Re-making American History Classes at Queens College

Clad in diaphanous robes, a white woman floats above the continental United States, carrying a schoolbook in her right hand, while uncoiling a slender telegraph wire from her left. Below her, the farmers of the east gradually give way to pioneers moving westward, as buffalo and Native Americans flee toward the Pacific Ocean. Painted in 1872, American Progress is a powerful period document. That’s why John Gunn (Secondary Education & Youth Services), meeting about 30 social studies and history teachers at Frannie Lou Hamer Freedom High in the South Bronx on an unseasonably hot Thursday in June, asked them how they would incorporate the image in a lesson about 19th-century America.

Gunn is the principal investigator of a $1 million, three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Teaching American History (TAH) program; his project involves some of the teachers at the meeting. “That kind of unpacking of an historical document is what the grant is all about,” he says. The goal is to create inquiry-based courses that help students construct their own understanding of history and ultimately gain better understanding of contemporary issues.

This is the fifth TAH award that SEYS has won since the federal program was launched in 2001. In each grant, historians and education professors teamed up with teachers at public secondary schools in New York City to rethink history and social studies curricula. Teachers, who are paid for their participation, attend regular after-school meetings, workshops, and a summer institute. James Diamond, a research associate at the nonprofit Education Development Center Inc., which has evaluated some of the grants, calls QC’s collaborative approach “quite innovative.”

Abbey Wilson, an eighth-grade teacher of social studies and math at Hamer who participated in the program last year, says the project helped unleash her curiosity and led her to explore history beyond the narratives typically taught in class. “You can recreate those learning experiences for your students,” she says.

Gunn’s SEYS colleague David Gerwin directed or co-directed the preceding grants with fellow professor Jack Zevin. To bring events alive, Gerwin brought teachers to historic sites, from places where colonial revolutionaries mounted defenses against the British to the midtown location of the Colored Orphans Asylums, which was burned down during the Civil War draft riots. For teachers as well as students, taking such visits “is powerful in a way that answering three questions in a classrooom test is not,” says Gerwin.

Another hallmark of QC’s approach is to organize material around general concepts, such as immigration from abroad, the Great Migration of African Americans from the south to the industrialized north in the 20th century, and workers’ struggles for better conditions. The resulting curriculum is used by individual teachers, or in the best-case scenario, by an entire school. Such change is easier at the handful of secondary schools, like Fannie Lou Hamer, that have a waiver from the New York State Regents history and social studies exams, which all students are otherwise required to pass. (Schools with waivers must assess learning in other ways—for example, through student portfolios or capstone projects.)

Each grant typically involves 30 teachers a year. Gerwin has seen huge improvement in their ability to work with historial documents and turn them into meaningful sources for students. William J. Tally, senior research scientist at the Education Department Center, calls the impact “positive though not robust n terms of teacher knowledge gains, and mixed in terms of student gains.”

Funding cuts have stopped TAH from considering new grant applications for the time being; exitsing ones, like Gunn’s, may be extended. In any case, SEYS is pushing ahead with its efforts to downplay memorization and promote discovery. “You can craft stronger lessons when you give students evidence to consider and debate, as opposed to having them take notes on the ‘right answers,'” insists Gerwin.

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Contact: Phyllis Cohen Stevens
Deputy Director of News Services

Maria Matteo
Assistant Director of News Services