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Connections and Continuity: The Lead Historian Model

One of the most unique and rewarding aspects of Teaching American History (TAH) grants is the opportunity they provide for K–12 teachers to work with college-level historians. Most classroom teachers find themselves isolated from the academic world, and tied to curricula and state standards that often take the complexity and richness out of history. TAH grants provide opportunities for teachers to enrich their historical understandings by connecting them with university professors and current research on historical topics. These connections are extremely interesting and valuable to teachers, but the content and knowledge exchanged in these interactions are not always easily translated into classroom practice. Teachers need ongoing support and structure to help bridge the gap between seminars they attend and their own classrooms.

Most classroom teachers find themselves isolated from the academic world, and tied to curricula and state standards that often take the complexity and richness out of history.

In the Foundations of U.S. History grant in Loudoun County, VA, we have continually adapted our program to address those needs and maximize the benefits of the relationship between teachers and historians who work with the program. In our first year of the grant, we provided a two-week summer course, with 12 different historians presenting half-day seminars on their areas of expertise. We also included two separate workshops on teaching strategies. During the year, we followed up with our teachers by providing additional workshops, book discussions, and film seminars with various historians, as well as assignments that required teachers to incorporate primary sources into their teaching. This "parade-of-presenters" model had certain strengths. Teachers were exposed to a wide array of historical interpretations and approaches. Like their own students, teachers have varied learning styles; the range of presentation styles from individual historians addressed some of those differences. Readings and workshop materials selected by the professors also introduced teachers to varied sources and perspectives.

In reflecting on our first year, though, we recognized some weaknesses. While teachers demonstrated improved content knowledge about the topics we covered in the institute, they were still missing some of the big picture ideas and themes that tied those topics together. With the "parade" approach, teachers didn't have the ongoing interaction with historians who presented or the opportunity to ask questions that would help make connections with later presentations. Even though we included a session on historical thinking skills, teachers continued to have difficulty articulating what those skills are and how to develop them in their students. In classroom observations and in reading teachers' primary source activities and curriculum units, we noticed that many still struggled with integrating primary source analysis and historical context in thoughtful and constructive ways. We realized that we hadn't provided enough opportunities to fuse content and strategies. We decided we wanted to develop more consistency in the program and provide more of an opportunity for teachers to benefit from a closer collaboration with historians.

With the "parade" approach, teachers didn't have the ongoing interaction with historians who presented or the opportunity to ask questions that would help make connections with later presentations.
Cementing the Bigger Picture

For the second year of our grant project, we created a Lead Historian role, which was filled by a George Mason University professor, Dr. Christopher Hamner. Instead of two new speakers each day of our Summer Institute, Hamner gave several lectures, interspersed with a handful of guest professors. With this model, Hamner was able to build connections and trace themes among the lectures and historical periods. We also identified key components of historical thinking that Hamner emphasized in his presentations, so that teachers would have an opportunity to practice and reinforce these skills before trying to teach them to their own students. Hamner modeled the use of primary sources and helped teachers see how they could use a few sources to get students to think about historical issues in a critical way, a way that both addressed and went beyond the standards for which teachers are responsible.

The teachers connected with Hamner not just because his lectures on historical topics were engaging, but because he shared his own experiences and thoughts on teaching. He described techniques he's used with his own students, and he modeled for them reflective teaching practices in examining the results of using various strategies with his students. He made it clear that the challenges he faces with graduate and undergraduate students are not unlike the challenges experienced by K–12 teachers. In those two weeks, the teachers developed a relationship with an academic historian. They learned new content, and they gained confidence in their ability to teach history more effectively based on his model. By inviting several guest presenters, we still maintained some of the valuable benefits of bringing multiple perspectives and interpretations to the discussion.

Subsequent to the Summer Institute experience, Hamner continued his involvement with the teachers in the program. During the year, he led three book discussions, and in those discussions continued to emphasize some of the core themes and ideas from the summer. As teachers developed lesson plans and primary source activities, he provided feedback and helped teachers shape their historical understandings and teaching strategies.

. . . the lead historian model has had a positive impact on teachers' knowledge and practices.

Evidence from our observations and evaluation measurements indicates that the lead historian model has had a positive impact on teachers' knowledge and practices. In an assessment at the end of the Summer Institute, teachers demonstrated significant improvement in content knowledge and historical thinking skills as compared to their performance on a pre-assessment. Through classroom observations and reading teachers' reflections, I've had the opportunity to see many of the skills being put to use. Teachers are selecting high-quality primary sources, they are asking more thoughtful analysis questions, and they are helping students focus on big ideas and themes, rather than just lists of details and "essential information" required by their standards.

Mutual Development

In addition to the measurable gains in knowledge and skills, we've noticed a less tangible, but equally impressive, increase in teachers' enthusiasm and confidence as their relationship with Hamner evolved. While part of this can be attributed to his personality, I believe this is a replicable model. Teachers benefit from this kind of investment, interest, and feedback from a college-level professor. It adds to a sense of feeling valued for what they do, and it encourages them to aspire to a certain type of thinking and teaching.

The benefits are also reciprocal; Hamner has expressed that his work in the Summer Institute was the most rewarding teaching he's done. It required him to reflect on and evaluate his own teaching practices, and he also benefited from the suggestions and strategies presented by teachers. He's used his experiences with TAH to reshape his own college-level teaching over the past semester.

As we prepare to launch our third cohort, we're still improving the program to build on the successes of the lead historian model. Throughout the Summer Institute, we've built in times to discuss teaching strategies in connection with the content that is being taught, instead of in isolated seminars. We've used Hamner's input to develop new assignments that focus more closely on historical research and primary analysis. We have added additional opportunities for teachers to meet individually with Hamner to discuss their culminating projects throughout the year, and believe that these discussions are important opportunities for teachers to develop their thinking on historical topics. We also plan to include Hamner in some classroom observations. In addition to providing feedback to teachers, this will provide him an opportunity to be more closely connected with the realities of teachers' classrooms.

Our model demonstrates some of the benefits of collaboration, as well as some of the challenges that continue to face us all as history educators. Changing teaching practices takes time and continued support. Sitting and listening to a professor's lecture can be interesting and engaging, but that rarely translates directly into substantial change in K–12 classrooms. It is not an automatic process. Teachers need the opportunity to revisit and reinforce the skills and content they have learned. They need feedback and support as they incorporate primary sources and develop analysis tools. This requires a sustained commitment from historians and teachers. The resources provided by the TAH grant help to support that relationship and help make possible real change in both K–12 and post-secondary history education.

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