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Putting American History in the Forefront
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Shortly after the tragedies of September 11 sparked a renewed interest in American history and patriotism, a federal grant program announced awards aimed at improving ways of teaching U.S. history. Administrators in districts receiving the awards tell Education World they are hopeful that exposing their teachers to primary materials and to history scholars will make them more confident and excited about teaching American history. Included: Descriptions of some professional development programs.



Learning about the American Revolution from a Colonial-era journal and researching a community's history as a mining center are among the approaches school administrators hope will make American history more engaging for students -- and their teachers. The U.S. Department of Education, which is funding these and other projects, is hoping for the same results!

In September, through the Department of Education's $49.6 million Teaching American History program, 60 U.S. school districts received funds to improve the teaching of American history. The grants, awarded for up to three years, are designed for "ongoing, intensive professional development," according to department spokeswoman Melinda Kitchell Malico. School districts are using the funds, in amounts ranging from $387,000 to $1 million, for programs to make teachers more confident and more animated about teaching American history.

"I see teachers being able to let go of that textbook," said Veronica Carr, director of instructional services for Anniston, Alabama's Calhoun County Board of Education, which received a $524,000 grant. "We're hoping they will be able to learn to do some oral histories."

The release of the funds turned out to be extremely timely, given recent events in the United States and public sentiment about those events. Although school systems applied for the grants early this year, the awards weren't announced until the end of September -- about three weeks after the terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C. The attacks led to patriotic displays in schools, as well as a call for greater focus on teaching American history from Lynne Cheney, the wife of Vice President Dick Cheney.

"The timing is quite interesting," Carr told Education World. "We feel that, right now, the teaching of American history is critical. We really think that citizenship and civic responsibility are built into this grant, and we feel that our students need to understand the history of our country and the importance of citizenship. To receive these funds and the resources to work with others is a bit of a miracle."


School districts that receive the grants are required to work with colleges and universities, as well as libraries or museums, in preparing and offering the professional development programs.

In Carr's district, for example, the 18 teachers selected for intensive professional development will work with the department of history at Jacksonville State University and staff from two area museums. The district also intends to send teachers to historic sites, such as Washington and Williamsburg, Va., the location of a reconstructed colonial town.

"Eventually, our teachers will be making presentations [to other teachers]," Carr said.

In Kansas, the Galena Unified School District No. 499, another grant recipient, plans to involve community members and a local museum in developing a curriculum about the coal mining history of the region. Five school districts in southeastern Kansas are participating in the program, which received $633,327.

"I think it's important for kids to know the history of the area," said James Christman, Galena's superintendent of schools. Coal mining was a primary industry in the region for about 100 years, right up until the early 1980s. A number of people associated with the industry still live in the area and will be invited to talk to students, Christman said. Opportunities for interdisciplinary lessons also exist.

"This [program] brings in environmental and social concerns ... it lends itself to a lot of side issues," Christman told Education World.


Administrators in West Morris Regional High School District in Chester, New Jersey, also want teachers to learn to use primary resources in the classroom.

District officials there are planning to use their $553,785 grant to conduct three seminars over three consecutive summers. The sessions are being planned to educate teachers about how to locate and develop lesson plans that use such resources as personal narratives and journals for teaching about the American Revolution, immigration to the United States, and the civil rights movement, according to Anthony di Battista, the school system's director of curriculum.

The immigration seminar will include a trip to Ellis Island, the primary port of entry for immigrants; the civil rights seminar will feature a visit to Washington, D.C., di Battista said. History professors from Princeton University are slated to participate in the American Revolution segment.

"Teachers would like to be able to use primary resources more, but they don't have a lot of familiarity with them," di Battista told Education World. "Looking at these documents personalizes history."

Teachers who participate in these professional development programs probably will return to their districts, not just to teach their own classes but to teach their peers as well.


In coming years, even more teachers could have the chance to participate in intensive work in American history. The grant program, created by Senator Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia through an appropriations bill passed in Congress last year, is expected to be funded again, a spokesman for Byrd's office said.

The country's heightened internal focus could generate support for the program, which educators said is needed. "Quite often, the study of history takes a back seat to other subjects," said Veronica Carr.

Anthony di Battista agreed. "Teaching American history was timely before September 11," he said. "It's even more timely now, given the circumstances."