Integrating Teacher Feedback and Teaching American History Grants

Kelly A. Woestman, February 2007

My institution, Pittsburg State University, has been a partner in four Teaching American History grant projects in eastern Kansas. We knew from the beginning that our goal was to enhance the teaching of American history in our area by working directly with area K–12 teachers but have been more than impressed with the ultimate results of our efforts to serve our community. The unintended consequences of participating in this U.S. Department of Education program that has awarded over $600 million to school districts throughout the nation, however, have proved to be even more beneficial than we anticipated.

Teachers have been an integral part of our grant planning and implementation teams since I began writing and implementing Teaching American History (TAH) grants in 2001. Successful TAH grant implementation involves incorporating multiple perspectives of not only expert historians and experts in history education but also, most importantly, the experience and expertise of successful classroom teachers.

Traditionally passive professional development programs for teachers have been replaced by those incorporating actual implementation exercises into professional development sessions so that the new content and/or new skills fully translate into improved classroom practice and enhanced student learning of history. This premise underscores the need for active teacher involvement in any successful professional development program that includes long-term impact on both teacher and student learning.

Benchmarks for Professional Development in Teaching of History as a Discipline

Through its Benchmarks for Professional Development in Teaching of History as a Discipline (available on line at www.historians.org/teaching/policy/Benchmarks.htm), the American Historical Association first asserts that "For sound professional development, K–12 teachers should be involved at the beginning of planning."1 In each of our four TAH grants, we have involved teachers in our service areas into the initial planning prior to the grant application. For our first TAH grant, Project Mine, five area superintendents identified outstanding history teachers to serve on the Teacher Leadership Team (TLT). For our next grant application, Project eHIKES (enhancing History Instruction for Kansas Educators and Students) we utilized existing TLT members in addition to teachers who demonstrated exceptional performance in both grant activities and in their classrooms, as well as those teachers who attended a general meeting held with all interested parties from the lead school district.

Without teacher involvement from the beginning, our second grant would not have been nearly as successful. The teachers and administrators from the lead Parsons Unified School District #503 clearly indicated in conversations that if graduate credit was going to be a part of the grant project, they would like to be able to earn a master's degree in history. Because we are a small regional state school with approximately 6,000 students, PSU would need all of the teachers participating in the project to take all of the courses offered through the grant for the MA in order to offer them as part of our regular 4-4 teaching loads. In exchange for this commitment by the teachers, we gave heavy consideration to their schedules while organizing the course offerings.

We scheduled the fall and spring one-day colloquia when they would not interfere with the coaching duties of a significant cohort of our teachers each November and February. The two-week summer institutes were then organized for mid-July so as to not interfere with family and other job-related summer activities (curriculum redesign, sports camps, etc.). Additionally, the PSU history department began offering online courses specifically for this group of 21 teachers so that they could participate in three-hour courses while still teaching full time. Many of these courses are now offered online each year when previously the graduate courses required at least a weekly commitment to travel to campus. Thus, we are already reaching a wider audience of teachers and other working professionals interested in graduate work in history.

Previously, graduate students in the department's MA program had only the seminar and thesis options along with comprehensive exams and many teachers chose alternative routes to earning an MA in another field. Because of what we have learned through our participation in TAH projects, the department now offers teachers a third option that requires a culminating teaching project that can replace the thesis while maintaining the academic rigor required of a graduate degree in history.2

We followed the same pattern of utilizing participating teachers in existing grants along with teachers representing the lead school district(s) when we planned for our third and fourth TAH grants to be offered in different parts of the state. This also fulfills the AHA benchmark requiring that "Teachers with strong abilities as facilitators should be identified and given leadership roles within the project."
In addition to utilizing teachers' expertise to plan each of our grants, we constantly sought feedback from both the lead teachers and participating teachers through formal assessments and evaluations along with the more informative informal conversations and reaction papers submitted by teachers. This inclusion contributes to ensuring teachers perceive that they are an actual part of the process that determines their activities and what they will learn and results in their being more enthusiastic in their participation.

Meeting State History Standards

Another important facet of our TAH projects that also assists teachers in fulfilling the state standards that govern the daily teaching activities of most teachers across the nation is the incorporation of a wide range of primary sources. Our TAH teachers now actively utilize primary sources throughout their curriculum instead of relying primarily on their required textbook. Besides significant online primary source collections, teachers in each of our grants have conducted primary research into individual topics at the National Archives and Records Administration branch (NARA) in Kansas City (http://archives.gov/central-plains/kansas-city/).3 Teachers researching record groups in Kansas City discovered primary sources that illustrated the human interaction of citizens with their government as they read letters from local citizens to their local and regional administrators of federal agencies such as the U.S. Food Administration and as they studied court records for cases such as Tinker v. Des Moines and Brown v. Board of Education.

This unprecedented access to and use of such a large primary source collection provided participating teachers with the hands-on archival research normally not resorted to by our students because of our rural location. And, this interaction with NARA has led not only to our other graduate and undergraduate students conducting research at NARA-Kansas City but also to other graduate students participating in internships there. Smaller groups of our TAH teachers have conducted research in the NARA facilities in Chicago, Denver, Seattle, and Washington, DC, and with Fort Worth and Philadelphia on future lists.

Historical Cognition

Teachers also took a course specifically on historical cognition to better understand how their students learn history as part of Project eHIKES. In addition to reading the work of Sam Wineburg, teachers also read historical texts about specific topics related to historical memory.4 Throughout their study of history and teaching history, teachers maintained online journals, or blogs as one way to incorporate reflective practice throughout the degree program.5 As a result of the acknowledgment by teachers that the historical cognition course was instrumental in helping them translate their enhanced content knowledge into their classroom teaching, components of historical thinking are now offered in the history methods class for pre-service teachers in addition to being incorporated throughout more content-based coursework.

Additionally, continual teacher input also helped determine choices of specific American history content coverage and classroom implementation strategies. Master teachers have led instructional sessions throughout each of the grants to share their classroom expertise on specific history topics. This component is vital to helping teachers better understand not only how to teach to the state standards but also in providing for appropriate assessments to determine whether or not student learning has taken place in their own classrooms.

Another simple yet often overlooked component of successful professional development activities is utilizing speakers that are not only experts in their field but also both respect and interact well with teachers. Besides PSU faculty, renowned historians from across the country have worked with our teachers through our partnership with the Organization of American Historians, H-Net, and the Gilder Lehrman Institute. Feedback from historians working with our teachers indicates the insightful nature of the questions teachers have asked as well as illustrating how historians have much to learn from teachers who instruct the students we will someday see in our own classrooms.

So, in the beginning of our work through TAH projects, we believed that teachers should play an important role in program planning. Our ultimate success, however, was how integral teacher expertise and input permeated our grant projects. As with any good project, some of the best outcomes are those that are unintended. Not only did we enhance the knowledge and teaching of American history for teachers throughout our service area, we have worked side-by-side with teachers to create a network of professionals dedicated to history education that will forever change how history is taught and how students learn history in our region throughout their school and college years. A teacher-inclusive approach and a collegial attitude of treating teachers as professional partners permeate an entire TAH project and ultimately enhance its success beyond the original project goals.

—Kelly A. Woestman is professor of history and history education director at Pittsburg State University in Kansas, and has worked with 10 TAH projects in 5 states. She is the teaching co-author on the forthcoming 5th edition of Houghton Mifflin's U.S. survey text, Making America. She would like to thank Cary Wintz and Bob Rook for their comments and suggestions in reviewing this article.

Notes

1. For the complete list of AHA Benchmarks, go to http://www.historians.org/teaching/policy/benchmarks.htm.

2. During the course of the first year of the project, only 3 of 24 teachers decided not to continue their participation and the remaining 21 teachers participated in May graduation ceremonies and then completed their degree requirements through the final summer institute in July 2006.

3. NARA's regional branches are a largely untapped free resource for the primary sources that compose our nation. For a complete list of NARA locations, go to http://archives.gov/locations/

4. See Emily S. Rosenberg, A Date Which Will Live: Pearl Harbor in American Memory (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003) and Joy S. Kasson, Buffalo Bill's Wild West: Celebrity, Memory, and Popular History (New York: Hill and Wang, 2001) among others.

5. See History in Halstead (http://historyinhalstead.blogspot.com) as a continuing example. The July 2004, 2005, and 2006 entries along with Spring 2005 and Spring 2006 contain the most degree-required entries.