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State of New York State History

Building Bridges between Historians and K-12 History Teachers

This post continues the report on the education session from the annual conference of the American Historical Association. It derives from a blog by Sari Beth Rosenberg. She is a U.S. history teacher and writer in New York City. Shei helped write the new social studies high school curriculum for the New York City Department of Education and is also a frequent curriculum consultant at New-York Historical Society. Specifically she wrote about a session on January 5th at 8:30AM organized by the AHA Teaching Division, “The Role of History Educators in a Time of Crisis.” The first part of the session was covered in the previous post The American Historical Association: Status Report on the Field of History This post covers the other presenters.

Joe Schmidt (New York City Department of Education)’s Passport to Historian-History Teacher Collaboration

He explained that he views curriculum and curriculum development as an important forum for teachers and historians to work together. That has been a major part of the model for the New York City Department of Education teacher-created curriculum. Schmidt shared the process in creating the Passport to Social Studies, the NYC DOE teacher-created curriculum aligned with the 2014 NYSED Social Studies framework as well as the New York City Social Studies Scope and Sequence. So far, the Social Studies team has created curriculum for K-10 (45 unit guides total).Grades 11-12 are expected to be completed by the end of the year.

This description hones in on a critical element in the education process: control over the curriculum. Typically at conferences one learns about what one teacher or one historical society did. Such efforts live and die with the one teacher or principal who supports such cooperation. Not even all the teachers in a single grade in a single school or school system may join in. And when the initiating teacher leaves, the initiative dies. Rarely is the presentation about a school system or district change yet alone a state-wide change. Here it would seem that New York City can go its own way, an option few school districts have.

Schmidt shared that the key to creating the curriculum was a shift to focusing on pedagogical content knowledge, where history educators translate historical research results into developmentally-appropriate material for students. Therefore, a major change in the new curriculum is a greater focus on historical thinking as the foundation, not having students memorize a laundry list of facts. To help teachers and students with this change, Schmidt and the curriculum team created a series of Historical Thinking Skills Tools. These one-to-three page organizers help scaffold students work with historical concepts, including “Continuity and Change Over Time” as well as “Turning Points.” For example, the Turning Points Tool allows students to not just say why a particular moment was a turning point, but it also challenges them to unpack if it was a turning point and the implications of this in history.

Aside from bridging the work of historians into the curriculum used by history teachers, Schmidt hosts a series of History Book Talks, open to all New York City social studies teachers. Over the years, he has invited many high-profile historians, including Joanne Freeman, Kevin Kruse, Julian Zelizer, and Kevin Gannon, to discuss their work with history teachers, often resulting in a lively Q&A, where both content and pedagogy are discussed. These book talks are a successful model of how to forge connection as well as collaboration between teachers and historians.

I applaud the bringing in scholars to talk to the teachers. Obviously not every teacher in the NYC school system could attend. Nor can such scholars visit every school system. In the IHARE Teacherhostels/Historyhostels where we visited historic sites, guest presentations by scholars were part of the program. Again, not every teacher can attend such programs and I felt constrained as to how often I could invite a scholar to participate without abusing my welcome. What this highlights is not only the need to change the curriculum, specifically for local and state history, but to change the teacher training. If the certification and professional development process required learning about local and state history, then one would not need to invite the luminaries; the colleges offering undergraduate and graduate credit would be obligated to teach local and state history as part of the certification process. Similarly the professional development programs would do the same.

In the general discussion, Schmidt shared that part of his job is reaching out to historians every day, oftentimes cold calling them. Nine times out of ten they respond to his calls. He encouraged classroom teachers to reach out to nearby colleges and universities.

How often do you get called by a teacher?

Trevor Getz (San Francisco State University)’s Inside Scoop on How the “Economy of the Academy” is Affecting Pedagogy

As a history professor, Getz was able to provide more insight as to why pedagogy is often ignored at the university level. He shared that he thought he was a good teacher based solely on the fact that his “student evaluation scores were high.” Getz did not really “engage with history education” until getting involved with the development of the New York City Department of Education Passport curriculum. Only in that capacity did Getz begin learning about backward-design and the other mainstays of curriculum development. He revealed: “We (as college faculty) get very little professional development.” In fact, if a college professor does end up getting sent to a PD in pedagogy, it is punishment for low student evaluation scores.

Getz explained that integral to understanding why pedagogy is essentially ignored at the university level, one must understand the “economy of the academy”: a system solely based on getting your research published, in particular “the monograph.” As long as you have reasonable teacher evaluation scores, your main focus in academia is based around your research. This system makes it so that historians do not value conversations with teachers where they can talk and learn about pedagogy. Since there is little to no interaction between the two parties, the survey courses taught at the college level “deviate very little from high school standards.” For the most part, professors do not take into account what students might have already learned in high school.” What ends up happening is that the history survey courses are a terrible introduction to learning about history on the college level. Getz concluded his remarks with this important point: “Without vertical integration between teachers and university faculty, we do not get a sense of how to move from 9-12 to 13-16 grades.”

One common if not standard session now at history conferences involves careers outside the tenure academic track. These sessions are for the graduate students facing dismal hiring prospects for the traditional college professor position. They also acknowledge the publish or perish mantra that dominates the profession. One problem is the skill of history professors as teachers in their own undergraduate classes. Subject knowledge does not equate to teaching skill to impart that knowledge to others. A related challenge is teaching k-12 history teachers to be effective as k-12 history teachers. These skills don’t rank high in the university arena.

Getz explained that until a cultural shift happens at the college and university level, professors won’t deviate from the existing system. However, he cited AHA’s Gateway Project as being at the forefront of change.

In the discussion, Martell, covered in the previous blog, emphasized that universities need to incentivize history professors to work in schools and make it a part of their work to collaborate with K-12 teachers. However, he stressed that it is crucial to teach content and pedagogy together.

One way to reach teachers was online through blogs.

Martell suggested that since teachers don’t have time to use whole texts in their classes, historians can publish a short blog piece when they publish a longer article.

Schmidt added that this is a great idea as long as historians add citations to the abbreviated blog pieces.

I think this is an exciting idea. Fulltime teachers tend not to have time for book-length studies or academic articles assuming they even had access to them (see the previous blog for that issue).  If school districts and/or state education departments identified specific topics based on the curriculum where teachers would benefit from say, 1000 word blogs, that would spread the scholarship far beyond the teachers who could be reached in a classroom. Admittedly, Martell and Schmidt probably were thinking of national issues and not state and local ones. But consider the possibilities. Suppose a scholar wrote about such centennial issues as women’s suffrage or prohibition. Then the local scholar could write about what they meant in the individual community. Of course there always would be the risk of a student learning that great-grandpa opposed the women’s’ vote or operated a speakeasy! Not only would such blogs provide content information, they also would serve as models for high school students as to what a term paper should look like.

Lots of things are possible but without the support of the people who control the curriculum, everything is likely to be piecemeal and ephemeral.


3 thoughts on “Building Bridges between Historians and K-12 History Teachers

  1. As a “new to history” historian/educator, with a successful following now, I will share a comment that comes back to me time and time again. People come up to me after class and say.. “Thank you; if they had only taught history THIS way in high school, I would have listened to what was being said !”

    All I am doing is “teaching” it the way I would have liked it taught to me: not names/dates/places, but as a story, using LOTS of illustrations, and I add in all the personal stuff that ends up explaining so much more. Why generals resigned because of being passed over, but then came back in as Patriots when we were doing poorly and might lose, not being paid for 2 years at a time, not being fed or clothed properly because Congress had no $$$, etc. One woman later admitted to me she was brought to tears at one point in a lecture…..

    Also, I have a very biased population that are in my classes: all seniors with no homework or tests, but a desire to learn. How many high school teachers could ever say THAT ? 100% of my “students” are there because they want to learn this subject I’m delivering to them ! Nice to start that way !

    be well,


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