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Teaching grant enlivens history classes

May 07, 2008

In elementary and high school classrooms in the Deer Valley Unified School District, teachers are educating their students about America’s history, culture and the democratic process with new knowledge and skills acquired through a Teaching American History program.

Under this professional development program, the Arizona State University Department of History is partnering with the Deer Valley district and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History to improve public school teachers’ knowledge, understanding and appreciation of American history.

Funded through a $960,000 three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education, the program strives to help teachers develop a deeper understanding of U.S. history within a core curriculum. ASU receives nearly half of the funding to implement the program. This is the fourth time ASU’s history department has partnered with Maricopa County schools in this grant program.

“This grant allows us to stay invested in the community by working hand in hand with teachers and students in the Deer Valley Unified School District,” says Linda Sargent Wood, assistant professor of history in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

“While we are embedded in this community, we are able to conduct applied research on what kinds of approaches work in teaching history and what doesn’t.”

The grant allows 25 middle and high school teachers take two graduate-level courses at ASU, attend history workshops at the Gilder Lehrman Institute, and travel to historic sites to study subjects ranging from the Revolutionary War to the civil rights movement.

ASU’s history department provides graduate history courses that are offered through a mix of Web-based instruction and face-to-face discussions. The first course features lectures and site visits by history faculty members Brian Gratton, Paul Hirt, Catherine Kaplan, Kyle Longley and Matthew Whittaker. Teachers receive extensive classroom materials prepared by ASU graduate students. In the second course, ASU faculty members and graduate students work with the teachers on individual projects designed to help them learn more about history and bring their learning to their students.

The knowledge gained by the teachers is filtered back into their classrooms through innovative historical projects that help students “learn history by doing history.” One such project required 100 eighth grade students to visit a senior community in Sun City where students learned about the Great Depression, the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, and what life was like for women working on the home front during World War II, and others who had experienced the war firsthand.

Students videotaped their interviewees and were responsible for the planning and production of their video project. Students took on the assignments of interviewer, transcriber, audio technician and videographer.

A few teachers entered their high school students in a history competition, and the competing projects included documentaries, exhibits and Web sites on various topics in history. Another high school teacher asked her students to create memorials for fallen Arizona soldiers from several wars throughout history.

“Students were able to get a firsthand account of what the United States was like during that time period in history as well as the life of a soldier in the war. History literally came alive for the students, and that is something that is invaluable when teaching history,” says Sargent Wood.

The Deer Valley Unified School District, located in northwest Maricopa County, is the fourth largest K-12 public school district in Maricopa County with more than 36,500 students.

This fall, ASU’s history department will begin a new Teaching American History partnership with Mesa Public Schools, the largest unified public school district in Arizona with more than 74,000 students.