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Grant gives life to social studies

Monday, August 8, 2016

Think that history is nothing more than dates and dead people? Think again.

A nearly $300,000 grant will help make history come alive in Iowa. The grant, which comes from the Library of Congress, was secured by the Iowa departments of Education and Cultural Affairs. The funds will go toward advancing the teaching of history.

“We are moving away from relying on textbooks and lecturing in the classroom,” said Stefanie Wager, the Department of Education’s social studies consultant. “That’s presenting information in a static environment. You might retain a fact or figure, but you most likely won’t see the true significance of anything that has happened in history.”

History is sometimes thought to be memorization. But that’s changed.

“History is about making connections to the present,” Wager said. “It’s learning about our past mistakes.  But it also recognizing similarities from the past to the present and, in doing so, being able to project into the future. It is recognizing that history isn’t just another little class, but a critical skill that is needed in the 21st century.”

History, Wager said, is the “perfect trifecta” in education.

“When we think about college and career readiness, history offers critical thinking, knowledge of who we were in the past, and being able to apply that to the present and future.”

The grant will be used to develop a series of primary source text sets such as newspaper clippings, first-person accounts, photographs, diaries – on various subjects being taught in school, from the civil war to World War II. Unlike textbooks, which are considered secondary sources, primary sources make historical events come alive and offer a personal account.

When students use the primary sources, their objective will be then to prove – or disprove – the information with evidence drawn from other sources.
“An example,” Wager said, “would be to pose to the classroom a question like, ‘Was Abraham Lincoln racist? By 1860s standards? By today’s standards?’ You can have first-hand accounts – letters written by Lincoln and others close to him. Legislation debated. Laws passed. In the end, students are not just learning about an historical event, but getting a good idea of what prompted it, what other issues may have been involved. Students learn that rarely, if ever, is anything black and white.”

The grant will go in part to hire social studies teachers to put the primary sources together. The grant also will pay for the primary source sets to be added to the Department of Cultural Affairs website. And finally, the grant will pay for providing professional development to teachers on how to incorporate the primary sources into their classrooms.

Wager sees this as groundbreaking for a classroom subject frequently relegated to the back of students’ minds.

“If I as a teacher am relying on a textbook, the student is forming a summary of what the textbook is saying, rather than hands-on gathering of information,” she said. “But we are in the 21st century, and we are going to give teachers access to hundreds of thousands of primary sources that will push students to think for themselves. And that’s what employers want: someone who can gather information, put it together and make an analysis.”

Printed from the Iowa Department of Education website on May 26, 2018 at 6:00pm.