Building Outreach to Local Schools: The Experience of Eastern Michigan University's Department of History
Russell Olwell and Gersham Nelson, February 2001
Editor's Note: We publish this brief report in extension of AHA's support for, and reporting about, programs of collaboration between universities and K–12 schools for promoting history education.
In its 1991 report, Liberal Learning and the Arts and Science Major, the American Association of Colleges (AAC) set forth an agenda for history departments to improve learning processes in their departments, as well as to have an impact upon K–12 education and the community.1 However, bringing about these changes is a difficult process, especially in view of faculty retrenchment and lack of funding that most departments are having to live with on an ongoing basis.
The AAC report called for departments to reach out to local schools to "know and address important concerns regarding the training and retraining of teachers and the condition of history in the schools." This included "forming alliances with the schools to improve history education," "inviting history teachers from the schools to participate in departmental colloquia or seminars," "offering continuing education and in-service opportunities for teachers," and "serving as guest lecturers in the schools upon invitation."2
These are difficult goals to meet for several reasons. First, schools and universities have different cultures, even down to their calendars. Second, schools may already be engaged in school improvement efforts, with little time and effort left for improving history and social studies education in particular. Finally, schools and universities have a long history of mutual mistrust, requiring years of effort to build collegial and supportive relations.
However, with focused effort, these barriers can be overcome. The history department at Eastern Michigan University (EMU) has made a concerted effort to build relationships with local schools and teachers, with a good deal of success. This has been a department-wide endeavor, with many different individuals contributing to the outreach activities. These endeavors have complemented efforts to improve teacher training for social studies and history teachers as well. Contacts gained in the schools through outreach can develop into programs that bring EMU students into the field to learn about teaching history and social studies in real classrooms with real students.
Over the past three years, the Department of History and Philosophy of EMU has developed the following outreach efforts for local schools:
The department organized a one-week summer program—cosponsored by Ann Arbor Public Schools (AAPS) and the Washtenaw Intermediate School District—for K–12 teachers to help them integrate history with economics, civics, and geography in the classroom. Linda Prieskorn, AAPS social studies curriculum coordinator, codirected the workshop. Speakers at these workshops ranged from college faculty to members of the Michigan Geographic Alliance, as well as guest speakers from the Center for Law Related Education and from the Federal Reserve Bank in Chicago.
The department received a grant from Michigan Campus Compact to fund service learning for future history teachers to work with local schools. This grant is helping students in the department's "Methods of Teaching History and Social Studies" class to gain experience teaching history in two local schools, Ann Arbor Learning Community and Central Academy, Ann Arbor.
The department has worked with local schools to integrate instructional technology into the history and social studies curricula. Teachers often have little idea of what software or Internet resources can help enrich their history and social studies curriculum, an area where history departments can provide guidance and training for teachers. Next year, the department is planning a series of workshops on issues such as teaching the Holocaust (Robert Citino), Frederick Douglass (Mark Higbee), and women's history (Pamela Graves).
Last spring, JoEllen Vinyard's Michigan history students participated in a "Battle of the Brains" with fourth-grade students at the Salem Elementary school to help both classes learn more about Michigan history. Vinyard, Thomas Gwaltney of Teacher Education, and Rochelle Balkam also created a workshop for teachers from across the county to learn about integrating Michigan history into their classroom activities. EMU's Margot Duley and Rochelle Balkam have provided workshops to help schools meet new state social studies standards and achieve higher scores on the state social studies exam.
These types of events take time and planning, as well as extra effort to build trust between schools and universities. The support of departmental administrators as well as deans (Barry Fish, the dean of our School of Arts and Sciences, has supported our efforts) and other administrators (Joseph Pollack of the EMU Charter Schools Office) has been critical to the success of this program.
The most important lesson we have learned from these outreach efforts is that once a critical mass of activities is reached, they begin to pay unexpected dividends. As more teachers are brought into contact with EMU through outreach programs, opportunities open up for our undergraduates to work in their classrooms as part of teacher training. As history departments gain a reputation for being a part of the community, they become a logical choice for teachers pursuing graduate study. As the department learns more about what teachers want out of in-service opportunities, planning becomes easier. Also, as faculty and administrators encounter hardworking, talented teachers, they are better able to understand and appreciate the importance of K–12 teachers as models and mentors for future student teachers at our university. Finally, the department is able to use its resources in collaboration with teachers to improve K–12 education.
—Russell Olwell and Gersham Nelson teach in the history department of Eastern Michigan University at Ypsilanti.
1. Liberal Learning and the Arts and Science Major (Washington, D.C.: American Association of Colleges, 1991), volume 3.
2. Liberal Learning, volume 2, page 54.