Local history gets a closer look with new grant
By: By Emily Kram, Superior Telegram
State funding for education has decreased steadily this summer in Wisconsin, but the Superior school district has had better luck with the federal government.
Superior recently learned it was awarded a Teaching American History Grant from the U.S. Department of Education for $744,938. The district was one of three organizations in Wisconsin to receive the three-year grant, which may be extended to four or five years. In all, $116 million was awarded to districts in 38 states.
Teaching American History Grants are intended to provide more content information to American history teachers, which is then passed on to students. The grant is self sustaining, with no cost to the district.
Kyle Smith, a history teacher at Superior High School, worked with Rick Whiting from Ashland High School to apply for the grant. Joel Sipress, a history professor from the University of Wisconsin-Superior, is the third member of the grant management team.
“UWS has had a longstanding commitment to teacher education. It’s one of the most important things we do,” Sipress said. “So it’s just an opportunity for us to continue to work with educators in the area to work for lifelong education for teachers.”
Under grant guidelines, recipients must hold a series of professional development programs and partner with local organizations that have extensive knowledge of American history. Joining with the Superior program are the Northern Great Lakes Visitor’s Center near Ashland, the Douglas County Historical Society, St. Louis County Historical Society and Wisconsin Historical Society.
“Rick and I always thought it was such a great idea to try (for the grant),” Smith said. “Besides going to grade AP exams, this is the best professional development for a history teacher that I’ve ever had.”
The grant money will be applied regionally, providing faculty development opportunities for teachers beyond just the Superior district. Smith said teachers from both northwestern Wisconsin and northeastern Minnesota will be allowed to participate.
“The idea is that we’re going to recruit about 35 to 40 teachers,” Smith said. “We haven’t talked about percentages from Superior, but percentage-wise they’d probably make up more than other schools.”
Smith hopes to reach teachers who are looking to improve their knowledge of history while learning the most effective teaching methods. The program is open to instructors teaching in grades 4-12.
A five-day retreat will be held during the summer, beginning in 2010, during which historians will lecture about their areas of expertise and teachers will discuss best practices to use in the classrooms. The group will take field trips during the five-day event and two weekend meetings will be held during the school year, one in the fall and one in the spring. To further help teachers while they are teaching, a Web site will be created to share ideas and lesson plans throughout the year.
Superior’s grant proposal this year was titled “Defining America: Times of Crisis and Recovery.” The first year of the grant will be spent primarily on organizing and recruiting teachers to participate. The management team hopes extend the grant into a fourth year so three summers may be spent looking at key topics in U.S. history.
“We’re emphasizing certain themes in U.S. history and then looking for ways that those can be studied through the local and regional history,” Sipress said. “The overarching theme of the program is the way Americans have struggled with trying to understand, what is America and who is American.”
In the first retreat, the focus of the program will be the American Revolutionary War. The American Civil War will be the subject for the second retreat, followed by the Great Depression.
For each topic, regional history will be explored and tied into the larger history of the nation. For example, when looking at the American Revolution, participants will explore the place of Native American people in the United States, focusing specifically on Ojibwe history.
Each summer regional historians will speak, and a historian of national prominence will also be featured. So far, key lecturers have been confirmed for the first two years. Gary Nash, one of the most prominent historians of colonial and revolutionary America, will speak in the first year, and James McPhearson, noted for his work on the American Civil War, will lecture the second year.
Whiting and Smith remember listening to Nash when they were participants in an earlier retreat funded by the grant through UW-La Crosse.
“The first time with Gary Nash, we were there and I was going, ‘Jeez, how do I know this guy’s name?’ Then I realized he was the author of the textbook we were using,” Whiting said.
“He actually stayed with us the whole week at our retreat at Madeline Island,” Smith said. “He was fantastic, so thankfully he’s committed to a couple of days to spend with us."