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What Second Graders Can Teach Us

Nine-plus years of implementing three Teaching American History (TAH) grants totaling over $3.5 million have taught me much about solid, needs-meeting professional development for history teachers. Yet, it was in co-reflecting about the topic with my wife Grace—an elementary teacher-of-the-year last year now re-experiencing teaching second graders for the first time since her inception year in 1990—that I quickly realized that what makes for meaningful, lasting history teacher learning is not much different than what counts for meaningful, lasting second grader learning.

Personal, Relevant Connections
Second graders live in a magical world, where all things are real and possible. A keen teacher knows and uses that to find ways to make the learning not only fun, but important, meaningful, and relevant, by using stories and realia to create personal connections. Meaningful and long-lasting professional development for history teachers also taps into magical worlds. It happens when the content meets the heart, and together it creates a learning experience that goes beyond that Saturday, the summer institute, and way beyond the school year. It changes lives. It happens in dusty, old science labs that should have been condemned decades ago just as it does in living museums, brand-new libraries, field experiences, and historic national parks. Meaning and relevance does not require nor respect special space and precious time—it lives within or in spite of them.

Plan, Deliver, Follow-up
I am not talking about acting here, but rather about delivering a carefully planned product that is meaningful. In some ways the magical relevance described above has to be discovered in the construed planning so that participants are escorted to find their place in the drama that unfolds. Too often staff development that falls short merely lacks that creative spirit—the content is strongly aligned to targeted academic goals, the instructional strategies are research-based, yet something is lacking. A second grader lives for his teacher, and can’t wait to go into that classroom because he knows that the wonderful teacher will do much more than spill out facts, dictate do’s and don’ts, and issue grades—that teacher will orchestrate a day-after-day symphony of living experiences that are obviously relevant to both the teacher and the students. Meaningful professional development for history teachers is much the same way. History teachers can’t wait to attend the next professional development opportunity when it is truly meaningful: academically sound and delivered with heart.

Reading is Encouraged, Expected, and Respected
Am I talking about encouraging teachers to read in a workshop, while the presenter is presenting? No, not really. Just as the 2nd-grade classroom is a print-rich environment, where students are taught to use down time between instructional activities—as students wait for others to complete assignments, during lunchtime, or when the teacher is calling roll, posting grades, or doing some other necessary teacher chore—a professional development venue also can be stacked with reading materials at the participant tables or at the peripheral ones: history novels, teacher resource kits, almanacs, professional readings, maps, old newspapers, etc. Providing possible history reading resources for participant down time will discourage them from pulling out that dreaded newspaper sports section, crossword puzzle, or assignment to grade, and encourage them to explore history content that they may not have even planned for that day. I know of no vendors that would say “No!” to a request for sample materials for this purpose.

In It for the Long Haul
Second-grade classroom instruction starts in mid-August and ends in early June. It is not a series of 180 separate, unconnected, one-shot day-long events. It is one complete 180-day experience. Similarly, effective history teacher staff development is sustained and ongoing, and stretches across that same 180-day span, with time to deploy on-site and off-site experiences that teach new content and strategies, allow for reflective time, and demand meaningful additional completion and preparatory work between sessions. Just as the dynamic 2nd-grade classroom builds on previously learned material, day after day, so too does the professional development experience for the history teacher—before, during, and after each session, it is connected and meaningful in total.

Teaching a group of second graders can be an exciting yet overwhelming experience. So can leading history teachers through professional development. On occasion, Grace has been approached by students from her 1990 class of second graders to thank her and fondly reminisce with her while at the store, the theater, or the restaurant. I can see and hear that their experiences were mutually meaningful and lasting. Ah, if only we could capture that magical world, bottle it, and pull it out when needed. I think good history staff development does.