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Area youth learn history through dynamic classes thanks to teaching initiative

As their civics teacher introduces a unit on the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, Elk Mound eighth-graders pass around replicas of both, giving them a sense of the look and feel of the historic documents on which their country has been built.

While they joke about how their teacher, Dave Lew, might have snuck the Declaration of Independence out of Washington, D.C., during the recent government shut-down, many students do look closely at the replicas as the class begins to discuss the creation and content of the documents.

"Kids need a lot of variety in the classroom to keep them engaged," said Lew, who has taught middle and high school civics, world geography and history for nearly 15 years. "I want kids to be excited about learning, and I know hands-on learning and using a variety of materials can help immensely."

While always passionate about teaching, Lew said it was a series of classes at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire that gave him the push and the tools to truly make his classroom more dynamic and interactive.

"It was a super opportunity to think about how I could be a better teacher," Lew said of a federally funded Teaching American History program offered through UW-Eau Claire's Center for History Teaching and Learning. "It was a phenomenal experience led by amazing professors. I can't say enough good things about it. It changed me as a teacher."

With about $6 million in funding from U.S. Department of Education grants to UW-Eau Claire, three Teaching American History programs spanning 2003-13 have helped Lew and hundreds of other educators rethink and redesign how they teach history to fourth- through 12th-graders in public schools in western Wisconsin and beyond, said Dr. Patricia Turner, a professor of history who oversaw the first program funded by the grant. As a result of the 10-year-long Teaching American History initiative, more than 300,000 public school students have benefitted from being taught by the hundreds of teachers who have completed the programs, she said.

"Based on our assessments, we are very confident that these teachers are doing a better job of teaching our children because of this program," Turner said. "Research demonstrates that history is best learned when students have opportunities to apply their knowledge and skills meaningfully within and beyond the classroom. Students learn the practice of history and American history content by collecting and interpreting historical data for research projects. For teachers and students alike, the best way to learn history is to do history."

Lew, who graduated in May with his master's degree in history, was among the teachers accepted into UW-Eau Claire's "Learning by Doing" program. Through the program, he earned credits toward his master's degree, connected with a network of other teachers throughout the region and state, accumulated multiple resources he now uses regularly in his classroom and found new ways to engage students in learning American history and civics.

While learning from knowledgeable history faculty and visiting historians was valuable, partnering with the Chippewa Valley Museum was especially helpful to him, Lew said. He and other teachers completed hands-on projects at the museum, giving them a better understanding of how to share historic information in creative and engaging ways, he said.

"Doing the projects in the museum was definitely a highlight," Lew said. "Later when I had my students do an American invention project, I had my own projects to show them how it was done, and I could talk about my own experiences putting something like that together."

Lew's enthusiasm for the Teaching American History programs is typical of the teachers who participated in the three initiatives, said Dr. James Oberly, professor of history.

With few dollars available to most history teachers for professional development, the programs were highly valued opportunities to gain new skills and resources, Oberly said, noting that teacher fellows had the option of earning stipends or credits toward their master's degrees.

"The teachers were self-selected — they were here because they wanted to be better teachers," Oberly said. "They were excited and they were engaged. They were anxious to share what they learned with other teachers and with their students."

The first program, "Learning by Doing," received two separate grants, resulting in funding from 2003-08, Turner said.

Through the program, western Wisconsin history teachers created teaching units that can easily be implemented into classrooms, and can serve as models for how to include project-based and active learning in the teaching of Wisconsin and U.S. history, Turner said. While hundreds of teachers were directly involved in the program, hundreds more are benefitting from teaching units and other resources created by the "Learning by Doing" teacher fellows, she said.

The Center for History Teaching and Learning also received a National Endowment for the Humanities consultation grant in 2004, which brought prominent historians from around the country to campus to help faculty develop strategies for better sharing of American history.

The final program, "Constructing and Reconstructing Liberty in American History," provided graduate history courses for K-12 teachers throughout Wisconsin.

"As with all Teaching American History programs, the purpose was to improve the American historical content in the nation's classrooms," said Oberly, who oversaw the program until it ended in summer 2013.

The courses examined the history of the United States through the history of the people who have lived in Wisconsin, Oberly said. The histories included Native Americans in Wisconsin, European immigration to Wisconsin, and domestic and foreign migration to Wisconsin since World War II.

UW-Eau Claire's Center for History Teaching and Learning now hosts a legacy site that contains some of the best lesson plans developed for the program, instruction materials developed by staff and guest scholars, and a list of contacts for people seeking more information.

"Our goal is to get these resources out to as many Wisconsin teachers as possible," Oberly said. "Professional development dollars can be hard to come by for people who teach in subjects like history. So this opportunity was invaluable to these teachers."

Several young history teachers who enrolled in the Teaching American History programs at UW-Eau Claire shared that they were inspired by their own middle or high school teachers who had previously been teacher fellows in the programs, Turner said.

"Clearly it had a tremendous impact if teachers' former students sought out the same opportunity years later," Turner said.

UW-Eau Claire's Center for History Teaching and Learning will continue with new initiatives, but federal funding for the history teacher programs has been eliminated, Turner said.

While it's disappointing that the federal dollars are no longer available, Turner and Oberly said UW-Eau Claire's successful Teaching American History programs have made the university a leader nationally in the effort to improve the teaching of American history.

"We have a lot of credibility with funders," Oberly said. "There are a lot of people who are encouraging us to do more and are looking to us to do more so I am sure the Center for History Teaching and Learning will continue to be engaged in new meaningful work."