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Teaching American History and Parallel Schools

Until 1990, the Virginia Historical Society served a very small number of scholars and genealogists, and we made our collections available through our publications and our research library. Those collections now include some 200,000 photographs; 1,000 paintings; 160,000 books (15,000 of which are considered rare); 5,000 maps; 25,000 museum objects; and some eight million processed manuscripts—letters, diaries, deeds, accounts, plats, minute books—virtually anything and everything that has been committed to paper over the past four centuries. Today, the VHS operates a museum and a research library, and serves as an educational forum. Although I was trained as an archivist, I was hired as the Society's first education director in 1990.

We identified Virginia's school teachers as one of our most important audiences, largely because of our statewide mandate and our mission to interpret all Virginia history—all people, all regions, and all time periods. We conducted workshops around the state, providing teachers with resources (primary sources) and strategies to teach Virginia and American history. We developed teaching kits and history boxes using reproductions of artifacts, facsimiles of documents, and enlargements of photographs from our collections. In 1994, we received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to offer our first teacher institute—a three-week residential program that brought teachers into contact with some of the nation's leading historians. Participating teachers also worked with our reference staff developing primary-source-based lesson plans to be used in their classrooms. The institute is now in its 15th year, and more than 280 Virginia school teachers have attended the program.

So, when the Teaching American History initiative was launched, we were already experienced in conducting content-based workshops and institutes for history teachers. We also had established relationships with history educators throughout the state.

Since 2002, we have served as partners on 22 TAH grants involving 37 of Virginia's 132 school districts. As you know, a "partnership" can assume many forms. For us, partnerships encompass everything from a single workshop over a three-year period, to serving as project directors (which we have done twice) with Chesterfield County Public Schools.

As I read what I have written above, it sounds boastful. I don't mean it to be so. I just want to suggest that we probably have a longer history with TAH-style programming than some partners.

What is the Value of Teaching American History?

What lessons have I learned? What is the value of Teaching American History? In this essay, I would like to focus on what most of you don't see, which is TAH's impact on your partners—museums, universities, and historical societies.

TAH has established a framework by which local schools, university scholars, and public historians (museum educators, historic house administrators, and park service interpreters), are cooperating to address a shared concern. By forcing schools to partner with the history institutions in their own communities, TAH has brought together the various stakeholders in history education. Schools are looking to history experts in their localities for solutions, while those experts are recognizing their responsibilities to K–12 history education.

Let me cite a few examples. For the past 15 years, we have worked with university professors at our summer teacher institutes. They have always expressed their enjoyment in working with teachers, but recently I have seen a growing awareness of their responsibility to help their elementary and secondary colleagues. One incident at a recent institute serves as metaphor. The session began with the presenter asking the teachers about their students. In response, a teacher asked, "How well we are preparing them for you?" In the discussion that ensued, it was apparent that both presenter and audience were aware that theirs was a symbiotic relationship—that they were dependent on each other for the history their students were learning, or not learning. And I think that TAH has played a major part in this growing awareness.

. . . recently I have seen a growing awareness of [university professors'] responsibility to help their elementary and secondary colleagues.

I find myself writing more and more recommendations for assistant professors who are approaching tenure, highlighting their participation in TAH. Several years ago I asked a colleague, who was between jobs at the time, whether the university search committee might look unfavorably on his application for a tenure-track position because of the time he had committed to a TAH grant. He responded, "No, that was one of the things that they liked about me." He got the job.

All this suggests to me that university history departments have become aware that they can't sit back and expect students to come to them prepared. They need to be involved. By providing the framework for collaboration (and the funds), TAH has fostered this involvement.

Parallel Schools

I have also seen a real shift in the way museums and historical societies approach K–12 teachers and students. In the late 1980s, Lynne Cheney, as head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, spoke about the many institutions in our society that serve as "parallel schools." That phrase quickly became mantra in museums. As I visited my colleagues to determine what shape our education programs should take, I heard the phrase repeated over and over. "We see ourselves as a parallel school." Every grant application included the phrase. The professional literature reflected the theme as well, as reports, books, and articles appeared with titles such as: Museums and Schools as Partners, and True Needs, True Partners: Museums and Schools Transforming Education (a 1996 report issued by the Institute of Museum Service, now the Institute of Museum and Library Services or IMLS).

I remember thinking at the time how pretentious this was. It was one thing for museums to think of themselves as parallel schools, but far more important for schools to think of museums as parallel schools.

It was one thing for museums to think of themselves as parallel schools, but far more important for schools to think of museums as parallel schools.

It took TAH to get this to happen. And this is changing the culture in museums. In addition to my job at the VHS, I serve as vice president of programs for the Virginia Association of Museums, the largest state museum association in the country. In 2006, VAM received a grant from the IMLS to prepare a training tool to help museums develop standards-based educational programs to appeal to standards-minded teachers and administrators. As you might expect, the CD-ROM prepared by the VAM staff includes information on how to tailor programs to address specific content standards. However, it also contains an incredible amount of information on developmental learning, multiple intelligences, and navigating school bureaucracies—all the kinds of things that museums didn't care about in the past. More and more, I see museum education positions filled by former classroom teachers, and I am constantly counseling recent graduates interested in museum careers that a few years in the classroom is the best way to enter the field.

. . . I am constantly counseling recent graduates interested in museum careers that a few years in the classroom is the best way to enter the field.

Schools are approaching museums and historical societies differently. During the recent revision of the Virginia Standards of Learning, I was impressed by how much the Virginia Department of Education relied on historical institutions for accuracy. These included the Library of Virginia, the American Slavery Museum, the Museum of American Frontier Culture, the Jamestown Settlement, Historic Jamestown, Colonial Williamsburg, the American Civil War Center, and surely many others.

TAH has fostered a spirit of collaboration that brings together all the stakeholders in teaching American history. That is an important contribution—and perhaps TAH's most long-lasting legacy.