The late Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia, who himself made history as the longest-serving member of the U.S. Senate, was passionate about the importance of the U.S. Constitution — he carried a copy in his suit-coat pocket — and about American history. He believed strongly that students need a deep understanding of the significant events and turning points in our Nation’s history. Under his legislative leadership, important opportunities were created for teachers of American history to strengthen their knowledge and improve their pedagogy, notably OII’s Teaching American History (TAH) grant program.
Authorized in 2001 to improve student achievement in American history by providing high-quality professional development to K-12 teachers, TAH grants have supported hundreds of school districts. The grant program supports professional development programs that put a premium on teachers engaging with primary sources via partnerships with a wide variety of cultural entities — from humanities programs of colleges and universities to museums and libraries to state and local historical societies.
As an example, the South Burlington School District in Vermont received a TAH grant in 2010 to work with cultural heritage institutions to achieve a three-part mission:
- increase knowledge and understanding of local, state, and national history with an emphasis on the democratic principles of freedom, justice, and equality;
- enhance skills for teaching history through diverse perspectives, as well as for teaching historical thinking processes and historical writing skills; and
- create a collaborative culture in the region by creating study groups, building a cadre of teacher leaders for peer-to-peer professional development, and instituting school-museum partnerships.
Titled Turning Points in American History, the multi-year grant is, among other activities, reconnecting teachers to the collections of local museums, like those of the Shelburne Museum. Local teachers there encounter such unique artifacts as prosthetics that doctors used during the Civil War, as well as images of Native American communities in the New England region. Local historical societies are helping teachers to construct historical stories that connect local figures and events in history to national themes.
A partnership with the Vermont state archeologist led to the creation of several archeology simulations for students. In one case, students studied fictional maps of the community and records of a local farmer who discovered artifacts in a field that had been the site of a school in the 1800s. From those resources, they planned a mock archeological dig, in which they flipped over selected floor tiles to uncover artifacts. The lesson concluded with the students writing a report to the local government that explored arguments for and against designating the land as a historical site.
Internships with local historical societies provide teachers the opportunity to experience firsthand the roles of historians, archaeologists, and history museum professionals. Teachers apply for the five $1,000 stipends that they use to extend their professional development experiences with local heritage organizations or history museums. A prerequisite is a minimum of 40 hours of attendance at Turning Points workshops and applicants must outline the plans and expected outcomes for their internships.
Teacher Jason Barney completed an internship with the Swanton Historical Society, which is located at the United States/Canadian border. Swanton was the site of three important barracks during the War of 1812, but today the only remnant of the buildings is a plaque. Jason worked with the historical society to uncover the story of the role Swanton had in the war and to share this information with the community. He used the historical society’s archives to uncover maps and land records in search of the exact location of the barracks. While several archeological digs he carried out with his students to try and find remains of the barracks were unsuccessful, they discovered evidence of more recent buildings.
The Turning Points project and more than 90 other grants that received initial funding through TAH in Fiscal Year 2010 are in their final year of activities. As the Turning Points grant winds down, the project’s website will be moved to the Vermont Alliance for the Social Studies, which has played a significant role in providing resources for participating teachers. And like other TAH grantees, the project is evaluating outcomes for both teachers and students. Click here to see the project’s 2011-12 annual report.
In October, we acknowledged the importance of history as well as the other humanities and the arts with National Arts and Humanities Month. In his proclamation, President Obama urged Americans to not only “pay tribute to the indelible ways the arts and humanities have shaped our Union … [but to] encourage future generations to carry this tradition forward.” Thanks to the vision of leaders like Senator Byrd and support from programs like TAH, America’s teachers and their students are more able to heed the president’s advice.
Adam Bookman is a management and program analyst and Christine Miller is the team leader with the Teaching American History program in the Office of Innovation and Improvement.