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Lesson (Plan) Learned

One need only attend the annual Teaching American History (TAH) directors' meeting to see how many permutations these grants can take. Since 2000, the Rhode Island Historical Society (RIHS) has directed three TAH grants, the only projects to serve Rhode Island teachers. Each grant was written by a different individual for quite disparate school districts. In two cases the grants served only one district apiece (one rural and one urban); in the last case, the grant has created a collaboration of three districts (all urban fringe).

While each grant was constructed with distinct deliverables in mind, or in one case none at all, in the end, teachers have been asked to produce tangible end results of their participation in the grant. Ultimately, unit plans were the deliverable of choice, and we have found that they fulfill three specific needs:

1. They allow project directors to gauge how well the teachers have learned the materials, and also that they have processed the information and translated it into their classrooms.

2. They serve the teachers' purposes by providing them with additional and useful classroom materials and skills.

3. They help us to see how, through resultant student work and teacher reflections, pupils are engaging with the new materials and strategies.

In this essay we will examine the deliverables produced by each group of teachers with whom we worked. We will focus on the intent of each grant, the changes made to adjust to administrative needs and, finally, the end results.

Idealistic Expectations

The first wave of TAH grants were highly experimental in their formats and many fell into one of two categories: either too high an expectation of voluntary teacher involvement or, conversely, too little rigor and consequently a low probability of teacher-produced materials. The RIHS's first TAH grant, with the Burrillville School District, is a prime example of the best intentions being a bit overwhelming for the teachers.

The original Burrillville grant narrative required that participants produce an applied history project, such as a curriculum unit, scholarly paper, web project, or primary source kit. When the grant was written, it was hoped that the teachers could obtain graduate credit through Rhode Island College (RIC), but after months of negotiation, no agreement could be made. Luckily, Burrillville's superintendent was an adjunct professor at Fitchburg State College in Fitchburg, MA, and she was able to garner an arrangement in which teachers could earn three graduate credits from Fitchburg State for a very low fee.1

Participating Burrillville teachers who wished to complete the coursework were given an additional $500 for classroom materials and were offered up to 10 days of release time to work on their projects. But very few teachers took advantage of the release time. Instead, the RIHS, working with the district, altered the grant to pay the teachers hourly for documented work on their units, though they could still spend up to $500 in materials.

For all four years of the grant (the grant had a one-year extension), an average of 23 teachers participated per year. In each year approximately, 50% of the teachers obtained the credits.2

. . . while other types of final projects might have been interesting, unit plans would be most immediately useful to them and their students. . .

With 50% completing units, our evaluator was able to make judgments about teacher comprehension and translation to the classroom. When asked about their experience with the grant, the teachers almost unanimously contended that while other types of final projects might have been interesting, unit plans would be most immediately useful to them and their students—and that affordable credits made the best incentive for enrollment.

Unclear Expectations

Another first-wave grant was awarded to the Providence Public School District, though unlike the Burrillville grant, it was written by an independent party and was not related to the RIHS. In fact, after changes in the school district, the acting superintendent found himself in need of a new direction for the district's TAH grant. After months of meetings and correspondence, the RIHS agreed to take it over.

Unlike Burrillville, this was one of the early grants that had low expectations for teacher-produced materials. Despite good intentions in the narrative, which included applications and pre-/post-testing, constraints within the district and the directorship meant that none of this was implemented. Additionally, at no point in the narrative were the teachers meant to produce deliverables. Without deliverables, testing, or attendance requirements, there was little to evaluate. When the RIHS stepped in, the teachers were awash in the TAH grant and the staff determined quickly that more guidance and teacher buy-in would be necessary to turn this floundering grant around.

Without deliverables, testing, or attendance requirements, there was little to evaluate.

To instill the structure that the RIHS knew was needed, the TAH team sought to form a relationship with the University of Rhode Island's Graduate School of Education to offer the summer institute for graduate credit. Because the original grant had not started with pre-testing, grant staff determined that generalized pre-testing at that point would not yield relevant results.3

This was especially true because the administration wanted to allow history teachers in middle or high school to sign up for individual sessions and did not want to require any teacher products as part of participation.4 Only the summer institute would require a five-day commitment. Thus, this was the ripest area for us to restructure.

Working with URI's education department we determined that we could turn the five-day institute into a graduate level course by adding in the requirements of preparing a unit plan, submitting the unit plan for review, implementing the unit plan in that academic year, resubmitting it with needed changes, writing a reflection piece about the unit, and giving the RIHS examples of student work.5

So while we did not require participating Providence teachers to create lesson plans, by combining this work with the incentive of a low-cost, three-credit-bearing graduate course ($300), we were able to entice seven teachers to produce deliverables in the second year of the grant (the first year under the direction of the RIHS) and five in the third year.

Great Expectations

In the first weeks of working with Providence, the RIHS was awarded its third TAH grant: the American Revolutions Collaborative (ARC). For that reason, while deliverables were worked into the proposal with the lessons of Burrillville learned, it continued to grow alongside the Providence grant. The original intent of the ARC grant was that all teachers would apply for one year at a time. Thus, while there need not be a three-year commitment, at least one year of work was guaranteed.

. . . while there need not be a three-year commitment, at least one year of work was guaranteed.

In addition, because teachers of all levels participated, the educators could choose if they would like to take the course for continuing education units (CEUs) or for graduate credit from URI—in the same format as the Providence teachers. The teachers who opted for CEUs only submitted a unit plan; the teachers taking the course for credit participated in additional meetings and implementation. What this means is that everyone participating generated a unit plan on the topic of that year—that was nonnegotiable. No longer were teachers offered release time or hourly pay, but instead received a flat stipend.

Lessons Learned

Over the last seven years of directing TAH grants in Rhode Island, we learned several things about what works best for our teachers, their classrooms, and implementing grants. First and foremost, it behooves the people writing the grant to formalize their relationship with the credit-bearing university before any professional development begins. This means negotiating the number of credits, whether or not they are education or history (or can be counted as either by the state department of education), and the amount of money that the grant and/or individual teachers must pay. Secondly, we learned that the less expensive the credits, the more likely teachers will be to take advantage of the offering.

Lastly, we realized that while we want all of our courses to be imbued with the scholarly rigor of any graduate course, making the end result an immediately usable tool for the teacher makes the course much more enticing and valuable, and it need not diminish the academic integrity of the course. Some might bemoan the creation of lesson plans over testing or scholarly papers, but we should remember that neither a seminar paper nor a test will really tell you if a teacher is processing what she is learning and then using it effectually in her classroom. Unit plans, with the additional requirement of submitting student work and reflection pieces, do. And, ultimately, are we not trying to effect change in the classroom one teacher and one grant at a time? Through the use of unit plan development and follow-up, we are able to see if such change is, in fact, being effected.

. . . neither a seminar paper nor a test will really tell you if a teacher is processing what she is learning and then using it effectually in her classroom. Unit plans, with the additional requirement of submitting student work and reflection pieces, do.
1The fee for the teachers was one of the most crucial aspects of this to keep in mind: the credits were only of great appeal if they were affordable.
2 While we always encouraged full participation, we knew that there were many teachers who did not need the credits, so it was not surprising that they chose not to participate.
3 Nor would testing tell us if the teachers were using what they learned by bringing it into their classrooms.
4 These were all attempts on the part of the school district to reach as many educators as possible.
5 Many people have questioned the utility of the reflection piece. In reality, it is one of the most important pieces because it ensures that the teachers have implemented the unit and that they have thought about how it might have worked better. We provide guidelines for the reflection.

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