U.Va. Wins Grant to Improve Teaching of American History in K-12

August 12, 2010 — National studies show that many of the teachers leading elementary and high school American history classes didn't major in history.

The University of Virginia, in partnership with the Southwest Virginia Public Education Consortium and the Wythe County school system, aims to address the lack of resources with a three-year, $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education. The "Teaching American History Program" awarded 124 grants nationwide.

Through the grant, a group of Virginia history teachers will participate in "My History Partner," a new support program its creators hope will ultimately increase students' knowledge and performance.

"This grant is genuinely ground-breaking, adapting the Curry School of Education's remarkable 'My Teaching Partner' tool for the support of history teachers – a new innovation in combining proven ways of improving their classroom skills while expanding their knowledge of the subjects that they teach," said Victor Luftig, director of the University's Center for Liberal Arts, which provides continuing education for K-12 teachers. "This is a great opportunity to bridge the gap between pedagogy and content."

The first two years of the grant will support 24 teachers, who will be able to draw upon resources to develop their teaching skills, boost their history knowledge, or work on both. The third year of the grant will support an additional 16 teachers.

The grant will provide teachers a series of Internet-based tools. The program combines videos, teleconferencing and face-to-face meetings to enable history teachers, working with professors and graduate assistant history and education consultants, to identify areas of weakness. They then can tailor their professional development based on the "My Teaching Partner,", developed by the Curry School of Education's Center for the Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning, known as CASTL.

"My Teaching Partner" was originally targeted for language and literacy development in pre-K through third-grade classrooms, particularly with pupils at risk of failing.

This new grant extends many years of grant-supported collaboration between the Center for Liberal Arts and the education consortium.

Southwest Virginia is an example of a remote geographical area where teachers, however dedicated, "serve impoverished children, who suffer from high dropout rates, far from the leading centers of innovation and advocacy," as the grant proposal describes. These school districts also tend to have a significant number of teachers who are only provisionally or conditionally certified.

To help expand the teachers' knowledge, historians from U.Va.'s Miller Center of Public Affairs and history professors from around the state – including U.Va., Virginia Tech and U.Va.'s College at Wise – will teach courses throughout the three years.

Topics will cover early American communities and what made the Jamestown colony or the Founding Fathers' working together successful; the Progressive Era, during which a diverse group of people promoted reforms to aid marginalized American citizens, including women, blacks and the poor; and the executive branch in the latter half of the 20th century. The teachers will have access to resources, such as the Miller Center's Presidential Recordings Project. Professors and doctoral students will visit the teachers' classrooms to get a precise sense of the environment in which support is to be provided.

Robert Pianta, dean of the Curry School and Novartis U.S. Foundation Professor of Education, said the new project focusing on history is important because "it draws together a collection of University resources for teachers and connects them to educators in Southwest Virginia in ways we all hope can be helpful to them."

"It is also a partnership that allows us to extend and further evaluate this approach to teacher professional development that takes advantage of the capacity of the Internet to connect people to provide individualized consultation to teachers," said Pianta, who also directs the National Center for Research in Early Childhood Education and CASTL.

"If in this project we continue to see the benefits of this approach for teachers and student learning, the results will have important consequences for more widespread efforts to support teachers and students," he said.

— By Anne Bromley