The Role of History Educators in a Time of Crisis: Building Bridges Between Historians and K-12 History Teachers

Classroom_at_Gaylord_Opryland_Resort_&_Convention_CenterSari Beth Rosenberg is writing for us this weekend from Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association in New York City.  She is a U.S. history teacher and writer in New York City. Sari 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. Her bylines include the #SheDidThat series for A&E Television Network/Lifetime, TheProgressive.org, PublicSeminar.org, and PatriotNotPartisan.com. Some of her recent media appearances include TheSkimm’s 2018 GOTV series and Travel Channel’s “Mysteries at the Museum.”  Follow her on Twitter. Enjoy her post!  –JF

Nearly twenty years ago, I was a participant in several Teaching American History Grant (TAHG) programs, as well as the coordinator for one designed for New York City elementary school teachers. Thanks to this federally-funded program (defunct since 2012), history teachers, like myself, worked with historians for the sole purpose of improving their content knowledge as well as pedagogy. I still integrate many of the documents and practices from my TAH days into my lessons. Most importantly, TAH played an integral role in bringing together historians with K-12 history teachers, an important partnership that is missing in the field today.

Although there has been an increasingly robust conversation around this topic in the Twitterverse, I was excited to attend an IRL discussion on Sunday, January 5th at 8:30AM at the AHA conference. Organized by the AHA Teaching Division, “The Role of History Educators in a Time of Crisis” panel was chaired by Joe Schmidt (New York City Department of Education) in conversation with Trevor Getz (San Francisco State University), Christopher Martell (University of Massachusetts Boston), and Judith Jeremie (Brooklyn Technical High School). I left the session determined to redouble my efforts in finding more ways for historians and history teachers to join forces in meaningful ways.

Chris Martell’s Two-Way Bridge Between Historians and Teachers 

I have been a longtime fan of Chris Martell’s efforts to actively connect historians with history teachers on Twitter. Based on his paper, “A Two-Way Bridge: Building Better Partnerships between Historians and History Teachers/Teacher Educators,” Martell’s main message was that we need to move from historian/history teacher interaction to collaboration. That means we need to start presenting at each other’s conferences and utilize more digital platforms for sharing our resources and teaching strategies. He began by discussing how there are a few thousand self-identified historians and professors in the United States, but there are currently 1.1 million elementary school teachers. These educators are often overlooked when we talk about who teaches history. Meanwhile, beginning in 2008, we have experienced the steepest decline in history majors. Considering that 18% of 300,000 history majors report they wish to pursue careers in K-12 education, this does not bode well for the future of public education. How do we stoke the flames of enthusiasm for the study of history?

Martell’s answer is to partner history teachers with historians. In his studies, he found that K-12 history teachers often struggle to keep their content updated with the latest research and struggle to find helpful resources. They find historians inaccessible, most school-based professional development is not focused on content, and most of the history journals are not open-sourced. Martell realized that social media has become the new territory to best improve interactions between historians and history teachers. In response, he started a social media campaign, #BridgingHistoriansandTeachers, to get historians and history teachers to follow one another. It has been an effective venture thus far. In thirty days, Martell followed 42 historians. 33 of those historians followed him back and promised to follow back any K-12 historians who followed them. If Martell’s initiative continues, he hopes that historians and educators can learn about each other’s work and engage in meaningful conversations about classroom activities. He also emphasized the need for more PD opportunities that link content and pedagogy so teachers can actually implement the material in their respective classrooms. He cites the University of Massachusetts Boston/ Boston Public Schools model as one to which we should emulate.

Joe Schmidt’s Passport to Historian-History Teacher Collaboration

Next to speak on the panel was Joe Schmidt (“History Education and the Passport to Social Studies: Historical Thinking and the Creation of a District Curriculum”). He explained that he views curriculum and curriculum development as an important forum for teachers and historians to work together. (Disclosure: I know the benefit of this work firsthand, as I have been on the curriculum writing team since 2015). That has been a major part of the model for the New York City Department of Education teacher-created curriculum. After sharing the mind-blowing fact that 1 of 300 Americans sit in a New York City public school classroom every day, 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.

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.

Judith Jeremie’s Students Reap the Benefits from Her Work with Other Historians 

A Brooklyn Technical High School teacher, Judith Jeremie shared that “Learning how to teach students to think like historians was definitely a learning curve.” Her greatest growth came from becoming a curriculum writer on the Passport project. She shared that her biggest challenge is to get her students to become critical thinkers. Speaking with historians who are experts in their respective fields greatly helped her with this feat. For example, she collaborated with Trevor Getz, an expert in the field of African history, and this helped her better teach the topic to her AP World History students.

Jeremie shared that attending the History Book Talks, organized by Schmidt, gives her greater depth and breadth of content, while also giving her strategies for translating it for her students so they can start thinking about the bigger picture of history. Jeremie shared her positive experiences using the Tools from the Passport curriculum: “Students loved using them(the tools) and seeing the process, especially if you show them why you are using it. They love the idea that you are including them in history-making.”

Trevor Getz’s Inside Scoop on How the “Economy of the Academy” is Affecting Pedagogy

Speaking of Trevor Getz (“Historians Taking Education Seriously”), he was the final presenter on the panel. As a history professor, he 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.”

Before opening the panel up to questions, and comments, from a highly engaged audience, Joe Schmidt asked each panel member to answer this question:

“What is history education?”

Jeremie shared that it involves sharing how historians write about history as a launch point so her students can ultimately model and produce their own writing.

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.

Martell 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.

A few other suggestions on how to forge historian/history teacher connections:

For History Teachers: Cold Call Your Local Historian

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.

For Historians: Write a Shorter Blog Piece for Teachers

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.

The overall consensus among the panel, as well as the attendees, was that forging meaningful collaborations between historians and history teachers is crucial to the study of history. It is our responsibility as educators to do all we can to provide young people with strong historical thinking skills to navigate this increasingly chaotic world. With history as a discipline waning in popularity, it is essential that we find new ways to revive interest in the subject. A synergy between historians and history teachers might be our last great hope in closing the growing divide in America, and the world.