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 Learning Our Community's American Lore

The Program: Workshops

All students must understand the main lines of America’s national history. As scholar E. D. Hirsch notes (1988), learning this national history is essential to learning "to communicate effectively with one another in our national community." Likewise, historian Thomas Bender (1986) asserts that while the proliferation of historical studies on local subjects significantly adds to our historical knowledge, we must also focus on a synthesis of American history, a narrative of our past. This narrative should integrate social and political history and address the most significant themes of American experience: patriotism, equality, and democracy.

In order to successfully acquire this historical knowledge, students need to do history. Doing history means studying the past as historians do. This means learning the narrative of American history, the practice of historical research, and ways of connecting the national story to the experience of local communities.

Doing history begins with learning the tools of historical inquiry. Historians start with the evidence. Documents, artifacts, diaries, interviews, pictures, movies, buildings and memorials can all offer clues to the past. Comparing these different sources, historians look for patterns in what the documents say and fail to say. They arrange the evidence in the form of a narrative of change over time, making choices about what to include and how to express cause and effect. Finally, and most importantly, historians reach out from the sources they have collected to tell a larger story, one that confirms or complicates the conventional historical understanding of the period.

 Exposing the process of historical discovery, and the often-conflicting ways of interpreting the sources, reveals how history is made and remade by historians in the archives. The practice of weighing sources, evaluating information and making interpretations is the disciplined work of historians and can, with the right tools, also be the work of students.

Indeed, studying the past as historians do is precisely the kind of approach to learning history that researchers find best engages students. Howard Gardner argues (1999) that doing the work of history brings the subject to life; inviting students to participate in creating knowledge brings students to a deeper understanding of American history. "Only if armed with some notion of how historians work" Gardner writes, "will a student be able to make sense of the various claims made about, say, the causes of the Vietnam War or the character of Martin Luther King, Jr." (p. 154). Without learning the habits of historical inquiry, Gardner argues, students learn facts without meaning: "The disciplined thinking of the historian is crucial if individuals are to draw their own inferences about what happened in an event, decide which historical analogies are apt and which are not, and express opinions and cast votes on issues of import in terms of reasonable criteria rather than sheer whim" (p. 218). For students to be engaged in studying American history they need to learn to think like historians.

At a time when most Americans can read but choose not to—in what historian Robert Rosenstone (2001) names a "Postliterate Age"— students and adults alike typically read one book a year of their own choosing. This suggests a failure in our teaching to stimulate curiosity, perhaps because students do not see themselves or their community in their textbooks. Using the tools of historical inquiry to explore local history offers students a chance to engage in learning about their own lives and communities.

For students to study the past as historians do, they must be presented with the opportunity to both learn the narrative of American history and bring that narrative to life in exploring their local history. Local historical sites and online archives provide students with ready access to historians’ raw material; historians provide the tools for interpreting them, fitting them into the main lines of our history and sharing the excitement of doing history.

Doing History : The Key Principles
According to the major proponents of Doing History (Levstik and Barton, 2000) there are key principles underlying this approach to teaching American history (see Appendix B). Through them, students are engaged, learn content, and learn to approach other learning tasks with critical thinking and investigative methods.

This proposal lays out a program in which participants are taught these key principles and how to employ them as teachers in order to make their lessons come alive for students, and thus to enhance how much they learn as well as the experience of learning. The goal is also to instill this approach in both the teachers and the students.

The evaluation plan will be designed to tap these important principles as criteria as well as other outcomes important to the principal investigators. According to the major proponents of Doing History the key principles underlying this approach to teaching American History are the following. Through them, students are engaged, learn content, and learn to approach other learning tasks with critical thinking and investigative methods. The principles are:

  • Questioning… learning is about asking and answering questions. Questions focus attention, rouse curiosity and interest, elicit views and stimulate discussion.
  • Challenge… challenge students to speculate, to debate, to make connections, to select, to prioritize, to persist, in tacking real issues and important questions
  • Depth… real knowledge demands study in depth. Children’s expertise and confidence develop as a result of deep knowledge.
  • Authenticity… we do not need to give children Mickey Mouse versions of what we want them to learn. Challenge them with authentic materials.
  • Economy… children will learn more from a few well chosen resources which they can focus on than from an unstructured jumble.
  • Accessibility… make learning accessible to all children by starting with what they know and can do, and building on that. Also by finding a key—something they can identify with which will unlock the door to engagement and learning.
  • Communication… essential for consolidating learning and to give it purpose. Give children the opportunity to communicate to a real audience.

Workshop Details:


Shore Collaborative  •   Department of Education at Tufts  •   TAH Grant Program
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