking of history on a timeline, history is looked at as a physical site, and it telescopes through time,” Lawrence explains. “The place is the constant.”

While the program’s primary purpose is to increase teachers’ history content knowledge and share new pedagogical insights, Lawrence and Franz hope it will increase teacher retention as well. Lawrence holds the participants’ performance this first year in high regard, claiming, “Hands down, I would love to have my son have them as teachers.”

As the program’s first year comes to a close, Franz considers the progress she and her fellow professors have made a great success. “Many of the teachers who went through the first summer courses left with new eyes,” she says. “I think they see the neighborhoods and city in which they teach as cultural and historical landscapes that they can incorporate into their teaching.”

The DCPS teachers weren’t the only participants to learn something new. “I was surprised and gratified by how interested the teachers were in issues of interpretation at historic sites,” Franz enthuses. “They really felt invested in the stories and wanted to ensure that these public interpretations of the past encompassed diverse and sometimes difficult perspectives.”

Haulman praised the DCPS teachers’ enthusiasm is one of the reasons for the program’s success. “They brought alive their own experiences with students in the classroom to bear on the questions that we were grappling with,” Haulman says. “I’m a big believer in the power of perspective and trying to inhabit different perspectives both in the past and today.”

At the end of each year, participants develop curricular teaching units to test out in their own classrooms, with the hope that the units could eventually become part of the mainstream history curriculum. So far, so good, says Franz. “DCPS is using the curricular units produced as part of the grant as models for teaching social studies.”

Although the grant expires after three years, it can be renewed for another two with Congressional approval and the allocation of more funding. Lawrence stresses the importance of this program, as it’s one of the only professional development programs for teachers that have been thoroughly sponsored by Congress. “The U.S. Department of Education held a conference for the program directors in early August, and they put together a program that really demonstrated how this grant has affected teachers and their students on a national level over the last seven years that the program has been in place,” Lawrence says.

Based on the successes of the first year, it seems that the program could have a good chance at an extension. “[The teachers] were very good thinkers and very empathetic thinkers, and that makes you a good student of the past,” says Haulman. “The things that make them good teachers also make them good historians and good students of history.”