Career Paths

Building Bridges: History PhDs and K-12 Curriculum Development

Nicole Gilbertson, September 2016

Nicole Gilbertson gives a presentation to educators on history assessment, November 2015. Courtesy California History & Social Science Project Ever since my seventh-grade humanities teacher, Ms. Higbie, captivated me with stories of world travel, I was determined to become a historian. My understanding of what a historian does, though, has changed over time. Through a circuitous journey that began during graduate school, I arrived at my current position—as the site director of the University of California, Irvine (UCI) History Project, an organization that provides professional development for K–12 history and social science teachers. Drawing on my graduate training in history, the position gives me the chance to learn, practice, and teach historical methods and content through community engagement with teachers. Given that middle school inspired my love of history, it is fitting that my first step on this career path landed me in a classroom, writing curriculum for seventh-grade history students.

I began working with the Humanities Out There (HOT) program in the second year of my doctoral study. HOT was a partnership between a local school district and UCI’s School of Humanities; I teamed up with two teachers to create curriculum and teach it. This was a challenging endeavor. My curriculum had to align with the required teaching standards for a given day and provide K–12 students opportunities to read a variety of sources, develop historical interpretations, and respond to a historical question, culminating in a writing assignment. All of this had to occur in a 50-minute period for students who often had very low literacy skills, as many of them were English Learners.

As I considered my own middle school experience, I was pretty terrified that I was assigned this age group. Adding to my anxiety, my first set of lessons was to be on the emergence and spread of Islam—and I am a modern European historian. So I turned to a historian at UCI for expertise on researching early Islamic empires, then worked with the teachers to develop a relevant topic for their classrooms. Like all teachers with little experience and high expectations, I came to my first day in the classroom with too much material and too little time to get through the activities. Yet the students enthusiastically grappled with the source readings and engaged in conversations with one another for the entire period.

The energy that we created as learners transformed all of my nerves into an enthusiasm for the process of curriculum development, which continues to this day. Creating something that immediately informed students’ understanding and allowed them to discuss and interpret historical sources invigorated my passion for history. More, it opened up a new world for me: working in the community to bring current research and disciplinary thinking to K–12 students in a way that was meaningful for them.

I realized I was forming a commitment to this work. Once I reached candidacy, I turned to a position at the California History–Social Science Project (CHSSP). The CHSSP is a statewide organization of teachers, historians, and affiliated scholars that promotes history and social science education through advocacy, professional development programs, and leadership opportunities. There, I coordinated teacher professional development in the form of historical lectures, pedagogical strategies using historical methods, and finding primary sources. Partnering with teachers through professional learning, I realized that the impact of our shared investigations, conversations, and curriculum would touch many hundreds of students. This was the career path I wanted to pursue! But I realized that to earn teachers’ trust and respect, I needed real-world classroom experience as well as a deeper foundation in educational research. This could be accomplished only by obtaining a teaching credential. My advisers initiated a partnership between the School of Humanities and the School of Education so that graduate students could enroll simultaneously in the two programs and I could earn a teaching credential in history–social science.

Creating something that immediately informed students’ understanding and allowed them to interpret historical sources invigorated my passion for history.

At the same time, as I worked on my dissertation I realized that researching for days on end in a cold archive did not inspire me. In fact, although I found my topic interesting, enjoyed hunting for sources, and loved the ability to travel, at the end of the day I could not wait to get out of the archive. Doing research in such a sustained way on such an obscure topic was not fulfilling. It was only by engaging in this work that I realized becoming a researcher would not be the career path of my choice. As I developed ideas about what I wanted my work to be, my career path was also shaped by where I wanted to be. As a San Diego native, I wanted to remain in Southern California and knew that my prospects of finding a full-time position in a history department at a university were limited. The world of educational nonprofits offered the opportunity to do the work I wanted, where I wanted.

A month after I completed my PhD in history, I was promoted to my current position, in which I engage with my community to create and sustain the connections between institutions to improve history education. Fortunately, many of the skills I honed in my PhD program transfer to my work at the History Project. My position is only partially funded by the state, and not at all by my university, so I need to be entrepreneurial to sustain the work we do. Finding sources of grant income, developing new programs, writing and securing grants, and completing projects and reports in a timely manner are all skills that I learned as a PhD student. I continue working with my colleagues in the history department, both faculty and graduate students, to support K–12 teachers learning about historical research. Given these grant programs, I have also developed expertise in a variety of other skills that engage me intellectually and challenge me to be relevant to our constituency. Educational research—such as creating assessments for teachers and students, developing goals and measuring the implementation of the goals, and studying the impact of our work—has allowed me to improve my practice and better articulate the relevance of history education to students, educators, and the wider public.

The passion for learning about the world, its people, and how we got to today, cultivated in middle school by Ms. Higbie, inspires me to partner with educators to improve history instruction and curriculum. Every day, I share this work with like-minded people who, like me, are lifelong students of history.

Nicole Gilbertson is the site director of the University of California, Irvine History Project (historyproject.uci.edu).


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