History's no longer a thing of the past

April 28, 2014

Today’s post was written by Cosby Hunt. Cosby is Center for Inspired Teaching’s Manager of Teaching & Learning. A National Board Certified teacher, Cosby leads Inspired Teaching’s partnership with DCPS to infuse literacy into Common Core-aligned middle school social studies instruction through Inspired Teaching’s inquiry-based, student-centered model.

Over ten years ago, I was sitting on a bus traveling from Amherst, Massachusetts to Boston when my imagination caught on fire.

A high school social studies teacher myself, I was on that bus returning home from a summer professional experience where I’d been exploring strategies to make my instruction more student-centered and interactive.  All of the attendees at that seminar were given a slim book  with an enticing title: A Passion for the Past, by history educator Jim Percoco. I wasn’t far into the book when I came across this passage:

 “I was out doing what I like to do second best to teaching, poking around in places in which school teachers are, sadly, never found – archives and museum storage areas. It was 1989 and I had received a summer Fellowship Award. . . . The purpose of the grant was to afford me six weeks of uninterrupted study of a topic of my choosing[.] My study plan took me up the east coast to observe and analyze principal works of sculptors, as well as to the museum properties connected to the sculptors, and into various archival holdings. Everywhere I went, I was received and treated like a scholar—a feeling I had never had before. It was a wonderful experience; and not only was I inspired by what I was exposed to, but I also began to think how I could replicate my experience for my students. What would it be like to have kids work with museum professionals and public historians? What kind of similar experiences could be generated for my students so they could have a more active, hands-on approach to the study of history? Out of these ruminations was born the Applied History course.”

It was only page 11, but Percoco had already expressed what I had felt many times before, but had been unable to fully articulate: that the study of history can and should be an engaging experience, one that connects students to a vibrant real world, not just a dusty past.

Percoco’s students studied and debated different interpretations of history rather than regurgitated the textbook’s interpretation; they experienced meaningful “academic adventures” in the classroom, such as conference calls with the likes of historian David McCullough and filmmaker Ken Burns. During semester-long internships at various archives, historic sites, and museums in the Washington, DC area, they did the work of historians rather than just talked about it. I eagerly read the rest of Percoco’s wonderful book, but as a teacher and native Washingtonian something continued to nag at me – why wasn’t this sort of opportunity available to the DC students who lived and studied surrounded by one of the world’s greatest collection of museums?

I’ve spent more than a decade living with that nagging question, and this past fall I finally did something about it. I went out into the real world to see who would partner with Inspired Teaching to educate DC students through an inquiry-based model that builds students’ understanding of history, their love of learning, and their workplace skills. I’m happy to report that our community is as excited about exploring this type of schooling as I am.

In school year 2014-2015 – thanks to DC Public Schools, numerous partner sites, and the support of the City Fund – we will launch Real World History, an applied history course for 11th and 12th graders from schools across the city. Students in this course will complete first semester coursework with me, studying historical thinking and historiography through Inspired Teaching’s instructional model, before heading out into the District to apply their knowledge and expertise at internships at more than a dozen historic sites throughout DC.

Stay tuned for updates as the course is finalized and gets underway. We’ll be highlighting our partners, sharing how we’re working together to mold independent student-historians, and spreading the word about inquiry-based instruction to you and the members of Inspired Teaching’s community. More imaginations to set ablaze.

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