Home Runs and Strike Outs: What We Learned about Presenting PD to History Teachers

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Whole Child

By Kerry Dunne and Maria “Lissa” Bollettino

WC photo 1Between 2010 and 2014, we served as the program director (Kerry) and lead historian (Lissa) for a large Teaching American History (TAH) grant that was awarded to seven urban and suburban districts in eastern Massachusetts. While still holding down our day jobs—Kerry as the K–12 social studies director for Arlington (Mass.) Public Schools and Lissa as an assistant professor of history at Framingham State University—we administered all TAH grant-funded professional development (PD) for elementary and secondary history and humanities teachers in our recipient districts, which, collectively, educate about 24,000 students. During this time, we used grant funding to plan and run three two-week summer institutes, three historical immersion trips, three online courses, and more than 25 in-district workshops for teachers. We learned a lot over these four years, as the approximately 500 teachers who participated in at least one of our programs were not shy about providing honest and detailed feedback that was both critical and complimentary.

WC photo 2The Teaching American History grant program has ended—sadly, it was not reauthorized and funded by Congress or the U.S. Department of Education. However, school districts and partners across the country will undoubtedly continue to provide high-quality professional development to elementary and secondary teachers of history. We have advice, based on trial, error, and teacher feedback, that we think could help guide these efforts:

  • Content, content, content. Our pre-participation surveys of elementary teachers indicated that 90 percent had taken only one or no college courses in American history. Many of our secondary history teachers had taken much of their coursework outside of the field of American history. Both groups reported a strong interest in developing greater expertise and knowledge of the American history topics that they teach in their own classrooms, and, with few exceptions, they rated content-focused PD higher than pedagogy-focused PD. Our elementary and secondary teachers proved especially enthusiastic about being introduced to primary sources that they could use to engage their students in the process of interpreting the past for themselves.
  • If teaching pedagogy to teachers, use a teacher. Our biggest flops were also our most expensive; we brought in pedagogy “experts” from a national historic foundation based in New York City, and from a well-regarded history curriculum provider based in California. One distributed “mimeographed” word searches and crossword puzzles to teachers for them to use with students. One arrived from his cross-country flight with no laptop and no materials, and peppered his pedagogy guidance with inappropriate stories from his days coaching wrestling and football. So, we stopped contracting out pedagogy PD to “experts” sent by prominent national organizations, and instead starting hiring teachers who we knew from the 7 school districts that we served. If we had a historian presenting on the Declaration of Independence to 5th grade teachers, we paid a local 5th grade teacher to present a model lesson on the Declaration immediately afterwards. This was immensely more successful, and helped to develop teacher leadership within the districts that we were serving.
  • WC photo 3Use your local resources. Our local museums charged us very little and garnered consistently high praise in teacher feedback. The smaller, the better! Local historical societies and curators of local landmarks were so delighted at the opportunity to expose teachers to their resources that they went above and beyond in preparing for programs. They sent us PDF images of their collections to share on our website, they provided free lesson-planning materials, and they followed up and continued to contact teachers to offer their services in classrooms or their museum as a field trip destination. An example of this is the Royall House and Slave Quarters in Medford, Mass., which garnered higher ratings than much larger, world-class museums as a provider of PD experiences to teachers. Many teachers commented that they had driven by the site many times but had never been inside before. They loved the museum director’s obvious devotion to his historic site and deep knowledge of the topic as he led tours and presented on subjects such as northern slavery in the United States. Most teachers preferred this sort of local treasure to more polished presentations at larger sites. They also appreciated that he made himself personally accessible via e-mail for follow-up questions, both from the teachers and their students.
  • Get them moving. Participants at our first summer institute commented that sitting all day listening to presentations was exhausting for them, even when the presentations were excellent. So, we spent the next two summers bringing the teachers out to sites rather than bringing the presenters to us on campus. Walking tours were a universal hit, although we do advise investing in a megaphone to counter street noise when doing an urban neighborhood walking tour, such as those did in East Boston and Harlem. When we ventured to Philadelphia to study the city’s African American and immigrant history, local historian Scott Knowles, of Drexel University, coordinated fabulous walking tours that followed W. E. B. Du Bois’ sociological study of the city, took us inside sites such as a still-operational row house synagogue, and examined the mural artistry of modern ethnic groups in the city. The National Park Service in Lowell, Mass., offered walking and canal tours, which teachers rated highly. These types of tours inspired many teachers to get their own students moving and develop historic walking tours of neighborhoods near the schools where they teach (some with the help of their students!).
  • Personal stories are great history. We hired many historians to present on a wide range of topics, and, just like with the museums and pedagogy presenters, our teachers greatly preferred engaging local historians rather than nationally famous historians (who often arrived by car service and delivered a canned lecture not connected to our requested topics or themes). One of our most highly rated speakers was a professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston who peppered his account of the history of the Asian American community in Boston with stories of his family members’ and students’ pasts. In order to make clear to our teachers that history is, at its roots, a series of stories about the past, we made sure to introduce them to some non-historians. These engaging speakers proved to be huge hits as well. Our teachers were fascinated by a woman who presented to us on her childhood growing up as a Wampanoag tribe member in Martha’s Vineyard. They enjoyed a local musician of Puerto Rican descent who recounted his family’s immigrant heritage and connected this to Latin and Caribbean music’s presence and influence in New York, Boston, and other east coast cities.

We had a great time spending four years helping teachers develop a deeper understanding of their nation’s past, present, and future—and we learned a lot in the process, too.  Kerry has moved on to a new position as director of history for Boston Public Schools, and Lissa is continuing to educate the next generation of history teachers at the nation’s oldest teacher’s college, Framingham State University. The two of us will certainly take with us the powerful lessons learned as we provided history-centered professional development via the Teaching American History grant, and we hope that our suggestions and lessons learned can help others who continue to plan professional development for teachers of history.

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Kerry Dunne  is the newly appointed director of history and social studies for Boston Public Schools. Before being appointed to this position, she spent seven years as the K–12 social studies director for Arlington Public Schools. She is also an adjunct faculty member at Brandeis University. Follow her on Twitter @dunneteach.

Maria “Lissa” Bollettino is an assistant professor of history at Framingham State University. She specializes in American and Caribbean history and previously taught history for two years at a public high school in New Orleans through Teach for America.

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