WMU News

History profs to help high school teachers

Feb. 20, 2004

KALAMAZOO--Four Western Michigan University history professors will work with the Kalamazoo Regional Education Service Agency to provide instruction over the next three summers to nearly 100 U.S. history high school teachers in school districts throughout Southwest Michigan.

The $986,000 grant awarded to KRESA for the project came from the U.S. Department Education's "Teaching American History Initiative," developed by West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd.

"The intention is to improve the quality of history instruction by introducing teachers to a teaching method called 'authentic learning,'" says Dr. Wilson Warren, WMU associate professor of history, who is coordinating WMU's involvement in the project. Other WMU professors who will be teaching the summer institutes include Dr. Nora Faires, associate professor of history, Dr. Fred Dobney, professor of history, and Dr. Patricia Rogers, assistant professor of history.

Authentic learning involves students using primary source materials instead of more traditional teaching methods such as lectures or worksheets. These more traditional methods often leave both the teacher and student frustrated, according to Warren, a former middle school and high school teacher, and now an observer of student teachers in secondary schools. "The problem I see over and over in high school is that students never get beyond the factual level. They see history as a catalog of facts, but don't really see the point of it all."

Much like a science class performing experiments to learn about ideas and concepts, authentic learning in history also involves going into the laboratory of history. The bulk of the work is done by students using actual 'primary source' materials such as the Declaration of Independence, the U.S Constitution, or even more current documents such as the Campaign Finance Reform Bill.

"A possible scenario could involve the teacher giving the students a portion of the Bill of Rights," says Warren. "The teacher might pass out copies of the Second Amendment, and say 'What we're going to do is look at the language the authors used when they wrote this amendment. We're going to look at the terminology and investigate what the authors meant by the phrase 'the right of the people to keep and bear arms.'"

This is the kind of work Warren sees as a natural exercise in a high school history class because it is exactly the kind of skills historians use in their own work. It is also the kind of work students do when they enter a college history classroom.

"Authentic learning is really trying to initiate a student discovery process by using critical thinking," says Warren. "I think it's more meaningful to the student when they have some control over the learning process and feel as if they've made an important finding."

The summer institutes will have no shortage of primary resources, with representatives coming from the Kalamazoo Valley Museum and the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum to work with WMU's history professors.

"We're hoping that the there will be a trickle down to the actual classrooms with teachers taking their students to these museums which have literally thousands of artifacts," says Warren.

Thirty teachers each year will be selected for the three summer institutes, with an emphasis on bringing in new teachers, or teachers who are uncertified to teach history. With new teacher qualification standards going into effect because of legislation in the No Child Left Behind Act, the institutes are aimed at helping teachers who are working toward their certification to teach history.

For more information about applying for the upcoming 2004 KRESA Summer Institute contact Lynne Cowart, assistant superintendent for KRESA at (269) 385-1500.

Media contact: Matt Gerard, 269 387-8400, matthew.gerard@wmich.edu

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