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More Teachers Taking Hands-On History Lessons

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By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 17, 2008

Despite the No Child Left Behind law's requirement to rate schools based on reading and math test scores, many school systems are finding ways to bolster other subjects, such as the social sciences, in an effort to avoid narrowing their curriculum.

U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings announced this month that 121 school systems nationwide, including Prince William County's, will receive funds from an Education Department grant program for teaching U.S. history. School systems use the grants, which typically range from $500,000 to $1 million and last three years, to design development courses for teachers that focus on how to use primary sources. In Northern Virginia, the Fairfax County system won the grant in 2002 and 2005; Loudoun County's won in 2005; and Alexandria's in 2002.

Prince William schools won the grant this year for the first time, after getting turned down twice in previous years, said Ken Bassett, the school system's history and social science supervisor. Prince William's grant totals $856,541.

"This grant is about helping teachers help students do history, rather than tell them history," Bassett said.

Prince William, the state's second-largest school system after Fairfax's, will use the money to establish summer programs in which local university professors will instruct about 100 teachers for one-week periods on topics such as the nation's westward expansion, the Industrial Revolution and 1920s literature.

In Fairfax schools, in the third year of a $999,206 grant, teachers have been spending their summers learning from academics, going on field trips to museums in Washington and Virginia and reading books by prominent historians.

Last year, Fairfax teachers took field trips to such places as the Gettysburg National Military Park and the National Portrait Gallery, said Alice Reilly, Fairfax's social studies coordinator.

Educators say the grant program is part of a movement in the history field to refresh teachers' knowledge of U.S. history, especially elementary school educators who might not have been inside a history classroom since taking a college survey course.

The program aims to help teachers improve the use of primary sources in classrooms, getting students to think like historians so they do not rely on textbooks but craft their own conclusions.

"Elementary teachers are generalists. And, as a result, they tend to stick with books," Reilly said. "We want kids to look at history like historians and ask, 'Why would a historian consider one document versus another?' "

In Loudoun, teachers have been spending two weeks of their summers at the George Mason University campus in Sterling. "It's not just a matter of looking at one document. You're looking at a series of documents on a single topic and then coming up with conclusions," said Bill Brazier, Loudoun's social science supervisor. He said teachers will study obvious primary sources, such as the Declaration of Independence, and more unusual historical evidence, such as the letters of President Franklin D. Roosevelt or cartoons.

In Prince William, Bassett said, development courses for fifth-grade teachers are meant to help them raise what have been low or flat state test scores. "In some schools, there are less than 50 percent pass rates," he said. "My office has been working hard to improve student performance. Some of these teachers may have had one course as an undergraduate in history. That's an underlying cause for the grant program."

Bassett said the Education Department has offered him the chance to apply for a two-year extension to the grant, which would bring the number of program years to five. He said he hopes to lobby School Board members next month to move lessons in early U.S. history from fifth grade to sixth, in which teachers might have specialized knowledge of the content, as a way to possibly raise test scores.

"Over 70 percent of students in the state of Virginia study early American history in sixth grade," Bassett said.


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