National Council for History Education: A Few Thoughts

I had a pretty good time in Williamsburg this weekend at the annual meeting of the National Council For History Education.   Eight history teachers from the various divisions at my school made the trip.  Originally we decided to use the weekend as an opportunity for the department to bond a bit, but with our department chair and another teacher leaving at the end of the year I was skeptical.  Surprisingly, this was the best part of the trip.  One of the teachers organized a private tour with Ed Chappell who is Director of Architectural Research for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.  We spent about 2 hours walking up Duke of Gloucester Street and Ed did a fabulous job of giving us a quick overview of how to interpret the various buildings.  That night we had a great dinner and made sure to spend as much of the school’s money as possible (LOL). 

As for the conference itself I was disappointed.  I listened to Gordon Wood deliver a talk at one of the general sessions, but unfortunately it sounded like something pulled directly out of one of his survey lectures at Brown.  I did get a chance to talk with Wood in a small group of about 5 people for about 30 minutes and I enjoyed that immensely.  The general session also revealed some interesting demographics, including very few blacks and a large number of older women.  As for individual sessions I attended two that involved the use and role of primary sources in the classroom.  While I wasn’t expecting to be blown away, at this point in my career I find it difficult to sit through a session where the first fifteen minutes involve the presenter asking the audience why we use documents in the classroom and what we hope to teach our students through their inclusion in the curriculum.  I’m sorry, but at this point in my career I find it difficult to sit through that.  There were plenty of sessions on pedagogy, but I was also looking for people who were passionate about history.  I did meet James Percoco who teaches up in Northern Virginia and is in my mind one of the most innovative teachers around. 

My experience this past weekend definitely places the steps the OAH and AHA have taken to address the teaching of history in our schools within a broader perspective.  I guess the problem for me is that I tend to approach the teaching of history more from the perspective of someone who practices the historian’s craft rather than from a purely educational perspective – don’t know if that makes any sense.   

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4 comments… add one
  • Kevin Levin Apr 17, 2007 @ 15:59

    Clio, — I think you nailed it perfectly in this comment. I could extend your comment to ask what college teachers are taught to handle the range of learning abilities or styles in their classrooms.

  • Clio Bluestocking Apr 17, 2007 @ 15:42

    What I have found both interesting and frustrating in my entire career as both a student and a college teacher (which would, I suppose, be more accurately called “my life”) is that the training of grade school educators emphasizes “how to teach” while the training college instructors emphasizes “what to teach.” Somehow, it seems that a combination of both for both would be wisest. The main difference would be understanding the developmental skills of your students, since a 12 year old’s capabilities are a bit different than a 20 year old’s or even a 40 year old’s.

    Your other posts on this have been wonderful, by the way.

  • Kevin Levin Apr 17, 2007 @ 11:41

    Sorry to hear about your experience, but I suspect that it is par for the course. I recently commented on a report that cited much needed changes to be made in history departments along the lines that you infer. My guess is that when schools are driven by SOL’s it leaves little time for the kind of focus you describe.

  • Chris Paysinger Apr 17, 2007 @ 8:24

    I too teach high school history. I find that most of the “professional” functions that we are able to attend deal only with educational theory. In a public school setting (like I teach in), if you don’t figure out how to get the info across to students initially, you’ll sink. I’m bothered that so few school administrators place emphasis on content knowledge. I recently presented a paper to the Alabama Association of Historians annual meeting. My school wouldn’t pay for the trip, sub, etc. because they didn’t consider it “professional” development.
    While the AHA actions are positive, the Education departments at universities and their curriculum are also to blame. I was forced to take redundant education classes. My history classes to on an obvious secondary role in the process. But how those can be changed is a much more difficult matter.

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