Innovations in Collaboration: Building University-School Partnerships

Teaching session at the 123rd Annual MeetingThis post is the fourth in a series of posts on sessions presented at the 123rd Annual Meeting. See also the introduction to this series, the first post on “Teaching and Learning through a Teaching American History Grant,” the second post on “A Historical Conundrum,” and the third post on “Perspectives on Public History.”

One of the many challenges educators face in inspiring students to learn history is that it doesn’t typically top the favorite subject list for the average middle or high school student. How can secondary school educators get students to be more enthusiastic about history and to take ownership of their own research? What can colleges and universities do to assist those teachers, though they have their formal education behind them, who yearn to be students again—to learn about new trends, techniques, and theories within the discipline that are applicable to the high school classroom? A session at the 123rd annual meeting looked at teacher education and building university-school partnerships to improve secondary school learning.

Robert Baird from the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation began the panel by discussing his paper “Designing the Early College High School.” History teachers in secondary education have an indirect influence on public history since they are key players in a student’s transition from high school to college. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation approached the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation about creating a project that established high school-university partnerships for secondary history teachers. The first initiative of the project developed summer institutes where college professors worked with secondary history teachers to deepen their knowledge and keep them abreast of new trends in the discipline. The project grew to promote interdisciplinary education in high schools, introducing the rigors of a college curriculum. The project was also designed to help students from underrepresented populations have the same opportunities as other students. Baird said that colleges, high schools, and communities have to be committed to the project, because it is they who ultimately generate content to sustain it. He added that this collaboration between colleges and high schools utilizes backward mapping, where educators start with the destination (college credit) and move backwards to figure out what classes should be offered and what skills students need to be successful.

Although the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation supplies generous funding to the various projects, this funding covers only the initial design to get a project started. Currently, there are 160 participating schools spanning across 24 states; by 2011, the project hopes to reach 100,000 students in 250 schools. Thus far, the project has been a great way for teachers to show just how they can reach their students and  teach intensive reading and persuasive writing skills. Likewise, the project has helped students jumpstart their college careers, because they can obtain college credit for free.

Robert Johnston from the University of Illinois at Chicago and Paul Kolimas from Homewood-Flossmoor High School continued the panel by discussing their paper “Using a Teaching American History Grant to Bring Graduate-Level Courses to History Teachers.” With the Teaching American History (TAH) grant they received in 2005, Johnston and Kolimas, along with their respective schools, sought out a program that would allow secondary history teachers to deepen their content knowledge, saying that these teachers are “hungry for professional development that gets them back in the discipline;” in essence, a program that would allow secondary history teachers to be history students again. The TAH grant has allowed for the creation of summer seminars, where secondary history teachers attend two-day workshops on special topics led by various guest speakers. These seminars are an all inclusive opportunity for teachers to stay current on new trends and ways in which to implement them in the classroom.

The TAH grant also funds graduate studies in American history, which is typically hard for full-time teachers to fit into their schedules. However, this specific program sends history professors to high school campuses, allowing teachers to study in the comfort of their own school. A symposium caps off each graduate seminar, exploring how teachers can disseminate these new ideas and trends in the classroom. One of the challenges of this program, said Johnston and Kolimas, was convincing college professors of the validity of these courses and of the teachers’ dedication to the discipline. This project, both the summer seminars and the master’s program, has proven that secondary history teachers thirst for intellectual discussions and want to reflect on the discipline and their teaching. It similarly showed that university professors are enthusiastic to work with high school faculty.

Richard Schramm from the National Humanities Center (NHC) discussed the need for an academic community in his paper “Designing Professional Development Seminars: Making it Easy for Scholars and Teachers.” Schramm outlined the difficulties in designing a program for secondary schools because of the tight academic calendar and the even tighter academic budget. Although NHC built the programs around what the teachers wanted to learn, problems often arose when it came to forming a consensus on subject matter, as well as developing an accountability exam for each school’s administration. The internet, however, eased most, if not all, of these problems. The NHC has digitized all of the teaching materials used in their professional development seminars and created a toolbox library, which includes topics from 1492 to the end of the Cold War. Within each category there is a topic-framing question and various reading excerpts with notes that provoke thinking and help teachers build lesson plans. The NHC even offers virtual seminars that train teachers on how to manipulate the toolbox materials. These virtual seminars reach a broad spectrum of teachers and  makeprofessional development accessible. Because a bulk of the program has gone digital, its restructure has made it an equally rigorous endeavor as the initial face-to-face program; however, in that same vein, this digital seminar has also taken away the serendipity and intimacy of the classroom.

Trudi Abel from Duke University concluded the panel with her paper “Building Bridges through Community History, Technology, and Service Learning: The Digital Durham Project.” Digital Durham connects Duke undergraduate students and faculty with students and faculty from the Durham School of the Arts. As a cultural historian, Abel wanted to find a Durham high school teacher who would include the town’s history in their curriculum and who had access to a computer in their classroom. The computer allowed students to dissect the photographs available on the Digital Durham web site, as well as access census data and analyze written letters from various historical eras. The program promoted engagement with the community by getting undergraduate students off campus and offering hands-on learning experiences; the community, in essence, became a laboratory for learning. Abel’s undergraduate students worked with and taught 8th graders, which she felt made her students take ownership and responsibility of their work because they were a resource for these younger students. For the participating undergraduate students, this collaboration taught a new way to use primary sources and share their experiences and research online. For the participating 8th graders, this collaboration brought history alive through technology and made them start to think like historians, especially since Helen McLeod, their teacher, had them create a hypothetical Durham history museum as their final project.

This session took place Sunday, January 4, 2009, at the AHA’s 123rd Annual Meeting. David Ferriero from the New York Public Library chaired the session.

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