Learning on the Teaching American History Highway

This article, by Center for Columbia River History Program Manager Donna Sinclair, appears in the October 26 issue of The Vancouver Voice.

Voices of the Past: Learning on the Teaching American History highway

Donna Sinclair

Most people think of history in terms of dates or events, but history is more than facts. History is an activity. In fact, history is inquiry, as reflected in the root Latin word, “historia,” which means learning or knowing by inquiry. Historians “do history,” actively exploring past events and ways of life through physical remnants of bygone times. Those remnants can be diaries, letters, institutional reports, receipts, newspaper articles, photographs, people, and even landscapes. Historians examine puzzle pieces — these “primary sources” — in order to develop a historical narrative that tells us about the past and its meanings.

It isn’t always clear how histories are created, whose line of inquiry has been followed, or what constitutes truth. That is why historians document sources in footnotes and bibliographies, so that others can agree or disagree with their conclusions. Determining an event’s cause is not easy. We cannot know exactly what people did and said in the past any more than we know exactly what is happening now. But we can try to sort it out, to examine how and why something happened. We can recognize that history affects different people in different ways.

Learning to create authentic versions of the past based on evidence is the work of historians. It is also the job we have delegated to the teachers and students of Washington State. The state’s grade level expectations, GLE’s, call for students to analyze and interpret historical materials, identify causes of events and connect them to the present, while arguing for a position from at least one social science perspective, and citing multiple sources they have evaluated for accuracy.

For the past three years ESD 112 has worked with the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History and the Center for Columbia River History (CCRH) to provide “history on location” teacher workshops. This “Causes of Conflict” program, funded by a grant from the Teaching American History (TAH) program of the U. S. Department of Education, has focused on three major eras corresponding to the periods studies at the 5th, 8th, and 11th grade levels–Civil Rights, the Civil War, and the Revolution. Participating teachers learn content and teaching strategies, work with pre-eminent national historians and travel to actual sites of conflict in places like Birmingham, Gettysburg and Boston. CCRH works with the teachers in day-long workshops that apply national themes to regional history. The first two years, CCRH held workshops on the Fort Vancouver National Site where teachers learned about the site’s hidden histories from NPS historian Greg Shine. They often found unexpected national connections, from Fort Vancouver’s Buffalo soldiers and World War II shipyards, to the everyday experiences of settlers, the military, and Native people during the Civil War era.

Last month the third cohort of teachers gathered at the Cathlapotle Plankhouse. There, they considered the idea of “revolution” from the perspective of scholars, archaeologists, and Native experts. These teachers learned about what was happening here during the Revolution and what was and was not revolutionary for the large regional Native population. They examined historical documents and practiced new ways of teaching and learning. They gained ideas for their classrooms that “expand and enliven” history, as one participant said, “beyond the textbook.”

As a result, students are studying where historical sources come from, who creates them and why. More than ever before, they are gaining an understanding of what it means to “do” history, to analyze and connect past and present.

Fort Vancouver and the Cathlapotle Plankhouse provide new ways to experience history, as do public programs like the upcoming talk by James B. Castles lecturer, Dr. Ken Ames. On 5:30 p.m., November 18, at the Oregon Historical Society Dr. Ames will present “Entangled in the Fur Trade,” discussing his work with Native people of the Northwest for the past 35 years. For more about this program, go to ccrh.org/calendar.php.

National History Day provides another way for students to travel the road to history. National History Day promotes historical inquiry, analysis, and fun. Sixth to twelfth grade students participate individually or in groups, by creating exhibits, dramatic performances, research papers, or multimedia documentaries and websites. NHD is exciting, with students abuzz in conversation about their versions of the past, debating the quality of their work, or calling a parent to say, “Mom, I’m going to state!” . . . in History!

To learn more about the Causes of Conflict Teaching American History grant, go to http://www.esd112.org/history.

For more about National History Day, see http://www.wshs.org/historyday/default.aspx

Donna Sinclair is Program Manager for The Center for Columbia River History (CCRH), a consortium of the Washington State Historical Society, Portland State University and Washington State University Vancouver. The CCRH mission is to promote study of the history of the Columbia River Basin and to present the results publicly. CCRH is dedicated to examining the hidden histories of the Basin and to helping people think about the historical record from different perspectives. CCRH offers free public programs and has an extensive historical website at http://www.ccrh.org.

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