Connecting With American History

Lewis & Clark is leading the way to improve how history is taught in rural Oregon—and beyond.
  • Clay Warburton BA ’92, a fourth-grade teacher at Sisters Elementary School, uses artifacts from his “history trunk” to engage students.

Lewis & Clark is leading the way to improve how history is taught in rural Oregon—and beyond.

It’s Wednesday afternoon at Sisters High School. Bill Rexford MAT. ’92 is leading a discussion about Article I of the U.S. Constitution with his AP American history class. “We the people, in order to form a more perfect union …”

Three boys, dressed in nearly identical jeans and T-shirts, move to the front of the room. The students are presenting brief skits that illustrate the clause that gives Congress the authority to “make laws which shall be necessary and proper.”

“I’m Johnny Law,” says a thin boy with braces.

“And I’m the president,” chimes in a youth whose arm is encased in a cast from a recent skateboarding accident.

“I’m a scumbag counterfeiter,” says the third boy, and the class titters.

“I’ve got all this money, and it’s fake,” says the counterfeiter, brandishing a stack of paper that represents money.

“That’s illegal,” says Johnny Law, grabbing the counterfeiter to arrest him.

“That’s right,” says the president. “We have a law that says only the government can print money. You’re busted, scumbag counterfeiter.”

The boys smile sheepishly as the class applauds.

“How would this apply if the clause to make necessary and proper laws wasn’t there?” asks Rexford.

Several hands shoot up. “People could do anything they wanted,” offers one student.

“Congress could make any laws, even ones that didn’t make sense,” says another.

“What about slavery?” prods Rexford, pushing the students to think more deeply. “Under which constitutional clause do you think slavery would fall and how would it apply?”

Rexford understands the challenges of grappling with this material. He and fellow teachers from the High Desert Education Service District in central Oregon engage in a similar exercise during their mentoring sessions with faculty from Lewis & Clark’s Graduate School of Education and Counseling. The service district and the graduate school are partners in a professional development program being funded by a nearly $1 million grant from the Teaching American History (TAH) program of the U.S. Department of Education. And it’s making teaching American history in Oregon schools more relevant, more exciting, and more fun for both students and teachers.

American History: A Forgotten Subject

Information is exploding all around us, and if we don’t have people who can think critically about historical issues, we’re not going to have astute citizens. Janet Bixby

Over the last decade, American history has been getting less emphasis in American classrooms. With the focus on testing and preparing students to be competitive in the job market, American history has taken a back seat to subjects like math and reading.

“Unfortunately, testing has narrowed the curriculum, and I’m very alarmed that there’s less emphasis on American history, government, and civics,” says Janet Bixby, associate professor of education and associate dean at the graduate school. She is also co-director of the TAH grant and Lewis & Clark’s liaison with the High Desert Education Service District. “Information is exploding all around us, and if we don’t have people who can think critically about historical issues, we’re not going to have astute citizens.”

Not only are fewer schools emphasizing American history, few teachers are well prepared to teach it. “People come to social studies with a wide range of academic backgrounds,” explains Bixby. “They often don’t have in-depth knowledge of American history. Elementary teachers, in particular, have to understand such a broad range of subjects that they may have less academic preparation in American history than someone teaching history at the high school level.”

There’s also less money available for professional development for those teaching American history, especially in rural areas like central Oregon. That’s where the TAH grants come in.

Over five years, the grant is paying for 150 teachers in rural schools to receive both online and in-person instruction on a wide range of American history subjects, including topics taught by historians with special expertise. Teachers practice developing curricula, participate in collegial coaching groups, and receive peer coaching from those who’ve completed the program. In addition, the grant enables teachers to buy primary-source artifacts—historical objects, papers, and photographs to help them make history come alive in the classroom.

An Outcomes-Based Approach

“This is our district’s third TAH grant,” says Rexford, who also serves as the grant coordinator. “But this time, we wanted it to be different, to be even more relevant for our teachers.”

Rexford and his colleagues sent out surveys to teachers in their district asking, “If you could have professional development in teaching American history, what would you want?” The central Oregon teachers responded by saying they wanted practical tools and information they could use in their classrooms.

TAH grants require school districts to collaborate with an institution of higher learning. Rexford, who earned his MAT. and basic administrator license at Lewis & Clark, thought the graduate school’s classroom focus would make it the perfect partner. “Lewis & Clark is respectful of the reality of teacher’s lives,” says Rexford. “They put educational theory into practice better than any school I know. I knew it would make for a really nice partnership.”

Bill Rexford  Gail Greaney, an American literature teacher at Sisters High School and a member of the current TAH program cohort, adds: “This program is practical, not just theoretical. The information and material are ready-made for the classroom. It’s a fantastic program.”

The collaboration fits well with the mission of Lewis & Clark’s Teacher Education Program. “Our whole focus is to improve the quality of education for students and to prepare people to be outstanding teachers,” says Bixby.

One of the tools Lewis & Clark faculty have shared with participants is “backward” curriculum design. The design process starts with outcomes—what teachers want their students to achieve—and works backward to build curriculum and individual lesson plans to achieve those outcomes.

“The goal is to help teachers think analytically about their teaching process,” explains Bixby. “We want teachers to take in new ideas about how to teach and then make those ideas happen in the classroom.”

Outcomes-based curriculum design has made all the difference to Garrett Gladden, who teaches government to seniors at Sisters High School. “Working backward from desired outcomes has really changed my approach,” he says. “I lay out my objectives right away. From the highest- to the lowest-performing student, I determine what I want them to leave my classroom with.”

Gladden says this design approach has made him appreciate Lewis & Clark’s expertise. “Janet [Bixby] has a wealth of knowledge and has been a terrific resource for us,” he says. “She encourages us to ask questions and works very closely with teachers to help us identify our objectives and create really focused lesson plans.”

Tackling The ‘Big Questions’

 A unique characteristic of the Lewis & Clark–High Desert Schools TAH grant program is that it encourages teachers to reexamine history with primary-source historical documents and with the help of historian-experts.

Too often students are given what Bixby calls the “mile-wide, inch-deep” approach to American history. “Students get told lots of interesting little stories and a bunch of facts, and we build up American heroes for them,” says Bixby. “They aren’t given competing conceptualizations of history or taught the skills to analyze historical events. With this program, we’re giving teachers a depth of understanding of American history that reaches far beyond what they can get in textbooks.”

[Janet Bixby] encourages us to ask questions and works very closely with teachers to help us identify our objectives and create really focused lesson plans. Garrett Gladden

 For each of the program’s five units—Historiography, Doctrine of Discovery, the U.S. Constitution, the Oregon Constitution, and Native American Case Studies in Oregon—teachers spend nine hours reading books and primary-source documents that often challenge conventional views of historical events. Then they meet for a two-day seminar on the topic. During the seminars, usually held on Fridays and Saturdays, teachers are mentored in developing historical inquiry skills, including using online resources and primary-source documents for research. They listen to a lecture from a historian-expert such as Robert J. Miller, Lewis & Clark professor of law, who has written extensively on the Doctrine of Discovery. Other historian-experts have included the Honorable Susan Leeson, a retired Oregon Supreme Court justice; Kevin Hatfield, a historian at the University of Oregon; David Lewis, manager of the Cultural Resources Department at the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde; and James Gardner, historian and past president of Lewis & Clark.

The weekend seminar is also where Lewis & Clark’s Janet Bixby facilitates sessions on curriculum design and offers one-on-one mentoring. Then, based on what they’ve learned in the unit, teachers are expected to develop unit plans for actual use in their classrooms. Teachers also participate in online forums, which build community and encourage sharing of ideas.

Central to the overall process are what Bixby calls the “big questions.” For instance, in studying the Doctrine of Discovery, the legal justification that European countries used to lay claim to lands they “discovered,” such as the “New World,” teachers—and ultimately students—are encouraged to grapple with questions like “What are land rights?” and “What rights do Native peoples have to land in relation to the United States or the State of Oregon?”

In Greaney’s American literature class at Sisters High, which she teaches through the lens of American history, her students tackle thorny questions like “What is racism?” and “What is discrimination?”

Twenty-one 11th-grade students in Greaney’s honors class are reading The Crucible, Arthur Miller’s play about the Salem witch trials. Around the room are quotes and sayings admonishing the students to think critically: “Before you think you know what you want, make sure you know what you need to know.”

Greaney tells them, “Look for quotes that represent marginalization of people on the outside.”

TAH Grant Students  They read passages they’ve paraphrased from the play.“The Puritans were intolerant of others,” says a young girl in skinny jeans and a zippered sweatshirt.

“Yes, and what’s the irony here?” Greaney asks.

She has their attention and several students raise their hands.“They were trying to escape religious intolerance from England.”

“This colony was a theocracy, a government that was intertwined with religion,” Greaney says.

“People could take out their grudges on their neighbors,” another student offers.

“That played a role in the witch trials,” the teacher acknowledges. “What else?”

She moves rapid-fire around the room, probing, commenting, questioning, challenging students’ assumptions.

One of the ways Greaney helps students address challenging questions is through original-source documents like old photos or letters. “When we study Huckleberry Finn and discuss why this book was banned and what it had to do with racism, I’m able to bring in original newspaper editorials,” she says. “Recently, Los Angeles County banned Huck Finn due to racially charged language, so we compared these old editorials with current editorials. It helps students see a wider range of viewpoints and become critical thinkers.”

The History Trunk

Clay Warburton BA ’92 teaches fourth grade at Sisters Elementary School. Even though his students are young, he doesn’t shy away from challenging them with big ideas and difficult questions: “What is equality?” “What are our rights?” “How do we promote change?”

“We have essential questions we want to address,” he says. “When I teach a unit on Oregon’s First Peoples, for example, one of my essential questions is “How do we own land?” We study how Native people owned land and how European settlers came and claimed the land. It gets us into some very interesting questions. I don’t give students the answers; I let them think them out.”

 Warburton says the TAH program has strengthened his knowledge of American history. He says the historical artifacts he’s purchased with grant money have made it easier for him to generate excitement and address large questions with his fourth-graders. “When I can put a Lewis and Clark Indian peace medal in their hands, it makes a big difference,” he says, smiling.

Warburton pulls down a wooden box from a shelf in his classroom. It’s his “history trunk,” filled with artifacts he uses in his history of Sisters unit. It holds an old iron hay hook, a sheep bell, a logger’s hat, a tree stamp. “These things enable me to teach the history of our community through economics—they show how people made a living here,” he explains. “The artifacts have made history much more interesting for students.”

This has helped my students focus their studies, and they’re invested in the objectives, so they’re very motivated. Garrett Gladden

Clay Warburton BA ’92, a fourth-grade teacher at Sisters Elementary School, uses artifacts from his “history trunk” to engage students.

In addition, historical themes make teaching American history more relevant. Grant participants have developed five themes (see sidebar, opposite) around which teachers can organize their courses. This approach enables them to break with the usual linear approach to history. “When we discuss Nazis, we talk about equality and how they treated others,” says Warburton. “Then we can talk about the civil rights movement and about what’s happening to immigrants in Arizona today. It’s made it a lot easier to connect the dots and make sense of history.”

While the TAH collaboration between Lewis & Clark and the High Desert schools is only in the second year of a five-year grant period, it’s already making a big difference. Garrett sees more excitement in his students. “This has helped my students focus their studies, and they’re invested in the objectives, so they’re very motivated.”

Greaney has seen changes too. “It’s already had a huge impact on our kids. They want to be active learners, to do a lot of critical thinking, and to work across disciplines. This has raised students’ expectations–and teachers’ expectations–about what good teaching is.”

Bobbie Hasselbring, an award-winning freelance writer, is a frequent contributor to the Chronicle.