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Contact: Tom Parisi, NIU Office of Public Affairs
November 6, 2008
DeKalb, Ill. — It’s no secret that students need to brush up on their American history. Nationally, less than one-quarter of fourth, eighth and 12th graders are performing at the proficient level.
Now NIU History Professor J.D. Bowers and Instructor Kathryn Maley are helping lead local efforts to make poor marks in history a thing of the past.
Bowers and Maley began working this fall with Rockford Public School District 205 and Elgin Public School District U-46. Earlier this year, each district was awarded $1 million Teaching American History grants through the U.S. Department of Education.
The grants provide American history teachers with intensive professional development in both content- and research-based teaching strategies. Institutions receiving grants must partner with organizations that have extensive knowledge of American history, including libraries, museums and universities.
Both districts chose NIU to be among their partners. Bowers, who directs the secondary-teacher certification program in history at NIU, has been named the new “historian in residence” in each district. Maley is serving as an external evaluator for the programs, assessing their impacts on students and teachers.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity for NIU and the school districts participating, and most importantly for the students in the districts,” Maley says. “I think it will undoubtedly improve the level and quality of American history education that students are receiving.”
The Rockford and Elgin school districts are among the state's largest. Combined they serve nearly 70,000 students.
“Teachers who teach history rarely get any professional development, so this is just outstanding,” says Betsy Homewood, project director of the Teaching American History Grant in Rockford.
This is District 205’s second Teaching American History grant. The new program, titled Freedom Project, is providing professional development to social studies and American history teachers from the fifth-grade level through high school.
The grant money is being used for workshops and symposiums, which bring in top historians from across the country to present their research to teachers, who ultimately bring what they’ve learned back to their classrooms. Yale University’s John Butler will speak on “The Colonial Era and the Road to Revolution” at the next symposium, scheduled for Nov. 22, at NIU-Rockford.
As historian in residence, Bowers spends two days a week in Rockford. He helps with symposium planning, conducts workshops, helps design teacher lessons and serves as a mentor to teachers as they work on curriculum development.
Next June, he will travel with 20 Rockford teachers on a field study trip to Virginia, where they will visit the historic communities of Williamsburg, Jamestown and Yorktown. The trip will include a stop at the Werowocomoco archaeological site, once the residence of the Powhatan chiefdom, which represented one of the most complex Native American societies in eastern North America during the early 1600s. It was also the place where Pocahontas grew up.
Bowers knows well the role of historian in residence, having filled similar positions in Woodstock, DeKalb, Harvard, Belvidere, Prairie Grove and Chicago public school districts. Teachers say it’s valuable to have a “historian in the house.”
“J.D. was very knowledgeable, obviously in American history but also in terms of providing teaching suggestions and ideas,” says Todd Clement, a seventh-grade history and science teacher at Creekside Middle School in Woodstock.
Clement also attended the Genocide and Human Rights Summer Institute organized by Bowers and held at NIU earlier this year. The institute explored how the history of genocidal events and human rights violations is related to contemporary world problems. Participating teachers also traveled to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
Clement said his expanded knowledge helped him connect different periods in history for his students. For example, he drew comparisons for his students between the Holocaust and the atrocities that occurred at Andersonville prison in Georgia during the Civil War.
“Even in history, new ideas and information are always coming around, so it’s always a good idea to get the most recent information,” Clement says.
Bowers says history teachers in particular need professional development opportunities. He points out that teachers who are certified to teach social studies don't necessarily have specialized backgrounds in U.S. history. And teachers who have been teaching for many years often aren't up to date on the latest scholarship and research. Meanwhile, elementary school teachers only need to take one course to become certified to teach history.
“They recognize it’s not enough,” Bowers says. “The more they know, the better they are in classroom.”
Bowers also conducts research for teachers seeking answers to specific questions. One Rockford teacher recently wanted to know if all Jamestown colonists were English.
“Some of the workers were Poles, although the English settlers made them change their names,” Bowers says. “One of the colonists I traced through research was Stanislaw Sadowski, a lumber production organizer, whose name was changed to Stan Sadow.”
Such facts can easily get lost in history, but they help students make personal connections.
“One of the overarching ideas we’re working with is to globalize American history curriculum,” Bowers says. “We talk about the diverse arrays of people who have contributed to building our history, so that even a student here from another country will be able to feel connected with the past and able to integrate American history into their own understanding.”
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