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American Legacies
UK partners with Kentucky teachers to bring history to life

by Alicia P. Gregory

The sound of Lee Sexton's banjo bounces from the hand-hewn ceiling beams to the original plank floor, masking the crash of thunder outside. The dancers weave back and forth, looping arms as they switch partners. The bystanders, like me, make paper fans in the sweltering meeting room that, despite the rain, hasn't gotten any cooler since this muggy July day topped 90 degrees.

Photo of teachers square-dancingBefore the dancing began, Blackey, Kentucky, native Charlie Whitaker addressed the group. He painted a picture of other summer nights in Eastern Kentucky: furniture was put out in the front yard, cleared from the main room to accommodate as many neighbors as could squeeze in. The dancing would go on till the sun came up. "You know, it just wasn't safe to travel back home at night through these mountains," says Whitaker, the square-dance caller for the Carcassone Community Dancers.

Ranging in age from 17 to 75, the dancers are members of one of the nation's oldest community square dances, and their sashays, promenades and do-si-dos preserve the traditional dances their ancestors brought with them when they settled in Eastern Kentucky.

This is history in motion, the kind of thing passed from generation to generation that rarely makes it into history books. But as I watch the faces of the 20 public school teachers who join in with the Carcassone Dancers, I see the virtue in preserving these traditions and teaching children, by tangible means, how to discover and value the past.

And that's why we've all come to Pine Mountain Settlement School in Harlan County. I'm here to record the experience of American Legacies, a three-year professional development program for history teachers. And, thankfully, the teachers don't seem to mind an outsider. In fact, other than the telltale accent I haven't been able to shake in the 11 years since I left my native Detroit, I seem to fit in.

But this isn't about me. It's about changing the way kids relate to history. American Legacies combines new historical scholarship and creative ideas, including children's literature and simulations in which kids research and portray people in an historical event. The program's focus is on crafting curriculum for elementary, middle school and high school classrooms that centers on investigating the past from multiple perspectives to help students think historically—to grasp the complexity surrounding historical figures and events.

Twenty teachers from eight Kentucky counties (Bell, Clay, Harlan, Knox, Jackson, Laurel, Rockcastle, and Whitley) became American Legacies Fellows in this program funded by a three-year, $942,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education's Teaching American History Program.

American Legacies brings training to where these teachers live, instead of making them travel three or more hours to Lexington, Frankfort or Louisville. It's a different approach from traditional professional development programs, Project Director Rebecca Hanly from the Kentucky Historical Society tells me. She visited 15 school districts in a targeted effort to recruit applicants. Teachers were required to apply for the program, which offers benefits including free books and teaching materials, travel expenses, graduate credit, a $500 yearly stipend, in-class assistance and mentoring, the chance to visit historic sites across the state, and interaction with university scholars.

American Legacies fellows attend fall and spring two-day seminars and a week-long summer institute for the three-year term, and will create grade-specific teaching units that can be shared with other teachers across Kentucky.

Hanly points out two ways this program is unique. First, American Legacies was born from the vision of people across Kentucky: Harlan Independent Schools applied for the grant in partnership with the University of Kentucky, the Kentucky Historical Society, the Kentucky Department of Education, the Kentucky Heritage Council, and the Kentucky Virtual University.

Second, the program curriculum is tailored to Eastern Kentucky. Most of the 114 school districts nationwide that received these grants chose to buy pre-packaged curricula. "We didn't," says Kathi Kern, who with UK colleague Linda Levstik is shaping the content for American Legacies. "We're trying to stress American history content, wrap it with teaching methods and have a regional focus."

Photo of Linda Levstik and Kathi KernLinda Levstik (left) and Kathi Kern want their students to investigate history and, through interactive simulations, to reexperience it.

"Eastern Kentucky has an enormously rich store of history that doesn't always get tapped. So part of what we're trying to do is make sure that local history gets embedded in a national context, and that national events are also seen in terms of their local impact," says Levstik, a professor in the UK curriculum and instruction department since 1982, and co-author of the book Doing History: Investigating with Children in Elementary and Middle School.

"Last year I worked with fifth graders on an archeology project, and one of the questions we asked them at the end was, 'What is the difference between archeology and history?'" says Levstik. "They said, 'Archeology is like fitting together a puzzle—you piece all these things together to try to figure out what happened. History is a story that's already been told—it's finished.' We want to get kids to see history in the way they see archeology—as unfinished stories."

Levstik continues, "If you can get kids to start with a question, they're more likely to really get into the investigation."

She details the steps of this investigation. It starts with primary sources—newspapers, magazines, journals, letters, and photographs from the time period—and then incorporates secondary sources such as films or documentaries and history-book interpretations of an event. The next step is thinking about historical perspective—how does the worldview of the person who recorded these events influence the way we need to think about them?

Kern, who has spent 14 years at UK and whose research on the women's rights movement led to her 2001 book Mrs. Stanton's Bible, uses methods in her classroom that are a far cry from stale lecture-based curriculum. "We do simulations," she says, which are organized around an event, for example, a congressional debate, courtroom drama or a political rally. Some students, based on their research, portray historical people (they interact with the other characters in an event), and others serve as journalists or historians (they write and ask questions of the characters).

Kern explains, "Our approach is about teaching kids, and adults, that history is not signed, sealed and delivered—that it is open to debate and interpretation. The simulations rekindle important historical debates, so students can see that there was conflict as well as consensus in the past. As teachers, we can then make the analogy between the debates we simulate in the classroom and historical interpretation: whose perspective most influenced the historical narratives? Why do some perspectives seem to carry more weight?"

Photo of Melissa SingletonMelissa Singleton, an eighth-grade social studies teacher who's been at Rockcastle Middle School for 10 years, says she thinks it's important for kids to study their own families. "My father is from Ohio and my mom's from Kentucky. One of the things that I think is funny is we go north and they make fun of the way we talk, but my family in the north loves Bluegrass music and will happily get out there and dance to someone singing just the way that I talk. Kids need to learn to be proud, not ashamed, of where they grew up."

Kern, an associate professor, teaches American History 109 at UK to 300 students each semester, and uses simulations as part of her interactive curriculum. "I might do six simulations a semester, but there's a lot of activity around that." She uses books, films and lectures to set the stage for a simulation and act as bridges between historical events.

For about 90 percent of her students, Kern says, history comes alive. But she pauses and shrugs as she tells me, "I have about 10 percent who say this is a bastardization of what they believe history to be. Sometimes I'll even have resistance from some very good students because they've thrived in that traditional pedagogical model where the professor spews out information and the students write it down, absorb it and regurgitate it.

"What I try to stress to students is that you learn more when you're having fun and when you're engaged. Cramming for tests is not the way to learn—because there's a limited amount that any of us can memorize, but we can all develop our analytical skills and scaffold new knowledge onto things we already know and understand."

She tells me the way you shape a simulation is key: "I would never do a simulation where the traditional voices were muted in some way. You've got to have those power dynamics there." Kern says, with greater animation, "You can't just say, 'Here's an alternative fantasy version of history where everything's fair and just.'

"When I do simulations, I always have time at the end for debrief. Say, someone had to portray a Ku Klux Klansman. They need a moment to say, 'Although I'm a white person and I portrayed this person, I don't agree with the KKK.'

"Now, of course, this is different with children. You can't have a child portray Hitler. But I ask older students to suspend their own moral judgments about these people and try to figure out what made them tick. What was their vision of the world? What mattered to them? Why did they make the choices they did?"

Kern, a northerner like me (she's from Pennsylvania), says, "When I came to Kentucky and wanted to teach civil rights, I found some of my white students here weren't all that sympathetic, and that's when I realized I needed to learn the history of these people. Now I talk about the strife between coal miners—black and white—and mining company owners. Students who can resonate with that history are then more sympathetic when we get to civil rights and struggles of black people in America."

Kern sums up her goals for the American Legacies program: "On the one hand, we want to deepen the teachers' content knowledge in American history by exposing them to the latest scholarship. That's part of it. But at the same time, we want to engage the teachers in the same spirit of inquiry that we hope they will adopt with their students. We want them to do history—to conduct research, to engage in historical analysis, and to teach American history in ways that actively involve their students in thinking historically."

Photo of David McFaddenDavid McFadden teaches arts & humanities and band at North Laurel High School, and has 10 years' teaching experience. He says, "I see a lot of possibilities for using simulations in my classes. I especially liked the Native American culture things we've learned this week, and that's part of our core content for high school arts & humanities assessment. I've got a better understanding of how to wrap history into my classes."

And as I listened to the teachers' discussions and watched the d

ocumentaries at Pine Mountain, I began to see how thinking historically is connected to breaking down barriers of myth and stereotype.

The theme for the Sunday-through-Friday summer institute at Pine Mountain was "Shifting Frontiers" and included a field trip to Cumberland Gap, small group projects, and film and book discussions about Native Americans, settlers from all over the world who came to Appalachia, and later migration out of the region.

Levstik tells me, "The American Frontier is surrounded in myths, and those myths have been created and used for a whole variety of purposes, historical and otherwise. We started by looking at the myths surrounding Native Americans—the way they are presented in film, children's literature, tourist attractions, newspapers, and magazines."

I reached Pine Mountain at lunch time on Thursday, along with invited speaker Ron Eller, an associate professor of history who began his 19th year at UK teaching southern and Appalachian history this fall. For 15 of those years, he served as director of the Appalachian Center at UK, but retired from administration to return to full-time teaching in 2000.

The post-lunch discussion, led by Eller, centered on the people of Appalachia—who have, like Native Americans, been the subject of many myths. He touched on two: isolation and violence.

People in Appalachia were no less cut off from the world than people in other rural areas in Wisconsin, Michigan or Mississippi, he says. Eller showed this telling photograph of a group on a flatboat on the Kentucky River.

Photo of people on flatboat"This was a common form of transportation into and out of the region at that time and belies the supposed isolation," Eller says. One man, off to the left, is wearing a shirt with the letters KSC. That stands for Kentucky State College—the predecessor of UK. "The dress of the passengers, including the KSC shirt on the one young man, speaks to the interaction between the mountain region and the Blue Grass," he says.

I noticed about half of the people in the photo are brandishing weapons. "Like many photos of this period, the passengers are holding up their guns, similar to the staged photographs of the Hatfields and McCoys taken a decade earlier, to fit the emerging national imagery of Appalachia as an isolated, backward and violent place."

We then settled in to watch "Long Journey Home," a 1987 documentary by Eastern Kentucky filmmaker Elizabeth Barrett. For me, this film was fascinating because it weaves together narration by Anndrena Belcher, a Scott County, Virginia, native whose family moved to Chicago when coal work dried up, stories from Italian, Hungarian and Yugoslavian immigrants, and interviews with African Americans who left Alabama for wage labor in the mines.

I knew that machines were replacing men at that time, but this documentary showed the emotion behind how "progress" put miners out of work. In 1922 the first Joy Loader was sold. This "cotton gin of coal mining" was a conveyor belt with mechanized arms, and it did the work of 100 men. Men lost their jobs, and because they lived in coal towns in company-owned houses, they had no place to stay.

Between 1940 and 1970, 3.3 million out-of-work miners and their families headed north, to Cleveland, Chicago and Detroit. But the city wasn't for everyone. Belcher says in the film, as she walks through the Chicago streets, her family didn't settle in to Chicago thinking it was home—the mountains were home.

She says, "I took the elevated train to school. Just careening around in that concrete and that metal I just always had the feeling that this was a crazy way to live. All that sound—it didn't feel real natural to me." Belcher eventually returned to the mountains, as a folk dance teacher, but her parents, Bill and Clara, stayed in Chicago.

Bill earned close to $3 a day at his first city job, loading freight cars. It took a while to earn enough money to bring his wife and two daughters north. The Belcher family, like many other families with deep roots in the mountains, trekked "down home" for holidays and one weekend every month. This experience was common to many families in Appalachia, including some of the American Legacies fellows.

Photo of Renee BurdettRenee Burdett, who teaches fifth grade at Roundstone Elementary in Rockcastle County, says, "The nice thing about this kind of experience is that we get to hear about how other people teach history, and, as a group, we get to learn together over the three years."

In fact, the fourth- and fifth-grade teachers crafted a simulation, which they presented on the last day of the summer institute, around the real-life experience of teacher Bobbie Dixon's family. Dixon, whose experience paralleled the Belcher family's, and his team wrote a three-act skit. It opens with the dad, whose construction paper nametag read "Jack Morgan Dixon husband/father," telling his wife, son and daughter he's lost his job at the mine. He plans to go to Chicago, get a job and a place to live, then send for the family. Dixon and his team wrote a script that incorporated themes like the difficulty of adjusting to the city and the teasing the kids endured in school because of their accents.

After the skit, Dixon described how teachers could use this in their classroom. "You could have kids write the script themselves, choose parts, and act it out in front of the rest of the class," he says. "You could even have the kids gather stories about migration from their own families, and write skits around that."

Jennie Watkins, who played the wife in that skit, told me the day before as we ate lunch why she applied for American Legacies. "I'm always looking for innovative ways to engage kids, particularly at the fourth-grade level. These are nine- and 10-year-olds that do not handle a teacher up there talking the whole time, so this looked like a great opportunity to get some hands-on activity and ideas about teaching."

The fellows will work on three projects—lesson plans that go along with the themes (shifting frontiers, democracy and conflict, and industrialization and reform) for each year. And helping them along the way is Sandy Stults, who serves as the program's master teacher.

Stults tells me how she got involved: "Rebecca Hanly told me about the program, and that they were working with the Harlan Independent School District. She wanted someone familiar with Eastern Kentucky and thought I would be that person since I grew up and taught in Letcher County. My roots go deep in the mountains.

"I had just retired from teaching when this opportunity arose. In 30 years of teaching, it is the most exciting program that I have been involved with," she says.

Stults, who the teachers affectionately named "Mom" during the summer institute, says, "My role is as a mentor to the teachers. My goal is to help the fellows achieve their goals in their classrooms."

Stults says she will serve as a resource person, team teach with some of the teachers, make sure their school administrators know what a wonderful job they are doing in the classroom and working with the American Legacies program, as well as find ways to showcase their projects within their communities and schools.

The goal of all of this, Levstik tells me, is to make history mean more to kids. "If we're going to teach history in schools, we need to understand why it's important. One, it makes us better citizens. If we're going to engage in a pluralist democracy, we need to know enough about each other to be able to speak intelligently to each other. Two, when we look through the past we learn something about what it means to be human," she says.

And after spending these two days with the teachers, I'm convinced, as Levstik and Kern are, that putting a face on the people of the past, whether it be through reading literature, watching movies or researching characters for a simulation, will better help children—the history makers of tomorrow—understand who they are and what their impact can be.

his program will have a sequel, American Legacies II, thanks to a new $983,960 grant from the U.S. Department of Education Teaching American History Program. American Legacies Project Director Rebecca Hanly says, "There have been approximately 300 awards in this national program since 2001, and we're honored to be among the small group of those to receive a second award." This new award means that a second group of Eastern Kentucky history teachers will have the opportunity to get involved in this three-year professional development program that melds new scholarship with creative teaching strategies. For more information, visit