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Collaborating on Content for American History Teachers

Effective collaboration is essential to successful implementation of Teaching American History (TAH) programs. Program leaders and partners need to collaborate well in order to effectively address problems, improve the program during implementation, and ensure that the program runs smoothly. Participants benefit from collaboration because it provides them an opportunity to learn from one another, and not just from the project leaders. Teachers, administrators, history education specialists, and historians bring different perspectives to the task of improving the teaching and learning of history in middle and high school classrooms. The experience of the Chicago History Project (CHP), shows that effective collaboration among all of these groups can contribute to programs that meet participants' needs.

The Challenges and Rewards of Collaboration

The TAH grant program of the U.S. Department of Education funded the Chicago History Project (CHP) in 2002. The project involved several organizational partners, including the Newberry Library, the University of Illinois at Chicago, the Chicago Historical Society (now Chicago History Museum), the Chicago Metro History Education Center, and the Constitutional Rights Foundation Chicago. CHP leadership designed a project with components that allowed partners and participants to work together, provide feedback, and alter the program to ensure that it met the needs of its participants and the goals of the grant.

The emphasis on collaboration helped develop communities of inquiry that strengthened teachers' pedagogical content knowledge.

CHP aimed at addressing several problems in history education, including the lack of teacher preparation in the discipline of history. It also attempted to foster professional relationships among teachers by creating a program that linked 7th- through 12th-grade teachers with university history professors, history education specialists, museums, and libraries.

CHP evolved over time based on participant feedback and increasingly provided teachers with programs, partnerships, and resources that increased the depth of historical content in their American history courses. The emphasis on collaboration helped develop communities of inquiry that strengthened teachers' pedagogical content knowledge.

Evolving Goals and Design

The initial design of CHP put history content at the center with the belief that the translation of the content to the classroom would be done largely by the teachers. Program leaders viewed historians as the experts in historical content and the teachers as experts in pedagogy with history education specialists having a foot in both arenas, but CHP also included an emphasis on collaboration that was responsive to teachers' needs and strengthened teachers' pedagogical content knowledge. As a result, feedback from participants led to a more collaborative approach in planning and implementing program activities that improved the integration of content and method.

Teachers . . . noted specific benefits of collaborating with colleagues from their school and other schools.

At the outset, CHP mixed middle and high school teachers together in teams to articulate the American history curriculum. The logistical challenges of coordinating cross-grade level partnerships of paired schools led CHP staff to base Cohorts 2 and 3 on school-based teams rather than pairing schools. This change allowed flexibility in cross-grade relationships and allowed teachers and schools with particular interests to work together. It successfully addressed the logistical problem without sacrificing the emphasis on increasing teacher collaboration.

The most significant change made based on teacher input was the redesign of the summer institute. Whereas Cohort 1 met as a single group for many sessions, Cohorts 2 and 3 were each divided into two seminar groups that met daily, meaning each group now had a consistent facilitator who could help them make connections between seminars and assist in building from one conversation to the next. In this context, the facilitator provided a consistent and constant resource in discussion, and the redesign of the summer institute allowed for small groups with more focused facilitation.

Working intensively with colleagues provided "a richer sense of professional collaboration among fellow CPS teachers."

Teachers also noted specific benefits of collaborating with colleagues from their school and other schools. One teacher described it as providing "a richer sense of professional collaboration among fellow CPS teachers," while another saw the school partnerships as a way to ensure that materials from CHP would be integrated into the curriculum.

Benefits for All

CHP provided collaboration across organizations and between teachers and historians and history education specialists. The partner organizations found participation in the Chicago History Project to be beneficial in a variety of ways. They appreciated the opportunity to interact with a group of dedicated teachers over a sustained period of time. The partner organizations forged closer relationships with many participants and saw significant crossover of CHP teachers participating in other professional development programs. Partners also noted that the long-term nature of CHP provided them with time to refine and tailor their offerings and materials to best suit the needs of CHP participants.

The commitment to a rich content-based program and the collaborative structure of the professional development project were instrumental in leveraging these changes. The response to teacher feedback and the commitment to provide teachers deep engagements with historical content made the project at once responsive and challenging.