A Glass Half Full
Lynn Hunt, October 2002
From the President's column in the October 2002 Perspectives
Having written so often in these pages about the problems we face as historians, it seemed time to look for a moment at the bright side. One of the greatest challenges facing us is the need to improve links between those teaching history in research universities and those teaching in community colleges and K–12 schools. Many have taken the challenge to heart with the result that new programs are popping up everywhere at the local, state, and national levels. One such innovative program, now in its fifth year, is the "Humanities Out There" or HOT initiative of the University of California at Irvine. Twelve graduate students in the humanities work 50 percent time developing curricular units aimed specifically at Limited English Proficiency K–12 classes in the Santa Ana Unified School District, the partner in the UCI program. Of the students in the Santa Ana district, 91 percent are Hispanic; 85 percent are categorized as Limited English Proficient. The goal of the program is to improve the college eligibility of students in the district. Developing their units in conversation with the classroom teachers, the graduate students give 60 to 90 minute weekly workshops on such subjects as conceptions of citizenship, world mythology, and U.S. and world history. The graduate students come into the classroom accompanied by enough undergraduate tutors to allow for discussion groups of 4 to 5 students. The graduate student and the undergraduate tutors also meet to discuss the goals and strategies of the workshop session (for a fuller discussion see the program's web site at http://yoda.hnet.uci.edu/hot/. This kind of program offers benefits to everyone; in particular, undergraduates and graduate students get a kind of hands-on experience of high school teaching that cannot be replicated in their own classrooms at the university.
The AHA has done more than offer lip service to such programs at the research universities. And it must do more because we now face a new situation on the national level thanks to Senator Robert Byrd's inspired move to create grants to improve Teaching American History through the U.S. Department of Education. The allocation of 200 million dollars thus far under this program creates an extraordinary opportunity for reforming history education at the K–12 level. It must not be squandered. Where does the AHA fit into this program that funnels money directly to local school districts? We—especially the Teaching Division—can take several roles in the coming years: gathering information about the various local projects; encouraging the Department of Education to develop strategies for evaluating the success of the different programs; and organizing a network of those interested in the reform efforts in order to encourage wider sharing of resources, models, and the like. All of these endeavors are already underway in collaboration with the Organization of American Historians and the National Council for Social Studies. At the next annual meeting, a first report will be given about the findings of our collaboratively funded Project to Study the Status of Precollegiate History Education in the Fifty States. Under the supervision of John Patrick of the School of Education at Indiana University, researchers are collecting information about each state's requirements for history teachers, history standards, assessment tests in history, high school graduation requirements, statewide resources for teachers, contact information for social studies/history specialists, and a list of state history associations that teachers might join. The database will be made available to the Department of Education with the hope—founded on previous conversations—that the department will keep it up to date in future years.
The AHA has convened a small group of historians who themselves have been deeply involved in training K–12 teachers and asked them to develop guidelines that will help the Department of Education advise grantees funded by the Byrd initiative. Chaired by Peter Stearns, provost at George Mason University, and coordinated by Noralee Frankel for the AHA, the OAH, and the National Council for Social Studies, this group considered a number of important questions such as: How does professional development for teachers relate to student learning? How should student learning be assessed within the context of professional development? The group of historians agreed that within professional development for history, content, habits of mind, and pedagogy must be embedded together, as no one element can stand alone.
In June 2003 the AHA and its partners (OAH and NCSS) will jointly sponsor a national history conference, "Innovations in Collaboration: A School-University Model to Enhance History Teaching, K–16." The conference will call attention to collaborations that have advanced professional development of teachers, improved curriculum design for the classroom, and encouraged instructional practices that engage students in pursuing a richer understanding of U.S. and world history. We have come a long way from mere exhortations to strengthen links between the universities and K–12 schools; collaboration, experimentation, and new ways of learning are happening right now. In addition to highlighting successful ongoing programs, the conference will no doubt generate new ideas and in particular help set the foundations for a more enduring network of those passionate about history in the schools. Factual knowledge and interpretive skills in U.S. and world history are not luxuries; they are among the most essential components of democratic citizenship for all Americans. How could the historians of the research universities not be involved in the process of determining how history is taught in the schools?
While just about everyone seems concerned with history in the K–12 schools, few have paid much attention to the community colleges, even though huge numbers of students get their first exposure to college-level history in community colleges. The AHA has a project underway to bring new research in global/world history to community college faculty. Funded by the Ford Foundation, it is now entering its third cycle with a research conference and four-week summer seminar on transoceanic exchanges, slated for 2003. Like the two previous summer seminars in 1999 and 2001, this one will offer community college faculty a chance to meet in a seminar format with leading scholars of global and world history and also undertake their own original research on related topics at the Library of Congress. In this way, new crosscultural approaches to history make their way into both the research and teaching of community college faculty. Once back home, participants share their experience with their colleagues. Those who have attended in the past report revising their survey courses, developing new courses on topics researched during the seminar, and presenting research papers at related conferences. The papers presented at the 2001 conference, "Interactions: Regional Studies, Global Processes, and Historical Analysis" will be published online by the History Cooperative. The AHA initiative is a promising beginning; much more remains to be done in linking the research universities to the community colleges. As research and interpretive skills are increasingly incorporated into the K–12 and community college curricula, the national conversation about history's meaning is bound to expand. Even if that dialogue has its rancorous or raucous turns, as the debate over national standards showed it could, the price seems a small one to pay for a more historically engaged citizenry.
—Lynn Hunt (UCLA) is the president of the AHA.