Teaching Teachers at Emma Willard School

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Last Friday I helped lead a workshop on historical thinking for twenty-five history teachers at Emma Willard School, an independent girls school in Troy, New York.  The New York State Association of Independent Schools sponsored the workshop.

The school was founded in 1814 as Troy Female Seminary by women’s rights activist Emma Willard. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Jane Fonda and current NY Senator Kirsten Gillbrand are all Emma Willard graduates.  I also learned (after I left) that a 2003 Messiah College graduate currently works in student life at the school.  I also learned that my first cousin lives two blocks down the road!).

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It was a great experience.  I reconnected with my old friend Dr. Bob Naeher, the chair of the Emma Willard History Department.  I first met Bob sometime in the late 1990s/early 2000s when both of us (along with 100s of other teachers and history professors) were grading United States History Advanced Placement exams on the campus of Trinity College in San Antonio, Texas.  Bob is a fine American historian.  He wrote a great dissertation on Puritans and prayer at the University of Connecticut under the direction of Karen Kupperman. (Check out his 1989 New England Quarterly essay, “Dialogue in the Wilderness: John Eliot and the Indian Exploration of Puritanism as a Source of Meaning, Comfort, and Ethnic Survival“).

I was privileged to work with Magdalena Gross of the University of Maryland’s Education Department.  Gross is an engaging scholar and teacher who works at the intersection of historical thinking, pedagogy, and memory.  She is an expert on pedagogy issues surrounding the Holocaust in Poland.  And did I mention that she did her doctoral work at Stanford under the direction of Sam Wineburg?  After teaching two Wineburg books in Fall 2017, I was thrilled to chat with Magda about teaching future teachers how to teach historical thinking skills.  I hope we get to work together again one day.

Magda took the morning session and modeled two lessons.  One challenged students to read critically and the other helped students to tackle difficult issues (like the Holocaust) that they encountered in their study of the past.  (Both lessons were inspired by her work with the Stanford History Education Group).

I was assigned the afternoon session.  I offered some thoughts on the relationship between history and the cultivation of a democratic society.  We discussed the
5 Cs of historical thinking: change over time, contingency, context, complexity, and causation.  Then, drawing from my Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past, I suggested that the study of history cultivates virtues necessary for a thriving democracy–empathy, humility, intellectual hospitality, and discipline.

The conversation with the teachers was excellent.  As always, I learned a lot!  One teacher even tweeted:

One thought on “Teaching Teachers at Emma Willard School

  1. There was a moment during the morning session when in a kind of passing aside, Magda remarked, “The search for truth is, for me, a very spiritual experience.” This profession struck me with real force, as it resonated with my own deepest feelings about the work that we as historians endeavor to do. When we gathered together in the afternoon, in both word and deed, you carried the theme forward, affirming all that is best in the difficult work of historical thinking. I certainly walked away from the day having been educated. Even more significantly, I walked away well nourished. Thank you for your time, for thoughtfulness and care. Thank you as well for affirming so powerfully this good work in which we are all together engaged.

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