"Innovations in Collaboration": A Report
William Weber, October 2003
From the AHA Activities column of the October 2003 Perspectives
The recent conference, "Innovations in Collaboration"—organized by the AHA, the Organization of American Historians, and the National Council of the Social Studies and held June 26–28, 2003, in the Alexandria, Virginia, Radisson Old Town Hotel—clearly showed that partnership programs (which can be traced back to pioneering attempts in the late fifties) have become far more numerous than ever before, and that they have been further enriched by innovative leadership from museums, historical organizations, and community projects. The conference, which drew more than 300 people to 34 panels, opened with a keynote address by Eric Foner of Columbia University who discussed the impact of September 11, 2001, upon historical thinking. The three-day conference revealed—in its many and varied presentations—the extraordinary range of activities going on in terms of collaboration at the grassroots of history education. Indeed, it would be impossible to give, in this necessarily brief report, more than an impressionistic picture of the conference, providing snapshots, as it were, of only a few of the many projects of collaboration now under way.
Especially noteworthy to an observer at the conference was the remarkable diversity of the participants in the conference—in terms of the locales (rural, urban or suburban) and the nature (K–12, community college, or university) of their educational institutions. The conference obviously provided an unprecedented opportunity for schoolteachers, university historians, social studies educators, museum coordinators, government education officers, and history organization officials to share their experiences, and while doing so, to discuss ways of developing or improving the projects they were participating in. These interactions and exchanges at the conference also helped participants to consider the ways of making the most productive use of the funds from the federal government's Teaching American History grants program (which supported many of the collaborative programs), and perhaps prepared project leaders to take advantage of new funds that may become available for such programs—from the "We the People" initiative (funded through the NEH), for example.
Early in the development of collaborative interactions, there was a fear that programs may feature narrowly defined local history or vaguely articulated social studies. But presentations at the conference—especially from projects led by museums—showed that such fears were misplaced and that even projects focused on apparently local or specific themes could have broader historiographical resonances. For example, the central Massachusetts project at the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Hall Museum in Deerfield gives teachers materials through which they can explain how tea and teacups linked colonial Americans to the world as a whole economically and culturally. Similarly, Steve Mintz of the University of Houston outlined the international interpretive focus in the Project for the Active Teaching of American History, which links the Museum of Fine Arts with teacher outreach at the University of Houston and 54 East Texas school districts (and which received a second TAH grant enabling it to expand its outreach to Waco, Austin, San Antonio, and Edinburg). And faculty from schools in Hartford, Connecticut, and Fairfield University presented a series they had developed of primary sources on local slaves through collaboration with Connecticut's Heritage Gateway and with funds from the state's humanities council. A couple of presentations based on projects involving Pittsburg State University and Hunter College showed that the teaching of the history of race relations in specific localities—southeastern Kansas and East Harlem, respectively—could also have wider implications.
History departments that offer wide-ranging programs for teacher preparation and outreach to the schools were obvious sources of leadership for collaborations. Not surprisingly, the programs of longest standing are found in this category; several presentations dealt with the special opportunities available to participants in these programs. The Marathon County History Teaching Alliance, based at the 2-year college of the University of Wisconsin in Wausau, has had a year-round program of workshops on a special theme every year since 1986. "We don't let our visiting historians just lecture," said one panelist. Cal State Long Beach, where the History Education Project was based, reported about the "Seamless Education" Partnership and its new MAT for teachers. Fred Drake, head of a large Illinois State University program, outlined how they link the training of student teachers to in-service programs in what amounts to almost a third of the state. And teachers from schools in Greeley, Colorado, discussed how they work with the history department at the University of Northern Colorado.
The conference revealed also that quite often even history departments just embarking on collaborative programs were discovering the many benefits of such partnerships. For instance, Steve Tripp of Grand Valley State University, near Grand Rapids, Michigan, told participants how a phone call from the local school district led to their developing a TAH program together. "That opened up a whole new world for us," he declared, since they found that "in terms of pedagogy, K–12 has it all over us." Russell Olwell of Eastern Illinois University, who gives a course on teaching methods for students earning the teaching credentials, bravely tackled the problem of how such collaborative work can be included significantly in promotion criteria. And Trudi Abel of Duke University discussed how her students work with local 8th-Grade students in interpreting materials in the Digital Durham project of local history (a program that grew, interestingly enough, chiefly from the Duke-Durham Neighborhood Partnership between the university and the community).
Another interesting set of conference presentations dealt with prominent national programs that work with universities and schools. The National Archives offered a panel on its "Primarily Teaching" program with faculty members from a high school and a community college who were active participants of the program. The National Humanities Center of Triangle Park, North Carolina, brought faculty from a school and two of the state's leading universities to talk about how they train teachers to run professional development programs, partly by utilizing the "toolboxes" of materials the Center has developed. A report about the American Social History Project, based chiefly at the City University of New York, discussed its program of summer institutes and research projects for the schools. And the Advanced Placement program of the Educational Testing Service demonstrated AP Central, its new online resource for teachers. The conference also illustrated how history teaching is in some cases closely linked with multidisciplinary methodologies. The program on conflict resolution led by John Chambers in the history department at Rutgers University showed, for example, how his staff works with teachers to develop effective strategies for teaching about conflicts and their resolution in U.S. history. The Hill Center for World Studies located in Ashfield, Massachusetts, discussed its program for international awareness, in this instance focused upon the history of India. And a group of teachers and social studies educators from Charlestown, Illinois, presented the ways they teach 3rd- and 4th-Grade students about the impact of geographical factors—such as river valleys—upon history, integrating into the discussion the Lewis and Clark expedition which had originated in their area.
For lack of time and because of other constraints, the conference participants could not discuss at length many important questions. Little was said, for example, about the evaluation processes through which the various collaborative programs could be judged. The extent and nature of the history being taught within school partnerships is also an issue that needed further exploration. Perhaps such questions would be addressed in a future conference. That a majority of conference participants seemed to want a second such conference signaled the value of the proceedings.
To anyone involved in partnership programs, the conference provided great pleasure by demonstrating the proliferation of collaborations around the country and the increasing involvement of history departments in K–12 school projects. Thirty years ago school outreach enjoyed far less support. But even today, while much has changed, some departments still do not perceive outreach programs as being useful or valuable, as several people in the session that focused on Eastern Illinois pointed out. There is, therefore, a need to promote collaborative programs more earnestly. Working with students interested in teaching history in the schools can be a highly satisfying experience. After taking positions in local schools, they can, in turn, help mentor new cohorts of students. We will be doing students interested in K–12 history teaching a disfavor if we do not pay attention now to what they will be doing in their future. The conference on collaborations was, among its many accomplishments, also a good step forward in this necessary nurturing process.
—William Weber, vice president of the AHA's Teaching Division, teaches at California State University at Long Beach. His essay, "The Growth of Collaboration in History Education: Reports on Current Practices," Perspectives 37:6 (September 1999), 31–36, provides a good description of the history and development of collaboration programs.