Center for History and New Media Workshops Teach the Teachers

Posted: December 19, 2005 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Teachers at Black History Resource Center
Teachers attend a Center for History and New Media workshop at the Black History Resource Center in Alexandria, Va.

By Tara Laskowski

In Liz Butler’s U.S. history classroom at Fauquier High School in Warrenton, Va., students recently pondered note cards with different, sometimes cryptic paragraphs written on them. The fragments were from a diary:

June 20, 1787: “I was Calld to mrs Howards to See his Daughter lbbee who is Siesd with a relaps of the rash. I found mrs Cumings there, So returnd home. Sally Pierce here today. Patty is Better. I was Seisd with a Disentery in the night.

July 12, 1787: “Cear. I was Calld to William Stones wife in Travil at 11 O Clok morn… Sister Barton Came here this Day, by water. I heard a man fell down Dead in ye Coart hous at Pounalboro yesterday.”

With a bit of deciphering, some historical background and their teacher’s guidance, the students began to delve deeper into the “Diary of Martha Ballard,” a meticulous journal kept by a midwife in New England just after the American Revolution. Learning from the 18th-century woman’s own words more than 200 years later, the students got a unique insight into the struggles of day-to-day life in the post-Revolutionary War period.

“It is important to me for students to see history as a fabric created of people as well as events,” says Butler. “Ordinary people contributed to who and what we are today. I am hoping that my students learned the value of diaries or personal memoirs as rich sources of historical insight.”

This exercise was drawn from a workshop designed by Mason’s Center for History and New Media (CHNM) in partnership with local schools and funded by several grants from the U.S. Department of Education. Called “Teaching American History,” these programs provide K-12 teachers learning experiences that facilitate their teaching of history and lend instruction on incorporating primary source documents, such as the diary excerpts, into the classroom.

“Nationally, many of those teaching history do not have degrees in history,” says Kelly Schrum, director of educational projects at CHNM. “These grants serve to improve teacher content knowledge in U.S. history.”

Creating a More Imaginative Curriculum

CHNM has partnered with many Virginia school districts to provide workshops on teaching American history. The programs, each funded for three years, are “Creating a More Perfect Community” with Alexandria City Public Schools; “Peopling the American Past,” a partnership with Clarke, Culpeper, Fauquier, Frederick, Manassas City, Orange and Winchester school districts; “Foundations of U.S. History” with Loudoun County Public Schools; and “Defining Us” and “Understanding the Blessings of Liberty” with Fairfax County Public Schools.

Led by professors and experts from Mason, as well as other institutions in the area, the workshops bolster knowledge and information sharing. Mason speakers and their areas of expertise include professors Peter Henriques, George Washington’s presidency; Jane Censer, the Civil War and Reconstruction; Suzanne Smith, civil rights; and Zachary Schrag, World War II.

Participants also travel to area historical landmarks, such as Mount Vernon, George Washington’s estate, or museums, such as the Holocaust Museum. Earlier this year, teachers from Alexandria City Public Schools toured Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C., and heard about Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War from Terry Alford, professor at Northern Virginia Community College. Another group from Fairfax County visited the Library of Congress, where they learned how to read maps and incorporate them into their curriculum. A visit to Gunston Hall, George Mason’s home, was accompanied by a talk on slavery and emancipation by Ira Berlin, professor at the University of Maryland, College Park.

CHNM field trip to Gadsby's Tavern
A CHNM field trip to historic Gadsby’s Tavern in Old Town Alexandria, Va., helps bring history to life.
CHNM photos

“These programs have been very successful,” says Schrum. “We are improving the teaching of American history by improving teachers’ knowledge.”

“Now I am always looking for primary sources to enhance what I teach,” says Marti McKenzie, a seventh grade teacher at Daniel Morgan Middle School in Winchester. “I can’t put into words all that I got the first year and continuing into the second year of the program. My understanding and expertise were so greatly enhanced.”

After their workshops, participants log onto an online forum, where they write reflections and discuss what they learned. Teachers also post course lessons in which they used a primary source and reflect on what went right and what went wrong.

New Media: The Future of Teaching the Past

In addition to teaching about history, the programs cover the other half of CHNM’s name-new media. Because the Internet is such an easy-to-use and wide-reaching tool, teachers find it invaluable; however, among all the rich resources on the web, there are many unreliable web sites. CHNM helps teachers find the flowers among the weeds by showing them how to evaluate and critique a web site before using it in the classroom.

For example, after vetting the www.dohistory.org web site, Butler used it for the actual pages of Martha Ballard’s diary, as well as transcriptions and exercises for students to explore.

“I do feel that [a teacher] could use this activity with lower-level students because each student is responsible for a small piece of translation,” Butler says. “I would not consider it for use at the elementary level.” She adds, “I feel that the teacher needs to sell the idea to the students and be able to be enthusiastic about the activity in order to promote its effectiveness.”

It is this kind of critical thinking and analysis that Schrum hopes teachers will take away from the workshops. “We are not looking only at how to teach history as a discipline, but how to use new media, evaluate online sources and use them in classes.”

Write to at