Researching and Writing a Historical Biography for the Elementary Classroom

E. Thomas Ewing, Katharine A. Goins, Mallary J. Orrison, and Erin M. Lord, November 2012

Can elementary teachers get these materials too?" This question, asked by a fifth-grade teacher during a Teaching American History workshop, prompted an innovative approach to doing history at the intersection of undergraduate research, curriculum development, and community engagement. This collaboration led to the publication of the book, Edgar A. Long, Principal of Christiansburg Institute: A Life Dedicated to Education, written by a team of students and faculty for use in grade-five classrooms.1 This experiment demonstrates that collaborating on curriculum projects has the potential to advance graduate and undergraduate research by producing educational materials written for school teachers committed to integrating regional perspectives into their classrooms.

Through this project, we explored connections between research, outreach, and teaching by addressing an intersecting set of questions: How can historians contribute to K–12 instruction in ways that meet state standards but also engage student interest? How can this approach to public history create new opportunities for student researchers by filling in gaps in public understanding while using their research and writing skills? How can teachers use these resources generated by historians in ways that enhance coverage of the standardized curriculum while also connecting to individuals and landmarks with strong local connections?

In spring 2010, with support from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, faculty and graduate students at Virginia Tech worked with middle school teachers to prepare instructional materials that connected the school's history with the Virginia Standards of Learning curriculum in grades six, seven, and eight. It was during a workshop on these materials that a fifth grade teacher asked the question cited above. Rather than adapt these materials to a lower grade, we devised a biographical approach, specifically aimed at the fifth grade curriculum in Virginia studies, which addressed similar questions in an age-appropriate manner and format.

Starting in January 2011, three students and one faculty member worked collaboratively to research and write this biography. Erin Lord, a graduate student in the history master's program as well as the master's program in curriculum and instruction, served as research director. Two history majors, Mallary Orrison and Katharine A. Goins, worked on this project while enrolled in the honors undergraduate research hours program. Tom Ewing, from the history faculty, coordinated the students' collaboration with other partners, including elementary school teachers, reading specialists, university historians, alumni from Christiansburg Institute, and educational experts.

Our goal was to write a biography that addressed the educational needs of fifth graders as well as a Virginia and U.S. history curriculum that spans the history of the school, from the 1860s to the 1960s. One research challenge was the limited literature on Long's life. As the researchers discovered, the available sources left important gaps in the life of this educator. The coauthors learned to write a narrative that maintained the integrity of the biographical approach, either by completing additional research using local resources or by expanding on the historical context in which Long lived and worked.

In addition to researching the life of Long, the co-authors reviewed the Virginia Standards of Learning curriculum for the social studies to identify significant periods (Civil War, Reconstruction, and Civil Rights), important figures (Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, and Maggie Walker), and meaningful concepts (segregation, citizenship, and rights) that could be illustrated using this biography. As they wrote the chapters, the authors consulted with teachers to ensure the text would adequately address the curriculum content while also providing new perspectives in a grade-appropriate format. At the suggestion of classroom teachers, the researchers developed sidebars with additional information about key figures, discussion questions embedded in the text, and a glossary of important terms. We also worked with a faculty member and student in the print design program, who provided assistance on page layout and the cover.

This project was intended to be directly beneficial to teachers and students in the local school system. Each of the 10 elementary schools in Montgomery County received a full classroom set, so a teacher could build a social studies and language arts lesson around a common book available to the whole class. In addition, each school library received a copy, so students seeking a biography of an important African American figure, for example, could be directed by librarians to this resource. Copies were also distributed to partner teachers, Christiansburg Institute alumni, faculty collaborators, community members, and public and university libraries in the region and across Virginia.

The value of the biography reached far beyond the fifth grade classroom; it served as an authentic learning experience for the student authors. The biography called for an interactive, meaningful approach to learning which greatly differed from traditional college coursework. It was truly a collaborative effort, providing the authors the experience of working with education professionals, community leaders, and historians to produce a product to teach local public history. Working from initial research to publication, the most difficult aspect of the project was certainly editing and revising. In an effort to strike a balance between capturing student interest, making connections to their lives and the community, and conveying the history of the Christiansburg Institute and the life of Long, many revisions were made with the consultation of our collaborators. All three student authors seek careers in education making the workshop that introduced the book to the teachers a valuable part of the learning process as well. The student authors interacted with teachers who shared ideas and strategies for teaching children using their biography. The teachers also provided new perspectives and ideas for future local history projects to teach children about their community's history.

Evaluations from partner teachers suggest that this project succeeded in achieving the intended objectives. Sharon Francis-Zuckerwar, Supervisor of Social Science and Character Education from Montgomery County Public Schools, offered this assessment: "Our teachers have often expressed the need for teaching and learning resources that provide students with the opportunity to make connections with the world around them." Her comment that this biography served as "a powerful way to 'hook' students into learning more about local history," was echoed by librarian and reading specialist Kathy Tucker of Christiansburg Elementary School, who offered this evaluation: "As much as teachers strive to make history 'come alive,' many learners struggle to not only make a connection to something that happened years ago, but also to understand why this history is important at all. By studying the history of their community, they can hopefully more easily grasp what effect this event or person had on the place in which they live. Then, they may more readily make the next connection: how this history and the history of their state, their country, and their world impacts people of the past, the present, and the future."

Our efforts culminated with a workshop held in the Edgar A. Long building in September 2011. Each attending teacher received a copy of the book, and the co-authors described the content, purposes, and objectives of their project. The workshop included discussion of strategies to integrate the biography into classroom, with suggestions ranging from teaching about specific content such as Jim Crow segregation to using Long's life as an example of the African American narrative tradition. The positive response of teachers to this workshop provided further evidence of how collaboration between historians, student researchers, teachers, and public history organizations can produce valuable instructional materials that enhance the curriculum by building connections across communities.

Edgar A. Long (1871–1924): The Subject of a Biography

Edgar A. Long. Photo courtesy Virginia Tech Special Collections.Edgar A. Long was an ideal subject for a biography generated as a class project, because his life intersected with numerous subjects covered in the social studies curriculum, while also illustrating connections to local history. Edgar was born in 1871 in Alabama, on land that later became the site for the Tuskegee Institute. Under the guidance of Booker T. Washington, Long studied printing, and then worked in black-owned businesses in Alabama. In 1897, Long was invited to teach printing at the Christiansburg Institute, as the school evolved to follow the Tuskegee model of industrial education. In 1905, Long succeeded his friend Charles Marshall as principal of Christiansburg Industrial Institute. For the next decade, Principal Long guided the school in developing an advanced curriculum that combined academic subjects with vocational training. Long also emerged as a community leader, with the founding of a hospital on school grounds, as well as an advocate for the professional organization of African American teachers. Following several years of illness, Long died in 1924, but his memory was preserved in the Edgar A. Long Building, dedicated in 1927 and recognized in 2001 by the National Register of Historic Places. The current location of this building on a major roadway in the town of Christiansburg means that many children, as well as teachers and other community members, regularly encounter this visible reminder of the this significant historical figure.

E. Thomas Ewing is professor of history and an associate dean in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences at Virginia Tech; Erin M. Lord graduated with a BA in History (2010), an MA in History (2011), and an MAEd in Curriculum and Instruction (2011); Katharine A. Goins graduated with a BA in History and a BS in Biology (2012); and Mallary J. Orrison graduated with a BA in History (2011) and an MAEd in Curriculum and Instruction (2012), all from Virginia Tech.


1. Edgar A. Long, Principal of Christiansburg Institute. A Life Devoted to Education by Erin M. Lord, Mallary J. Orrison, Katharine A. Goins, and E. Thomas Ewing. Designed by April B. Baker (Blacksburg: Virginia Tech Department of History, 2011).