Teachers as Historians: Creating a Content-Based Teaching American History Program

AHA Session 203
Saturday, January 8, 2011: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Room 101 (Hynes Convention Center)
Martina Duncan, Maine Humanities Council

Session Abstract

Three times over the last several years, the Maine Humanities Council has successfully partnered with school districts to provide the Teaching American History Through Biography program.  Our content-based approach, which places teachers in cohorts for the duration of each three-year program, uses biography and related texts to explore the history of the United States. In keeping with the Maine Humanities Council programming model, Teaching American History Through Biography focuses on the development of the participating educators through their interaction with resonant texts (both primary and secondary) and with one another as professionals.  As a result, our teachers learn by doing—we immerse participants in the practice and tools of the historian and wrap the pedagogy in with the content. Not only do participants read and discuss biographies, they also research and write one. The act of researching and writing this biography on a subject of their choice then informs their work on lesson plans for their final assignment. By learning how to think and work like historians, educators improve their pedagogical awareness and approach teaching with fresh perspectives and greater confidence.

A content-based approach requires successful partnerships, which Maine Humanities Council fosters with leading scholars, authors, libraries, archives, and historical societies. We rely on our lead scholars to direct the thematic arc (including national and local stories) over the course of each year's colloquia and each summer's two-week residential Summer Institute (held at Bowdoin College).  We also rely on past participants to serve as master teachers and mentors for succeeding cohorts and use them as scholars for other Council programming (such as History Camp for high school students). Their knowledge of state learning requirements and pedagogy standards helps participants draw useful, functional parallels between the content they get from us and their resulting teaching practice.

Because the majority of the partnerships we build for Teaching American History Through Biography are local, our teachers can continue to access them long after the grant finishes. Through our program, participants learn more about Maine’s cultural resources (museums, libraries, archives, historical societies, universities) and form lasting relationships with local historians, librarians, archivists, and fellow teachers.  In addition, by drawing in local institutions, we in turn provide them with a wider audience. Taken together with the links we provide to federal and national programs and research, our participants emerge from Teaching American History Through Biography with a resource toolbox that continues to enrich their teaching practice long after their multi-year commitment is over.

Our proposed AHA session will review the value of a content-based thematic approach with a local twist by incorporating of the following diverse perspectives: one of the lead historians on the project, two of the participating teachers, and the project directors. Those interested in learning more about the intersections between historians and teachers and new approaches to content in the Teaching American History program are encouraged to attend and share their own experiences with thematic Teaching American History approaches.

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