Three years ago, Thomas Dublin, professor of history, and Kathryn Kish Sklar, distinguished professor of history, began an ambitious project to improve the way American history is taught in area schools.
With the help of a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, and working with the Broome-Tioga Board of Cooperative Educational Services, they developed a series of related training and professional development initiatives for teachers in the 15 school districts in Broome and Tioga counties.
This year, the co-directors of the Center for Teaching of American History have been awarded a follow-up grant of $983,000 from the U.S. Department of Education to expand their efforts to 44 rural public school districts in the state’s Catskills and Finger Lakes regions, serving approximately 43,000 students in the Tompkins-Seneca-Tioga, Delaware-Chenango-Madison-Otsego and Otsego-Northern Catskills BOCES districts.
The need for such outreach efforts is vital, Dublin said, because student performance in these regions mirrors national findings that high school seniors lack knowledge of the fundamentals of U.S. history. In fact, New York has set a benchmark goal that 90 percent of students in a given district should score 65 or higher on the Regent’s exam in U.S. History and Government.
Compounding the educational challenge, said Dublin, is the high degree of rural poverty in the districts the grant supports.
Though many curricular models exist to teach U.S. history, they require modification to meet new, standards-based curricula in New York and other states. Central to Dublin and Sklar’s program are five week-long teacher training workshops that provide “foundational knowledge” of traditional American history.
Topics covered include the American Revolution and the new nation; political and social change in 19th century America; slavery, the Civil War and reconstruction; the United States and the Cold War; and the Civil Rights movement.
The grant brings together faculty expertise based in the history department as well as Binghamton University’s School of Education and Human Development. The grant enabled the University to hire Daniel J. Lerner, a recent PhD in American history from Michigan State University, as a research assistant professor. Lerner teaches graduate courses in association with the grant, co-directs the summer workshops for teachers and has taken a lead role in the development of on-line resources and distance learning courses as part of the grant.
Under the grant, the history department and the Division of Education co-sponsor a Certificate in the Teaching of American History that permits teachers to enroll in graduate courses that contribute to their knowledge of new interpretive perspectives in American history. To earn the certificate, teachers must successfully complete three graduate courses, one of which must be chosen from a core sequence, “Issues in American History.”
The program also provides an array of professional development activities including on-line workshops, in-service curriculum workshops at schools and a book-reading circle.
“Through these wide-ranging initiatives, this project promises to transform the middle and high school teaching of U.S. history in rural upstate New York,” said Dublin. “It also has the potential to contribute to the transformation of the teaching of U.S. history across the nation.”
Suzanne Johnson retired last year from her position teaching high school social studies in Vestal. She was one of the teachers trained through the original grant-supported program, and she put into play some of the program’s components, learning what worked and didn’t in the classroom.
She also participated in one of the five-day training workshops last August at Binghamton, supported by the follow-up grant.
“The materials we used in the workshop allowed me to do several things,” she said, “not the least of which was to supplement several things I was already doing in the classroom.
“When you take a look at primary documents such as George Wallace’s speech in support of Alabama school segregation as opposed to President John F. Kennedy’s response, it helps events come alive.”
This past summer, Johnson also served as a facilitator for a workshop focused on the American Revolution and the new nation.
Workshop participants learn about new ideas and share experiences before leaving with an outline and an expanded curriculum base.
“In one week, you get enough material that you may otherwise not have had the opportunity to collect,” said Johnson. “It may even fill up an entire school year.” Dublin and Sklar look forward to working for three more years with teachers in Upstate New York districts.
In addition to summer workshops, there will be on-line book circles and distance learning courses to reach teachers over a wide area.
“This work is a logical extension of our commitment to advancing knowledge and contributing to a public understanding and appreciation of American history,” said Dublin.
“Teachers are at the forefront of history education in this country, and this kind of program can make a real contribution to American life,” said Dublin.