The Teaching American History grant project entitled, Visions of Liberty and Equality was designed to have a dramatic impact on the teaching of history as a separate subject in targeted high-need elementary schools. In Year One, Visions of Liberty and Equality involved over 25 teachers with an impact upon over 700 students. In subsequent years, the project reached approximately 3400 students. The grade levels, and the partner schools identified for this Teaching American History grant, were selected because they were among those least well served: history as a separate subject is virtually nonexistent in these K-5 classrooms.
The history department at Westfield State University was pleased to be a part of the planning and curriculum for this particular grant. Specifically in year one, the history department supported the grant’s efforts to provide historical information to K-5 teachers about slavery in the United States more broadly with a focus on the slave experience in the north and New England. Grant participants discussed the fight for freedom and equality for African Americans in the era of abolition. This grant program will provide invaluable resources for those engaged in teaching American history, an especially important goal given our institutional history as a teaching college.
To address this identified content need, teachers participating in this project became conversant with appropriate historical material through a program of immersion in sites and issues associated with traditional American history. Teachers learned about and reflected upon crucial historical issues, events, and individuals that illuminate the development of the American nation ethically, politically, economically, and socially. The core of the project was an examination of the overarching theme of Visions of Liberty and Equality as it applies to the NAEP Historical Periods. In each of the four years of the grant, teachers examined history through a different sub-thematic “lens” relating to the history of civil rights, liberty, and justice in America – (slavery, women, immigration, Native Americans).
During year one, grant participants used the abundant historical resources in New England and the Northeast. Participating teachers were exposed to material from the founding of the new nation through the mid 1860s. Teachers visited landmarks such as the Webb-Deane-Stevens homesteads and Mystic Seaport and absorbed their significance under the guidance of highly qualified historians and museum professionals. Participants analyzed documents, artifacts, and scholarship. Above all, teachers employed a historical context for a new understanding of American geography and culture—rather than vice versa. As one superintendent (Pittsfield, MA) expressed it, “U.S. History is the vehicle for developing understanding of civics and citizenry….A Teaching American History Project at the elementary grade level allows for a development of understanding of history by spiraling curriculum development from local to regional to national contexts over time.”
In year one, the specific theme was entitled Paradox and Promise: Slavery and Freedom in America. On various weekends throughout the school year, teachers traveled together to historically significant sites selected according to both proximity and relevance to the theme. These trips were organized collaboratively by the Westfield Public Schools, the Center for Teacher Education and Research (CENTER) at Westfield State University, and faculty from the Westfield State University Department of History, particularly lead historian, Nicholas J. Aieta. Participants will benefit from both docent-led explorations of the sites and discussion facilitated by guest speakers such as Pr. Joanne Melish, University of Kentucky and Pr. Brooke Orr, Westfield State University. In addition, discussions of content delivery will be incorporated into each day’s program. These trips are intended to provide a context for (1) the understanding of the concept of “liberty” in the United States over time, and (2) how principles based on these notions of liberty effect change in “equality” for all citizens, in perception and practice. In addition to the aforementioned sites, participants will visit the Harriet Beecher Stowe and Mark Twain houses, the Museum of African American History and Black Heritage Trail, and the David Ruggles Center. Activities are designed to provide both a chronology and a thematic continuity, from origins of the nation in the shadow of slavery, through rebellion and revolution, and into the era of abolition.