Teaching and Learning through a Teaching American History Grant

Teaching and Learning at the 123rd Annual Meeting of the American Historical AssociationNote: This post is the first in a series of posts on sessions presented at the 123rd Annual Meeting. See also the introduction to this series.

The California State University at Fresno started a master’s program in 2005 through a Teaching American History Grant that seeks to strengthen the teaching skills of U. S. history teachers in the Fresno, California area. The program is designed “to demonstrate how school districts and institutions with expertise in American history can collaborate over a three-year period to ensure that teachers develop the knowledge and skills necessary to teach traditional American history in an exciting and engaging way.” A panel of four masters’ students, who were jokingly referred to as the guinea pigs of the program, discussed the pros and cons of the program and its applicability in helping them strengthen their teaching techniques.

Robin Sischo, an 8th grade graphic arts and world history teacher, presented her paper, Creativity and History: Creating Projects for Middle School Students at a Magnet School for the Arts. She found that before starting the master’s program, her class lectures were fairly conventional—her students would read, take notes, listen to lectures, take more notes, and often cap everything off by completing a multiple-choice test. Because of the nature of her school, Sischo found herself asking, How can I incorporate visual aids and/or music into the classroom? Sischo still applied conventional learning techniques in her classroom, but began to couple them with group projects that allowed students to exercise multiple intelligences, such as song, dance, and speeches. She found that these group projects encouraged engagement and stimulation; her students were beginning to make emotional connections with her lessons, which made the material more accessible and strengthened their retention of the content.

Rick Cooper, a 7th grade teacher at Monroe Elementary, discussed his paper, Combining Academic Scholarship and Good Teaching in Order to Reach Students in Low Performing Schools. He began his talk by setting up his school’s demographic: Monroe Elementary has approximately 198 students total, 90% of which qualify for the free and reduced price lunch program. Of these 198, Cooper has 13 students in his 7th grade history class, where only three speak English as their first language. One of the greatest resources from the master’s program, he says, is the applicability of his graduate-level textbooks to his 7th grade students. This might sound a bit strange at first, but because Monroe Elementary doesn’t have a library, Cooper’s students were able to use his texts for both their academic reports and personal scholarly exploration, which greatly helped in his mission of making learning more accessible.

Lindsay Robinson is an 11th grade history teacher at Firebaugh High School, home to roughly 800 total students, 190 of which are in her classes. Like Cooper, she sets up her school’s demographic to better explain the impact of the master’s program in her classroom. Firebaugh High School has a high poverty and migrant rate, and a good 35% of the total student population is ESL (English as a Second Language) students. In her paper Using Primary Sources with Eleventh Graders, Robinson discusses how the integration of visual aids into her class lectures made a world of difference for her students, especially the ESL students, because it forced them to tell her what they saw. By encouraging oral analysis, Robinson said her students were then able to make a visual connection with class readings, helping them  to both learn the historical content and the English language. Similar to Sischo, Robinson also promoted creative outlets, such as writing a ”break-up” letter from the colonies to King George—Hey, King George, it’s been fun, but we think it’s time to part. She also found that her students were fascinated with the  myth busting of historical urban legends, which she believes makes students think like historians.

Tobin Dean, an 11th grade U.S. history teacher at Washington Union High School, concluded the panel with her paper, Engaging Students, a Community, and the Academy through Local History. Similar to the other panelists, Dean’s high school has a large minority population. Out of approximately 1,100 total students, 60% are Hispanic, 14% are Asian, 14% are African American, and 10% are Caucasian. 90% of the students qualify for free and reduced priced lunches. Dean seeks to engage both her students and the community through local history. Her final project in the program asked her students to interview anyone in the community who could tell their experiences from the Cold War through early Vietnam War era—they could be anyone from a war veteran to a 1950s housewife. Dean encourages her students to think like historians, by putting things into context and promoting critical thinking rather than sheer memorizing. By doing so, she hopes to prepare her students for the rigors of college and the real world work place.

The panelists unanimously agreed that the program allowed them to interact with other teachers within their grade-level, facing similar if not equal challenges. Cooper found that the program’s collaborative nature helped ignite his passion for teaching. Because no two teachers teach the same subject in his school, he found himself flying solo on different teaching techniques because he had no colleagues grappling with the same curriculum. Robinson also found this collaboration pivotal in broadening and strengthening her teaching because of her exposure to other teacher’s techniques and methods. She said the program also helped her expand her personal content knowledge and understanding of history.

Aside from the program’s collaborative aspect, Sischo reflected on their historiography class, which she felt was the most useful because it taught her to ask who wrote history, what they were writing, and where they were writing it. By forcing her to focus her reading and writing on these key questions, she was able to then formulate similar questions to ask her students.

Dean took a slightly different approach and decided to tell her students everything about her master’s program—the good, the bad, the ugly. By being candid with them about things such as her own difficulties with the scholastic writing process, her students related to her, which in a way made learning more accessible to them because they were learning along with their teacher.

In the end, learning is learning no matter what the level. The challenge is making it fun and exciting. For Cooper, Dean, Robinson, and Sischo, the TAH grant helped them grow their own understanding of history, implement new teaching techniques, and get their students excited about, well, learning.

The session profiled here was sponsored by the AHA Teaching Division, the National History Education Clearinghouse, and the Organization of History Teachers, and chaired by Michelle D. DenBeste, California Sate University at Fresno. It was held on Friday, January 2, 2009.

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  1. Kelly in Kansas

    It’s great to hear about sessions – esp. those we were unable to attend.

    The inclusion of all interested in history and history teaching in this panel is also to be commended. The AHA’s sincere interest in expanding its outreach efforts to the wider community is to be applauded. We all benefit – no matter what part of the history or history education spectrum we occupy.

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  2. Peggy Lang

    Since I am related to panelist Robinson (and a former teacher) I found this report very educational too!! Believe that all the students touched by this project will gain prospective and research skills.

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