By Courtney Pochet, Civic Educator
Professional development can either be one of the most exciting or miserable experiences a history teacher can have. We leave those conferences and events that are well done on a rising tide of creativity and motivation; those that are not well done… it’s not pretty. Civic education groups, hear this— you must provide three things in order to win our everlasting devotion to you in our shared quest of developing informed and enlightened citizens: useful resources, primary sources and salacious stories. In addition, you must also avoid two things: intellectual snobbery and forced practice of teaching techniques.
Before I sass you any further, let me answer the question that is undoubtedly on your mind: why on earth should you listen to me? You don’t have to. Having taught for five years in independent schools and spending a year in public schools, I’ve been around the block— so to speak. I’ve been to more conferences (by choice) than I care to admit, weekend seminars (nerd camp) at the Center for the Constitution at Montpelier are a particular favorite of mine. I’ve taught everything from sixth grade English to AP Government. In short, I masquerade as a know-it-all, but know enough to admit that I have much to learn.
Section 1: What do we want? Primary Sources! When do we want them? Now!
Of all the conferences I’ve been to, those that I remember the most fondly were events where primary sources and other academic resources were heaped on attendees by the trunkload (Virginia Historical Society, AP Seminars, Center for the Constitution, I’m looking at you). For history teachers, storytelling is the most important and effective hook we have. To make those stories more interesting, we need to vary (from year to year and from class to class) the content and the modes we use for presenting them. The more material we have, the better.
Aside from the benefits of varying content to match student interest, utilizing primary sources allows us to develop the reading, writing and analytical skills our students need to succeed in the 21st century. We would love to be able to find every primary source we use, and sometimes we do. Between standardized testing, grading, perfecting our one-man comedy show (showing several times daily), giving our students the individual attention they deserve and sometimes taking our time out for our own lives— there’s just not enough time.
So please, comb your archives and databases and hand those primary sources out like its our birthday. If you cannot do that, find a way to get your name out there. I was first introduced to ConSource at the end of a New York Historical Society conference; the added bonus of a Supreme Court Justice as your featured speaker is the crowd it draws.
Regardless, I walked out of that conference with demo lessons, an engaging book to read (and possibly use in the classroom, as well as an introduction to an online database of Constitutional sources that I did not know existed until that day. That is a productive teacher Saturday.
Section 2: Skill(s) Training
If there is anything you take away from this slightly irreverent memo, let it be this. Please, for the love of Warren Harding, stay away from preaching the latest trends in education. Our bosses will ensure that we become familiar with those. Rest assured, we will attend or have already attended that conference on differentiation or flipping our classrooms. If you must include these activities in your conferences, please do not force us to model the technique for practice. We spend our days in front of critical audiences and very much value and need our downtime. This is not to say that we do not appreciate and value the lessons and units you share with us that meet Common Core or C3 standards, but we do not wish to sit through a demo lesson or practice it ourselves. The beauty of sharing lessons and resources is that everyone benefits. We will always tweak those resources to fit our students’ needs; but please let us do so on our own time.
In my experience, the only exception to this was an AP US History conference at Wake Forest University led by Warren Hierl (the legend!). I loved his style, and on this occasion I loved that he forced us to work through some the activities he used in his own classes. The difference here was in the expectation. I attended this conference to learn to be an APUSH teacher, not to master a topic.
We come to your conferences because we seek information. We preach the values of lifelong learning and strive to model that practice for our students. Sometimes we come to conferences to learn something new, sometimes we come to re-master a topic. We are always sponges, seeking to learn from you and the resources you can provide to us. Be it the speakers you bring to conferences (authors, professors, etc.), or the books, lessons, and primary sources you give us, your most powerful and important contributions are the resources you share with us.
Section 3: In which I become a hypocrite; The skills I wish you would teach us
Though I spent the last several paragraphs whining in detail about skill development at conferences, there are some that I wish you would teach us. I want to learn to use your archives and databases. I want to learn to digitally manipulate your electronic resources and create something.
Teach us to work with documents, archive and create exhibits. I would love to have these skills because it’s really cool (selfish reason), but also because I’d love to teach my students to do so. There is no better way to combine knowledge and skill development than to emulate projects that are ongoing in the real world.
Section 4: The Perils of Intellectual Snobbery
Many teachers are what I would classify as practical or accessible academics. We love to learn, and we love a good game of Wii Jeopardy. However, such things as having to teach teenagers and speak in their vernacular prevent us from fully transforming into academic hotshots. Thus, your job, as those who are members of the higher education community is equally as difficult. You must speak to us in our vernacular when your natural inclination may be for something different. Proceed with caution. When presenting to a crowd of teachers, you do not want to insult our intelligence. At the same time, don’t assume that we remember everything about the topic you are discussing. We may have mastered it at some point, but may need a reminder. Know your audience. Present appropriately.
When planning a conference for civics/ history teachers, the most important thing to remember is that you had us at hello. We become nerdily excited when we receive notices about your latest and greatest lecture series or conference. Remember that you, civic education groups and historical societies of America, unite us as a community. Our shared passion for developing well-rounded and informed citizens unites us in a common cause. Like you, we love talking about ideas. We love sharing our resources and finding new ones. Like you, we want to be better at what we do. I hesitate to reference anything French, but here goes: all for one, and one for all.