By now, if you are a history teacher, I hope that you have come to realize that a textbook study of history offers little other than a base level of knowledge, one that students are destined to forget almost immediately. History studied right is experiential, and that experience includes exposure to the images, words, music, etc. of a time period. And it is defined by the realization of every opportunity to experience the actual location of something being studied. As teachers we need to seek out every chance to offer ourselves the chance to walk in the footsteps of what we are teaching; I can guarantee it will change the way you teach. But we also have to seek out those opportunities to offer the same kind of experience to our students.
1- The Impact of Experiential Professional Development on Teachers
Professional development is one of those terms which I am convinced is defined by the teacher. Can't anything which inspires growth "pd"? These can include more structured experiences, and for those who are social studies teachers (but also teachers of other subjects as well), here are a few of my favorite structured development groups:
- Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History- apart from being a first-stop destination for primary documents and other classroom resources, GLI offers a series of summer seminars throughout the country. Each seminar focuses on an element of American history, with a few of this year's offerings running the gamut of the Civil Rights Movement in Memphis, The Second Great Awakening at Princeton, and the one which I am attending right now, Hamilton and Founding Era in NYC. Each of these seminars is, essentially, free, with room, board, and food free, and travel expenses reimbursed. Each seminar is led by an expert in the field, including great minds like Denver Brunsman, John Demos, Eric Foner, and Richard Brookhiser. Teachers are on location for a week, which is filled with lecture/discussion, trips to historical locations relevant to the topic, and time spent on pedagogy and lesson development.
- Ashbrook Center at Ashland University- the group associated with the "TeachingAmericanHistory" and "50 American Documents" series, Ashbrooke offers weekend seminars at historical sites around the country, which are, again, free. These are led by faculty of the university, and are based in primary document study and professional discourse. I recently visited Montpelier for a discussion on the Constitution, and if you can't be inspired to discuss Madison's influence whilst sitting in the shadow of his house, then you may want to consider another field!
These opportunities are incredible without a doubt, but the work of a teacher never ends. Seek out the opportunities available to you anytime you are out. When on a trip to Florida, find the battlefield. When driving through a state which you have never visited, stop at the state capitol building. Or, if you find yourself in a historical goldmine like New York, just walk around. On a recent visit to NYC this past May, my wife and I spent a few minutes outside of the Stonewall Inn.
2- Students need the opportunities as much as teachers. History is best learned experientially. This is where the topic discussed changes from some sort of an abstract and far gone event, and becomes something tangible, something relatable, something real. We have to find those opportunities, and they are likely closer than you think. I promise- experiental learning is a game-changer in the classroom. My favorite example was provided by a local living history museum called Connor Prarie. Each year for the past several I have taken students to participate in what they call the "Follow the North Star" program. This program features a number of first-hand presenters, each of which has based their character in deep research so as to fully portray the individual. For 90 minutes students are taken through every step in the experience of a fugitive slave, including the sale, the escape, and the flight. Along the way the students were treated like slaves, including being spoken to as a slave might, and meeting individuals at varying levels of willingness to help. The students have told me that it is an emotional experience, and one that fundamentally changes the way in which they study and think of this period in our history. I've had several students connect the experience to more current events like trafficking. It's real, and that changes everything. Disclaimer- these experiences are not for every student.
Here's the deal- these opportunities require a teacher to miss a little school, or a little of summer. We can't take students on field trips every day. Cultivating these experiences take time and research. And as teachers, we can often feel like "If I have one more thing I have to do"...I get it. But isn't this what it's all about. I've seen the change in learning, the deepening of knowledge and empathy. I've seen it in my students, I've seen it in myself.