D.C. History Educators Meet to Discuss American History Teaching

David M. Darlington, April 2006

On February 4, 2006, history teachers in the Washington, D.C., area met for the District of Columbia History Educators' Conference sponsored by American University's School of Education, Teaching, and Health, the College of Arts and Sciences, and Washington, D.C., public schools. The conference marked the conclusion of a three-year federal grant program, the Strengthening the Teaching of American History project. Over 120 D.C.-area public school history teachers took part in the program, which was designed to increase participants' knowledge of the subject matter, as well as encourage pedagogical innovation.

The morning plenary session featured opening remarks from three education administrators involved in the project, followed by the keynote speaker, Ray Suarez of PBS's The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. Sarah Irvine Belson, dean of the School of Education at American University, spoke first, providing background on the federal grant program. The program consisted of 120 hours of workshops and courses over three years, she said, and was designed to provide public school teachers the "how and why" of history education. Belson said the program was intended to "underline and outline the instructional practices that make history ‘come alive'" for students, and then allow each teacher to share those practices with colleagues. Belson was followed by Kay Mussell, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, who directed her comments to the teachers who participated in the program, congratulating them on completing it, and reminding them to take their newfound knowledge—of primary sources, of research strategies, of pedagogical experimentation—back to their classrooms. Mussell called the program a "compelling example of how partnerships between university educators and public school educators" can strengthen the teaching of history. Fittingly, then, Mussell was followed by Clifford B. Janey, the superintendent of District of Columbia Public Schools. Janey emphasized the importance of teachers as educators and role models in a city "where duplicity never sleeps," and stated that the city's board of education as well as parents (90.6 percent of whom, Janey pointed out, indicated they wanted more history and library instruction in the classroom according to a recent survey of 14,000 city residents) were overwhelmingly supportive of the teachers. Janey charged the teachers gathered with challenging their students by spurring classroom debate over big ideas, and added that historians specifically have the special ability to get students to look beyond the "provinciality of zip codes."

Ray Suarez, the broadcast journalist who holds a BA in history from New York University and an MA in social sciences from the University of Chicago, addressed in his keynote remarks the idea of multiculturalism, a word that Suarez said is "electrically charged."

In a very animated address, Suarez attacked critics of multiculturalism who would call it "revisionism" or "blame America first" history. The fact is, Suarez said, America has always been a multicultural nation and accommodates and transforms new cultures, and the fear of fully transplanted, unassimilated cultures is a result of not knowing much about the history of the culture itself, or of American history.

The battle over multiculturalism, Suarez added, is really a battle for a usable past and for the ownership of history—manifest destiny versus the conquering, confiscating nation—but those stories are not mutually exclusive. America is both a conqueror and a liberator, he said, and the "great men on horses" history is dead because that simplistic narrative misses the bulk of history and is "totally and thoroughly undemocratic." Good history, he said, tells of the push and pull of the great men (and women) with the general public—the history of both Andrew Carnegie and the Homestead workers.

Not content with just calling out conservative critics of multiculturalism, Suarez said that separating history departments for different identity groups is "messed up good," because it fumbles the opportunity to change the nation's core narrative. "Instead of building a new house [the core narrative], we kept the same house and just added onto it," he said. Creating a usable history for the United States means including minority groups in the core narrative, he said, because accurately portraying the nation, good and bad, is not about either bashing America or ethnic privilege, but about good history.

After Suarez's remarks, there was a brief break followed by a panel discussion with several of the teachers who participated in the grants project.

The teachers each spoke for about 10 minutes regarding their experiences in the classes and the workshops, specifically focusing on a workshop assignment that required them to abandon the traditional lecture-and-notes classroom format and teach the curriculum in a new way for a time.

One fifth-grade local history teacher, for example, studied the effect field trips had on student "learning, understanding, and comprehending" Washington, D.C., history by leading them in a "walking biography" unit where students would take on the persona of a famous Washingtonian and talk about where their subject lived and worked in the city. She said that the project "obligated me to become a historian" because of the primary research on D.C. landmarks involved and helped turn students into professional-quality tour guides.

A high school U.S. history teacher crafted a "May Madness" curriculum, which made students research who they felt was "the most significant American of the 20th century," and then debate other students in a bracket format similar to the NCAA basketball tournament. The program was such a hit that, three years later, former students wished to come back and help their teacher judge the competition (he had to beg his colleagues to do it the first year). He proudly reported that his students, in addition to learning valuable research, writing, and debate skills, were asking probing questions of him and coming to sophisticated realizations. As an example, he cited one student who argued the case for Timothy McVeigh, pointing out that "significant American" does not necessarily mean "good American."

Other projects included using historical fiction in student-led classroom discussions to help them visualize the historical place and time being studied, writing letters to people about classroom discussions (to illustrate that students both understood the lesson and to help them articulate why the lesson would be important to the recipient), and, similarly, using journaling to assess student writing ability and critical thinking skills.

The afternoon's keynote speaker was Herman J. Viola, curator emeritus at the Smithsonian Institution and founder of the National Archives' journal Prologue. Viola led his audience through a slideshow featuring the primary source materials available to historians at the archives, with special focus on his area of expertise, Native American history. Viola urged the use of primary sources in history classes, specifically saying that "my kind of history" incorporates primary sources and storytelling.

Afterwards, the participating teachers took center stage again. As a part of their education, the teachers were charged with putting together poster sessions highlighting such questions of history pedagogy as: Does the use of primary sources increase students' comprehension of the subject matter? Does journaling increase students' comprehension of the subject matter and writing skills? Does cooperative learning contribute to students' comprehension of subject matter? Teachers put together three-panel posters addressing these questions and others, and then each presented a 30-minute argument in defense of their conclusions. Following the poster sessions, the attendees gathered again for closing ceremonies.

Most of the teachers present indicated their satisfaction with the program and lamented its end (though one jokingly said she was glad to have her Saturdays back after three years!). Most did not have collegiate backgrounds in history, and so especially appreciated their immersion in the world of primary source research and history writing. All expected to continue using innovative pedagogy in Washington, D.C.'s public school classrooms.

—David Darlington is associate editor of Perspectives.