Teachers absorb, pass on history

Yvonne Quinonez was well versed in the horrors of the American slave trade — the teacher covers it as part of her social studies instruction at La Crescenta Elementary School. But what she read in textbooks could not fully prepare her for a recent tour through the Deep South.

“Hearing the tour guide tell us that they actually kept them in pens, and that they actually were chained, and just envisioning all of that and being in the South, it really made me almost want to cry, that we as Americans did that to them,” Quinonez said.

She was one of two dozen Glendale and Burbank educators who visited parts of Mississippi, Tennessee and Alabama in late March for a first-hand lesson in the expansion of the American west. The trip was one component of the $1-million Teaching American History grant — awarded to Glendale Unified in August — which is designed to support and augment history instruction.

The federal grant gives teachers access to first-hand sources, university-level instruction and lesson plans.

“It is very enriching for me because when the professor does a lecture, it is just the same as when I was in graduate school, but then they turn all the information around so it is accessible to our students in the form of lessons and timelines and visuals and things like that,” said Timothy Stemm, who teaches eighth-grade history at Toll Middle School.

Thus far, the grant has exposed Glendale and Burbank teachers to professors from USC, UCLA and Cal State Dominguez Hills.

“They are really sharing their own field of expertise to help us understand, for instance, the different driving forces of the westward movement in ways our current history text couldn’t even hope to [do],” said Christopher Stanley, a fifth-grade teacher at Jefferson Elementary School. “It grounds us in the basic background of so much information. It helps us be better presenters.”

All presentations are followed up with curriculum development sessions that can be translated directly into the classroom. And the participating teachers are responsible for developing an assessment exam that will be administered to all fifth-grade students at the end of the year.

The current grant is one of four similar grants the district has been awarded since 2001, said Nancy Witt, the history teacher at Crescenta Valley High School who helped write the applications. The grant is good for three to five years, with the final two years contingent upon the success of the first three, as well as on the availability of federal funds.

Next year, the grant will send a group of mostly predominantly eighth-grade teachers to the Dakotas.

Social studies instruction can sometimes fall by the wayside, as teachers often feel pressured to focus on subjects covered on the California Standards Test [CST], participants said.

“It emphasizes critical thinking,” said Brady Wright, a fifth-grade teacher at R.D. White Elementary School. “The skills that they are using in social studies helps with reading comprehension. It is hard, because I know a lot of people have expressed to me that it is hard to teach it when it is not going to be tested. There is so much focus on the CST.”

Among the challenges of teaching history is making the subject matter real and interesting, the grant participants said.

The recent trip, which included stops in slave-trade-driven towns like Natchez, Miss., gave them a chance to pick up local anecdotes and details that help make any history lesson sing.

“I tell a lot of stories besides what reads in the book,” Stemm said. “We have picked up quite a few really good stories, so I have more to share with my students, and then we are going to have the visuals as well, so it is like my students will be able to have a virtual tour, even though they are not on the bus with us.”

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