Let History Reign
In this era when the emphasis in schools is on math, reading, and science, one organization is trying to ensure that history doesn’t just survive, it flourishes.
For all the choices of specialized academic programs available to Joelle Chevrier, she finds little to spark her passion for learning in the future-focused offerings in biotechnology and global business at her high school, or the de rigueur math, science, and finance clusters at other secondary campuses here in Florida’s Palm Beach County district. Instead, an unusual program at Spanish River High School allows the sophomore to explore the nation’s past, taking her on a journey through Colonial times, the Civil War, the Great Depression, and other historical eras, far beyond the cursory coverage of the traditional curriculum.
Having found an outlet for her interest, Ms. Chevrier is loading up on social studies classes, even taking extra coursework in the school’s Saturday history academy.
“I really like my history classes and wanted to do more. Math and science don’t really do anything for me, and now I can take five social studies courses because of this program,” she said during a break from a recent Saturday-morning economics lecture on the role of cotton in the economy of the antebellum South. “I’m learning a lot more stuff about [historical events] than I ever knew existed.”
On this morning, students from the local middle school are learning about U.S. presidents, while high school participants study policies and military strategies of World War II, famous American speeches, and the history of film.
At a time when many social studies educators are bemoaning the dwindling focus on the social sciences as schools focus on reading/language arts and math ematics—the subjects tested annually under the federal No Child Left Behind Act—as well as science and technology, a small but expanding network of schools is putting U.S. history at the centerpiece of the curriculum.
Spanish River High is one of 40 U.S. History Schools and 21 affiliates around the country that get resources and academic support from the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.
The schools require participating students to take a U.S. history course each year, in addition to any requisites in world history and other subjects. The courses emphasize a scholarly approach to the subject, as well as in-depth research and structured projects that challenge students to demonstrate their knowledge. The New York City-based Gilder Lehrman Institute provides an extensive online collection for anyone to use of documents and historical images, as well as lesson plans, research guides, podcasts of lectures by prominent historians, and traveling exhibitions. Many of the network’s schools supplement the curriculum with Saturday courses.
“One or two years is really an insufficient time to give students a full understanding and to go in depth on a lot of the issues related to American history,” said Michael Serber, the education coordinator for the institute. “What we’ve found as a result of the program is that not only are our students getting a broader knowledge of history, they are also improving on their reading scores because of the research and writing required.”
Mr. Serber saw that happen as the principal of the Academy of American Studies, a high school in New York’s Queens borough that opened more than a decade ago as the first of Gilder Lehrman’s history-focused programs. The selective school’s 600 students all undertake a college-preparatory curriculum centered on U.S. history. It now gets several thousand applications a year.
The push began in 1996, when the Wall Street financiers Lewis E. Lehrman and Richard Gilder sought an outlet for promoting their passion for the subject and for sharing their expansive collection of historical documents.
Now, the program includes a diverse group of schools in cities from Savannah, Ga., to Milwaukee, to Los Angeles. Some participating school systems, such as the 169,000-student Palm Beach County district, have expanded the program to middle schools.
At Spanish River, a few hundred of the 1,800 students have signed on to the program’s rigorous immersion in U.S. history, which also incorporates the legal foundations of the republic. Dozens more are enrolled in the school’s Saturday program and other enrichment offerings in the subject.
“Students have so many opportunities through this program to study history in depth that their counterparts who are not in the program don’t have,” said Mara Goron, an assistant principal at Spanish River High who helped launch the program three years ago.
That means an American history course for 9th graders extends a full year, instead of half, and affords a more detailed examination of past events, as well as requiring lengthy research papers and projects. The 10th graders in the program study the U.S. Constitution, while upperclassmen delve into the American judicial system, government, and economics.
• A network of 40 schools and 21 affiliate schools presents a rigorous, college-preparatory curriculum with expanded offerings in American history. It includes high schools, middle schools, and one elementary school, which offer the program to all students or a select portion of the student body. The network supports Saturday academies at many of the participating schools that offer courses on specific themes or events in history.
• Its sponsor, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American Studies in New York City, provides financial support, historical documents and resources, and academic support from history scholars and experts.
• Participating students take at least one U.S. history course each semester throughout their four years of high school, in addition to other history requisites. Many states require students to complete just one year of U.S. history in order to graduate.
• Courses emphasize the use of primary resources and integration of history content with arts and literature.
• The institute lends traveling exhibits to participating schools that feature primary documents, historical artifacts, and displays.
• Teachers can study special topics or events in American history in summer workshops given by top historians at universities around the country.
“Most of the kids get shortchanged on history because of testing,” said Mike Bartholomew, a veteran history teacher here. In a class for 9th graders not in the program, he was rushing to cover three chapters of U.S. history in the two weeks leading up to county tests in the subject. But in his constitutional-law class for sophomores, Mr. Bartholomew has months to discuss the founding documents and landmark court cases.
“We can take our time and have fun,” he said as he described lessons he has planned on the right to free speech, including discussions on banned music and other topics that he hopes will bring the concepts to life for his teenage students.
Mr. Bartholomew and his wife, Kim Green, who also teaches history at the school, tag-team on the U.S. presidents course for middle schoolers in the Saturday academy. The informal weekend classes, which do not have homework or tests, allow the two to share their combined expertise in the subject in exercises designed to engage students who may be more accustomed to watching cartoons on a weekend morning than having scholarly discussions.
On one recent Saturday, 6th and 7th graders were jumping out of their seats as they competed in a presidential-trivia contest. As Ms. Green called out questions about William McKinley and Ronald Reagan, Mr. Bartholomew rewarded winners with colorful pencils and erasers.
The students eagerly listened to stories of Theodore Roosevelt’s adventures and the mischief caused by his rambunctious children, along with the professional football contracts the young Gerald R. Ford was offered.
Ross Pugatch is spending his morning learning about the societal attitudes reflected in certain classic films before going to a second class on economics. The extra time on academics isn’t necessarily aligned to the biotech program he is enrolled in. But the sophomore hopes it will distinguish his transcript from those of other top students when he applies to colleges.
“I’m interested in pursuing a career in law, so history is important to me,” he said. “And the teacher is funny, and this mixes it up a little bit compared to my biotech courses.”
The teachers, too, get enrichment and enjoyment from their participation, according to Brett Burkey, an economics teacher and the chairman of the Spanish River history department. Mr. Burkey attended a weeklong summer workshop on World War II and the Great Depression at Stanford University that the Gilder Lehrman Institute sponsored.
“I incorporate so much more American history into my economics classes now,” he said. “It’s added a significant dimension to what I do.”
That was one of the hopes David M. Kennedy had for the course he taught at Stanford, where he is a history professor, with his colleague Richard Wright. A member of the boards of the Gilder Lehrman Institute and the National Council for History Education, Mr. Kennedy received the 2000 Pulitzer Prize in history for his book Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945.
“I have some idea of the conditions under which these teachers are working, particularly in the context of NCLB and the marginalization of nontested subjects,” he said. In the workshop, “we want to make sure the teachers are taking back to their classrooms the best and most current thinking for these topics,” he added. “Beyond that, I try to suggest to them ways of teaching these subjects that have worked for me in my classroom.”
Those benefits have extended beyond the Spanish River history department. When Bettina Hoffman returned from a Gilder Lehrman summer workshop last year, she designed an advanced-rhetoric course in which her English students pick apart famous speeches in history and analyze the purpose and effectiveness of each.
Ms. Hoffman’s class is examining different state constitutions and other documents to compare their literary features. And she carefully selected E. Annie Proulx’s novel Accordion Crimes for her students, because the dramatic stories of 19th-century immigrants in several American cities brought narrative detail to content they were learning in their history classes.
“I use speeches because they bring perspective, … and they’re terrific for giving peripheral support to [students’] arguments about historical events,” she said. Her class’s discussion of President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address, for example, highlighted his secondary references to God, a calculated measure, in the view of some historians, to ease the concerns of many citizens about a Roman Catholic in the White House.
When the class watched news footage of Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, a Mormon, discussing his own religious beliefs recently, “the students were jumping out of their seats to talk about it and the similarities with President Kennedy,” Ms. Hoffman said.
The Gilder Lehrman program promotes such integration with literature and the arts. That integration is on display at other schools in the network as well. At Milwaukee’s High School for the Arts, for example, the nearly 900 students at the magnet school combine their studies with the Gilder Lehrman coursework. The combination has helped the school sustain enrollment and avoid closure in the struggling urban district, according to the chairman of the history department, John Rodahl. The partnership with Gilder Lehrman has also brought desperately needed materials and other resources to a school where pens and paper are often hard to come by, he said.
Mr. Rodahl and other English, history, and arts faculty members have gone to a number of summer workshops to enhance their teaching.
“We are able to collaborate with our colleagues in other departments” to enhance the entire curriculum, he said.
One English teacher, for example, will teach students about American authors. The school’s dance teacher has infused the subject into her classes. And history is a natural fit in the school’s renowned jazz-studies program. It also became the centerpiece of a theater performance last year when professional actors were invited to the school to act out scenes from Milwaukee’s own history.
“We want to get the kids pumped up about history,” Mr. Rodahl said.
Back at Florida’s Spanish River High, the program appears to do just that for many of the students.
“I have three classes of kids who live, eat, and breathe history,” said Ms. Green, who teaches the 9th grade class in U.S. history here. “I’ve really seen a fire lit under some kids who were real sleepers in class.”
Those students now come eagerly to class and attend each Saturday session, the veteran teacher said.
“Unfortunately, the demands of standardized testing are eliminating the concept of just learning for the sake of learning,” she said. “But for these kids to forfeit their Saturday when they could be watching cartoons or doing whatever, in the name of history—that’s something.”
Vol. 27, Issue 17, Pages 21-23Published in Print: January 9, 2008, as Let History Reign