Practice makes perfect, the adage says.
Teachers who practice analysis of primary documents can better translate the study of primary documents to their classrooms, according to an article I found through the American History Association‘s online version of Perspectives magazine.
One of my concerns for teachers of social studies — economics, history and geography — is that “in-service” training most often revolves around issues not unique, and sometimes not germane, to social studies disciplines. District-sponsored courses generally involved new or different methods to do paperwork, sometimes new programs hoped to spur overall performance by students on tests. In Irving ISD, Texas, social studies coordinator Sherry Perkins frequently provided sessions specific to social studies issues, and they were wonderful even when they didn’t pertain directly to the courses we taught (someone who teaches economics only, for example, may not have a lot of use for history exercises on presidential elections; but such exercises may provide ideas for others more directly related to economics).
Courses that immerse teachers in the subject matter tend to provide big benefits in the classroom. Many teachers do not have majors in the areas they teach, even after certification as “highly qualified” under new federal guidelines. Consequently, there are areas of history, or economics, or geography, where teachers are not much better informed than the students. Think of when you have had to give a presentation on a topic — you tread lightly in those areas where your expertise is least.
Investigators Kelly Schrum of George Mason University, Eleanor Green of the Fauquier County (Virginia) Public Schools, and Sarah Whelan of the Loudon County (Virginia) Public Schools, found that teachers often used too many original sources in lessons, after attending summer training sessions in the sources. So they focused on getting the teachers to get their students to use fewer sources, but more intensively.
As teachers worked through the activities, several notable trends emerged. At first, it was difficult for participants to take off their “teacher hats,” to avoid focusing only on how to adapt the activities for students. With gentle reminders, though, teachers began to engage as “adult learners,” and became increasingly adept at encountering primary sources. The methodology of noticing and questioning provided a comfortable formula that began to inspire confidence and allow for interesting historical thinking and questions.
Teachers also demonstrated changes in their understanding of the past. While analyzing runaway advertisements from 18th-century Virginia, teachers developed a stronger understanding of the meaning of freedom, and of the varying conditions for people who were enslaved and indentured.2 Teachers noted that the ads gave them a more human understanding of slavery and of the individual experiences of both slaves and masters. As one teacher noted, “[We get] this idea of this mass of unskilled workers who come on the field and pick cotton. The ads bring home the idea of the skills these slaves had and how they were really important to the success of the plantation.”3 By grappling with primary sources, teachers developed deeper historical understanding and skills for effectively teaching history and historical thinking.
Many good primary sources can be obtained on the internet, especially from the National Archives, and from government sources and colleges and universities. Turning the corner, and getting public school students to actually use and learn from those sources, is a greater problem than merely pointing to the sources.
History is so rich, and a school year is so little time!