National History Day Contest Deepens Understanding and Appreciation of History

My colleague, Mia Howerton, and I were invited to serve as judges for the National History Day (NHD) competition finals in College Park, Md., on June 17, 2014. History is an area of special interest for us, as we both serve as program officers for the Teaching American History program. Mia also taught social studies at the middle school level for six years in Richmond, Va. It was refreshing to have the opportunity to leave our Washington, D.C. office for a day and interact with students. Being able to see the exemplary projects students have created in pursuit of their quest for historical knowledge and understanding helped us to better appreciate the impact that national education programs can have on individual students.

Students from Whittier Middle School in Sioux Falls, S.D., in the group documentary “The Mark of McCarthy.” (Photo by  Route 1 Multimedia, courtesy of National History Day)

Students from Whittier Middle School in Sioux Falls, S.D., in the group documentary The Mark of McCarthy. (Photo by Route 1 Multimedia, courtesy of National History Day)

NHD offers middle and high school students the opportunity to create a history project of their choosing based on an annual theme — Rights and Responsibilities in History for 2014. The project categories are exhibit, performance, documentary, paper, and website. All project types can be done by individuals or groups, except for papers, which must be individual. Projects are judged on three evaluation criteria: historical quality (60 percent), relation to the theme (20 percent), and clarity of presentation (20 percent). Prizes are also awarded to projects that focus on particular themes in history, such as the Civil War History prize sponsored by the Civil War Trust, the Outstanding Entry on an International Theme prize sponsored by The History Channel, and the Native American History prize sponsored by the National Park Service.

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New Jersey Teachers Discuss History and Civics with Supreme Court Justice

Every year, hundreds of American history teachers participating in Teaching American History (TAH) projects across the country gather in our nation’s capital to experience our history, politics, and culture firsthand. For many of these educators, this travel-study experience is their first journey to Washington, D.C., and, as such, marks an important milestone in their careers. For a group of 18 teachers from Ridgewood, New Jersey, however, a summer trip in 2013 also represented their first engaged discussion with experts in government and politics who are in elected and appointed offices of the federal government. The capstone event of the Ridgewood TAH project included a private audience with Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer.

Breyer:  Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer discusses a range of topics with the Ridgewood TAH project teachers.  (Photo courtesy of John Domville of Ridgewood High School)

Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer discusses a range of topics with the Ridgewood TAH project teachers. (Photo courtesy of John Domville of Ridgewood High School)

In preparation for this event, the participating teachers read and discussed The U.S. Supreme Court: A Very Short Introduction by Pulitzer Prize winner and New York Times journalist Linda Greenhouse. In addition, under the guidance of the project’s three master educators, the TAH teachers developed a list of discussion topics to share with Justice Breyer. A number of the selected topics were relevant to Justice Breyer’s vast experience and expertise in legal theory and administrative and constitutional law; others were more pertinent to the teachers’ classroom work and efforts to improve civic engagement in their schools and communities, such as the roles of civic education in public life and the federal government in K-12 education, and the impact of Supreme Court decisions in American life, among others.

As a result of their experience at the Supreme Court, the teachers have developed lessons on equality (14th Amendment) and the interpretation of language in the U.S. Constitution (Federalist Paper #56). All of the lessons integrate one or more of the Common Core State Standards and use the Understanding by Design instructional framework.

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Time Out for Writing

In mid-September, as most of the Department’s staff was focused on closing out the federal fiscal year, a group of more than 10 employees from a number of department offices, including Teaching Ambassador Fellows, took a hiatus from “end-of-the-fiscal-year mode” to learn about innovative and effective ways of teaching writing that are being used throughout the nation’s classrooms.

Margarita Meléndez with the June 2013 edition of Language Magazine, in which her article about Digital Is appeared. (Photo by Judy Buchanan, courtesy of NWP)

Margarita Meléndez with the June 2013 edition of Language Magazine, in which her article about Digital Is appeared. (Photo by Judy Buchanan, courtesy of NWP)

Staff from the National Writing Project (NWP) presented a two-part seminar that highlighted the organization’s cutting-edge work in the fields of digital writing and digital writing instruction, as well as information on successful initiatives that integrate writing across the curriculum at all levels of instruction. The seminar was organized by the Office of Innovation and Improvement’s Teacher Quality Programs Office.

As most readers of this blog are familiar, the goal of the NWP is to improve student achievement by improving the teaching and uses of writing in the nation’s schools. Headquartered at the University of California – Berkeley, the NWP serves teachers nationwide through a network of more than 200 local sites hosted by colleges and universities. The Department has supported the NWP for many years, most recently as a recipient of the Supporting Effective Educator Development (SEED) program. The NWP received SEED grants in Fiscal Years 2012 and 2013.

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Teaching American History Veteran is Teacher of the Year

Meet Jill Szymanski, a 4th/5th-grade teacher at Red Clay Consolidated School District in Wilmington, Del., who was recently named the 2013 National History Teacher of the Year.

Ms. Szymanski, a 16-year veteran of the classroom, credits her growth as a history teacher in part to her participation for three years in the Delaware Social Studies Education Project, a grantee of ED’s Teaching American History program. Teaching American History grants support professional development in American history content by stressing the importance of making history engaging and helping students to think like historians. James G. Basker, president of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, said Ms. Szymanski has an “ability to push her students to think critically through the use of primary and secondary source documents and visits to historical sites, and her boundless energy.”

The National History Teacher of the Year Award is co-sponsored by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, The History Channel, and Preserve America to honor outstanding K–12 educators of American history. The honoree receives a $10,000 prize as well as a trip for her and two students to New York City for an awards ceremony. Click here to read the full article about this year’s awardee on the Gilder Lehrman Institute website.

 Cross-posted from Teaching Matters, ED’s newsletter celebrating teachers and teaching.

Teaching American History Program Participants Receive National Honor

The more than 85,000 participants in OII’s Teaching American History Program are winners of the 2013 Friend of History Award from the Organization of American Historians (OAH). The award, which is given in recognition of outstanding support for historical research or the public presentation of American history, was presented to two representatives of the TAH program at OAH’s 106th annual conference on April 13.

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ED Staff Learn About Excellence and U.S. Values From Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Musicians

In celebration of Black History Month, the Department of Education’s Student Art Exhibit Program and Blacks in Government collaborated to provide employees and guests an opportunity to enjoy a jazz informance—an informational performance created by students of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz and rising star jazz saxophonist Tim Green. Dr. JB Dyas, vice president for education and curriculum development at the Institute, affirming that jazz is America’s indigenous music, said it was “invented only 100 years ago [and] … evolved from the African American experience here in the U.S.”

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Teaching American History Participant Named National History Teacher of the Year

Students in Stacy Hoeflich’s fourth-grade classroom at John Adams Elementary School in Alexandria, Va., don’t just learn American history, they live it through encounters with primary sources and historical reenactors, participation in “Colonial Day” fairs, field trips to historical sites, operas about historical figures such as George Mason and Thomas Jefferson that are written and performed by the students, and more. Ms. Hoeflich’s efforts were recognized last month by the Gilder Lehrman Institute for American History, which awarded her the prestigious 2011 National History Teacher of the Year Award. Co-sponsored by the Gilder Lehrman Institute, HISTORY®, and Preserve America, the award was presented in a ceremony at the Frederick Douglass Academy in New York City and is accompanied by a $10,000 cash prize.

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Feature: Take a Walk on the Historical Side

Teachers view “Among the Sierra Nevada, California” (National Portrait Gallery). Teachinghistory.org, 2012.

As a high school history teacher gazes up at an enormous mural, he begins to plan an activity that engages his students in careful analysis of both the image and its historical context. Listening to a drum beat while she walks in the footsteps of a Civil War soldier, a fourth-grade teacher gains an appreciation for the power of music and of historic places. She learns new ways to incorporate multiple senses into her classroom, opening student minds through the sounds, smells, and tastes of the past.

Whether it takes place in a national museum, on a working seventeenth-century farm, or in a library or archive, professional development that allows teachers to explore history in person can be a powerful learning experience. But what are the components of good history and social studies workshops for teachers? What roles can cultural institutions, such as museums, libraries, archives, and historic sites, play in creating quality learning opportunities for educators? What strategies help teachers translate these experiences into classroom learning, inspiring students to think in new ways?

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Resources for Observing Native American Heritage Month Year-round

First recognized as “Native American Indian Heritage Month” in 1990, by President George H.W. Bush, the month of November has been celebrated annually as “Native American Heritage Month” (or a variant thereof) since 1994. The observance is a prime opportunity to recognize the unique contributions of Native Americans, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians to both the U.S. regions in which they reside and to American society-at-large.

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