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Lewis & Clark partners with rural schools to support history teachers

August 31, 2009

Lewis & Clark Graduate School of Education and Counseling will partner with the High Desert Education Service District after receiving a grant totaling close to $1 million from the Department of Education to improve the teaching of American history.

The grant will improve instruction and raise student achievement by helping 150 elementary, middle and high school teachers hone their skills in teaching history.  The five-year grant will support weekend workshops for teachers and allow the district to build an online resource-sharing portal to connect teachers in rural communities that span more than 6,000 square miles.

Janet Bixby, associate dean and associate professor of education, and Bill Rexford, the director for the grant and social studies teacher in the district, describe the project and its goal, and how the Graduate School of Education and Counseling and the High Desert Education Service District came to work together.

What is the Teaching American History grant?

Bixby:  The Teaching American History grants are awarded by the federal government with the goal of improving the quality of history instruction and in turn students’ understanding of American history.  This grant will provide funding for the High Desert Educational Service District and Lewis & Clark to work collaboratively with teachers to create professional development opportunities for teachers of American history in K-12 schools over a five-year period.  This is an incredibly important program because it focuses on students and future citizens learning to think critically about history.

What is unique about the programs supported by this grant? Will it change the way history is taught in the high dessert region of Oregon?

Bixby: This project will provide teachers in the high desert region with more content knowledge about U.S. history and with the instructional skills to teach history effectively in their classrooms.  Specifically, teachers will learn strategies to engage students in critical thinking, adjust instruction for different students’ needs, and continually assess student progress.  United States history is a dynamic and fascinating discipline, and with the proper content background, professional development, and the support of a strong community of educators working together on this project, teachers can help students develop a deep and meaningful understanding of this critical subject.

How did Lewis & Clark team up with the High Dessert ESD to pursue this grant? Can you describe a little what the relationship has been like?

Rexford: We decided to partner with Lewis & Clark because of their reputation for helping teachers put theory into practice.  Lewis & Clark does a great job of walking the line of what is possible with how things should be done.  I received my MAT and my basic admin license at Lewis & Clark.  I treasure every minute I spent there and I am confident that Lewis & Clark will deliver on this grant.  I love my colleagues over here, and the most respect I could show them was to bring in the best and most respectful specialists we could.   

Bixby: Bill and the High Desert ESD have been terrific to work with because their values match ours so well: they respect the knowledge and expertise that their teachers already have, they want to work with teachers in a deep and sustained way, they have already built professional learning communities among teachers, and they want their students to engage in critical thinking and genuine historical inquiry.  We both agree that we need to be flexible to address the developing and varied needs of teachers as we move forward through the project.

What are the biggest challenges facing history teachers right now? What will this grant do to address some of those challenges?

Rexford: The biggest challenge facing history teachers is time, or the lack of it.  The demands on all teachers increase each year, yet history teachers are not given the professional development attention as other areas or disciplines.  Those that participate in this grant will be given the gift of time to work on their craft.  We are also expected to write lesson plans and units that are targeted to state standards, are differentiated to both ends of the learning spectrum, are sensitive to learning styles, provide continuous and ongoing summative and formative assessment, and hopefully, are interesting and meaningful to our students.  No small task, but together we will raise the level of our performance in the classroom.

Bixby: There are two parallel challenges facing history teachers.  First, most of them have not had the opportunity to study history in any real depth.  While they can catch up on the content knowledge they need to teach, it is harder for them to learn to think historically, to understand how historians think.  Without this understanding, history instruction all too often becomes a dry recitation of the “facts” of history rather than the interpretive, unraveling story that it should be.  Second, teachers often lack an understanding of teaching strategies that make history exciting for them and their students.  This project will address both of these issues directly.  Teachers will learn a great deal about how historians actually engage in historical inquiry as well as strategies for teaching their students how to think historically and critically.  Teachers will learn this by doing some historical inquiry of their own during this project.

How will this grant help rural schools in Oregon?

Bixby: Rural schools are starved for resources.  Teachers rarely have the opportunity to collaborate with a critical mass of colleagues who share an expertise in either United States history or in instructional strategies focused on history.  This project will build upon the professional learning communities of teachers already in place in the region and expand their ability to teach U.S. history in high quality ways.  This infusion of professional development resources focused on U.S. history in particular is exceedingly rare and vital.

Rexford: We will work hard to create community.  Distance over here is not like distance over in the valley.  Some of my best friends work in Burns (three hours away from me by car).  This grant will allow us to work together and create that network of support that is needed for continuous improvement. Teachers will have better lesson plans and the confidence that they will always have the skills necessary to better their performance after participating in this grant.  They will be taught skills, content, and have a learning community to support them.  

This is not flash in the pan, hit or miss professional development.  The benefits of this project will long outlive the life of the grant.  Students will experience lesson plans that are tried and tested and that require them to analyze primary source documents.  Students will do history, not just study history.

To learn more, hear High Desert School District’s Kathy Emerson and Rexford discuss the project and its impact on teachers and students in the area.


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