Four years ago I took part in an Advanced Placement program in preparation to teach the A.P. course in American history. Since it was to be my first year teaching the A.P. course I was registered for the section geared to first-year teachers. Without going into much detail the first day was an absolute nightmare. While I anticipated a program that would introduce me to the A.P. curriculum the activities were centered entirely around content. And when I say content, I mean basic content. Before long I realized that most of the people in the room were not only unprepared to teach the A.P. course, they had no business stepping into a history classroom at all. I met a number of teachers who were slated to teach the A.P. course as a first year teacher and did not even have a degree in history. To make matters worse our instructor was much more interested in getting a laugh out of his audience than he was in imparting information.
Luckily I ran into a few recent graduates of UVA’s Curry School of Education who also had history degrees under their belts. We decided to approach the director of the program to see about switching into the advanced course. At first our request was denied; however, after we threatened to leave and write letters to senior administrators our request was accepted. I wish I could say the next two days were much better, but unfortunately, this was not the case. While we didn’t have to worry about basic content much of the advanced course was devoted to analyzing documents and discussing concepts such as causation and perspective. Of course, all of this is important, but as someone who had minimal training in historical studies it was incredibly boring and pretty much a waste of my time. There was very little that these teachers were being trained to do for their A.P. courses that I was not already doing in my standard survey course.
I don’t mean to simply toot my own horn, but to point out that history education is severely deficient in our society. Public officials and various commentators give lip service to the importance of civics and history education, but when push comes to shove we fail to deliver the goods and instead blame (and even poke fun at) our students for what they don’t know. I don’t have any answers other than to say we need to devote serious resources to educating our teachers.
One promising recent development is the Teaching American History Grant Program which is a discretionary grant program funded under Title II-C, Subpart 4 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
The program supports competitive grants to
local educational agencies. The purpose of these grants is to promote
the teaching of traditional American history in elementary and
secondary schools as a separate academic subject. Grants are used to
improve the quality of history instruction by supporting professional
development for teachers of American history. In order to receive a
grant, a local educational agency must agree to carry out the proposed
activities in partnership with one or more of the following:
institutions of higher education, nonprofit history or humanities
organizations, libraries, or museums.
This past year the federal government awarded $114.7 million for 121 new grant programs. I’ve been hoping to get involved in one of these programs for quite some time. Luckily, I will have the opportunity to do so early next year thanks to Andy Mink of the University of Virginia. At this point I am scheduled for two sessions, the first is in January where I will team-up with Professor Robert Kenzer of the University of Richmond to organize a workshop on memory and the Civil War. I plan to show teachers how they can utilize Ken Burns’s documentary to encourage discussion of these issues as well as basic media literacy. In February I will work with Thavolia Glymph of Duke University and a group of teachers in Virginia Beach on how to analyze key turning points between 1850-1877.
I am looking forward to both workshops as it will be a step in a new direction and one that will hopefully lead to even more opportunities in this area.