Statewide Program Works to Keep History in Schools from Becoming a Thing of the Past
Recalling the rote learning methods used to teach history when she was in elementary school, Lisa Hutton says that today’s classroom is an environment where “history is not really about just names, dates and places.”
“We want kids to do history, we want them to act like historians,” says the assistant professor of teacher education at California State University, Dominguez Hills. “Instead of history being a done deal, we want them to look at primary sources, to ask questions and sort through information, and come up with conclusions. It’s a much more active approach than the way I was taught history. That’s what historians do, and those are the thinking skills we want kids to learn.”
Along with Dave Neumann, a lecturer in the CSU Long Beach history department and teacher at Wilson High School in Long Beach, Hutton co-directs the CSU Dominguez Hills and Long Beach site of the California History-Social Science Project (CHSSP). A statewide collaboration of school districts and universities, the CHSSP focuses on increasing student achievement in history and social science through professional development programs for K-16 teachers. The CHSSP at Dominguez Hills was founded in the 1990s and in 2005 merged with the CSULB site to provide teachers in the Long Beach-South Bay region with the latest pedagogies in the fields of history and social science.
This year, the CHSSP at CSU Dominguez Hills and Long Beach, in partnership with the Inglewood and Lynwood Unified School Districts, received a Teaching American History grant of nearly $1 million over the next five years. The grant was one of nine awarded in California this year, and one of four awarded to CHSSP sites by the U.S. Department of Education. It is also the fourth Teaching American History Grant the CSUDH/CSULB project has received in its collaboration with local school districts. The grant will finance the creation of a CHSSP program titled, “Teaching American History: Success and Rigor for All” for teachers in grades 4, 5, 8, and 11.
“We are delighted to have the opportunity to expand our current professional development work with Lynwood and begin work with the Inglewood Unified School District,” says Hutton. “My first eight years of teaching were in Inglewood at Beulah Payne Elementary School and I am excited about the opportunity to work collaboratively with the teachers in both districts to increase students’ understanding and achievement in American history.”
In addition to the new grant, 90 scholars, K-12 teachers, policymakers, and administrators from across the state met at the Dominguez Hills campus last month to kick off the first of three “History Summit” meetings designed to advocate for increased and improved history instruction. The group will meet again at the University of California, Davis in November and next spring at San José State. The conference was sponsored by CHSSP, with additional support from The History Channel, the Division of Social Sciences in the College of Letters and Science at UC Davis, Mrs. Betsy Marchand and Dr. Karen Halttunen in honor of the late Dr. Roland Marchand, and the Cooperative Research and Extension Services for Schools (CRESS) Center, and the School of Education, UC Davis.
Nancy McTygue, executive director of CHSSP, says that CSU Dominguez Hills was purposefully chosen for the inaugural History Summit session.
“We wanted to both recognize and learn from scholars and practicing teachers serving schools working to educate children from some of California’s most challenged communities,” McTygue says. “People like Lisa Hutton have an in-depth understanding of the difficulties teachers in these communities face on a daily basis and have dedicated their careers to helping children in these schools learn about our past so they are prepared to face their futures. Hopefully, the History Summit will enable us to expand this work throughout the state so that all of California’s children will be able to learn about the history of their communities, their state, their country, and the world.”
The CHSSP is focused on stemming the tide of increasing reduction and even elimination of history and social studies from school curriculum across California in favor of spending more classroom hours on reading, writing and math. Hutton and her colleagues in the project contend that in learning history students gain perspective, learn critical thinking skills and, contrary to the trend, further develop their reading and writing skills.
“One of the reasons behind this summit was the realization that as history and social science educators, we need to do more advocacy and get the word out and say, ‘This is why history is important,’” notes Hutton. “A lot of elementary school teachers are either being told not to teach it or that there just is not enough time in the day. If policy makers and administrators don’t see it as important, then it’s what’s getting pushed out of the day along with the arts.”
Hutton says that in a state where 25 percent of school-age children learn English as a second language, and 50 percent receive a free or reduced lunch, the lack of history and social sciences in the school curriculum will continue to divide the haves from the have-nots as they move into high school and college.
“When you read, whether it’s in high school or college, there are a lot of references to history,” she says. “If you don’t have that background, then you miss the references when you’re reading, because so much of reading is about inference. We live in a state where many kids live in poverty or are English learners, and they don’t necessarily have academic English or vocabulary in their homes. They may not travel, and they may not have [American] cultural references.
Hutton underscores the resonance of American history to minority groups, saying, “There are multiple voices in [American] history. It’s not just about learning one dominant story. There are a lot more women in the academy doing historical research. There are many more minorities, so it’s not a white male-driven profession. Historical scholarship has changed the way a lot of textbooks are written. You may not only read that the Spanish came to California and settled it, but it also had a devastating effect on the Native Americans. We can still support and love our country, but realize that it’s not been without its tragedies. So, it’s not to replace someone’s history, but it’s about thinking and it’s about having the kind of vocabulary and background knowledge in order to fully participate in school.”
Hutton also cites history and social science education as critical to “preparing citizens.
[When] I’m voting, I have to look at a policy or a law and be able to say, ‘Here are the different points of view, this is who is supporting it. How do I sift through and decide who is credible?’ Part of it is realizing that there is usually more than one point of view. You must analyze multiple accounts and documents to come up with evidence to base your opinion or decision upon.”
“We want more [students] to achieve in history,” she says. “As they go up the grade levels, a lot of literacy is about dealing with expository text. It’s about writing, it’s about thinking. Those are the kinds of skills that history lends itself very well to.”
For more information about Teaching for American History grants, visit www.ed.gov/programs/teachinghistory/.
For more information about California History-Social Science Project, an initiative of the California Subject Matter Project, click here.
- Amy Bentley-Smith and Joanie Harmon
Photo above: The California History-Social Science Project leadership team at CSU Dominguez Hills and CSU Long Beach are working to keep history and social science in the school curriculum to enhance reading and literacy skills.
L-R: Tim Keirn, CHSSP faculty advisor for CSUDH and CSULB, Dave Neumann, CSULB lecturer of history and CHSSP co-director, and Lisa Hutton, CSUDH assistant professor of teacher education and CHSSP co-director. Courtesy of The Source