Feature: Take a Walk on the Historical Side

Teachers view “Among the Sierra Nevada, California” (National Portrait Gallery). Teachinghistory.org, 2012.

As a high school history teacher gazes up at an enormous mural, he begins to plan an activity that engages his students in careful analysis of both the image and its historical context. Listening to a drum beat while she walks in the footsteps of a Civil War soldier, a fourth-grade teacher gains an appreciation for the power of music and of historic places. She learns new ways to incorporate multiple senses into her classroom, opening student minds through the sounds, smells, and tastes of the past.

Whether it takes place in a national museum, on a working seventeenth-century farm, or in a library or archive, professional development that allows teachers to explore history in person can be a powerful learning experience. But what are the components of good history and social studies workshops for teachers? What roles can cultural institutions, such as museums, libraries, archives, and historic sites, play in creating quality learning opportunities for educators? What strategies help teachers translate these experiences into classroom learning, inspiring students to think in new ways?

New guide offers best practices and more

These are among the many questions addressed in Visiting History: A Professional Development Guide, a resource designed to improve field experiences of history and social studies teachers. The guide is a project of Teachinghistory.org, a free, online resource for K-12 educators developed by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University and funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement. It draws on the valuable lessons learned from a decade of Teaching American History (TAH) projects around the country and from the DC Museum Collaborative, a group of Washington D.C. museums and cultural institutions dedicated to creating positive professional development experiences.

Teachers capture what they learn for classroom use (Ulysses S. Grant Memorial). Teachinghistory.org, 2012.

Teachers capture what they learn for classroom use (Ulysses S. Grant Memorial). Teachinghistory.org, 2012.

Effective teacher education is interactive, substantive, challenging, and engaging. Drawing on the wisdom of professional development providers, planners, and participants as well as on current research into adult education, Visiting History models best practices for creating high-quality, meaningful professional development experiences.

Begin exploring Visiting History with this short introductory video. It highlights the value for teachers of stepping into archives, libraries, museums, and historic sites—locally, regionally, and nationally—that preserve, present, and interpret the past.


Teachers view “Among the Sierra Nevada, California” (National Portrait Gallery). Teachinghistory.org, 2012.

Done well, as the video notes, quality professional development stays with teachers long after they return home. It integrates best practices for teaching content as well as historical thinking and takes full advantage of participatory and sensory learning—using place, touch, sound, smell, and sight to engage teachers with the past. And it leads teachers, both novice and experienced, to rethink their understanding of topics, events, and ways of teaching history.

One group of TAH teachers, for example, visited Moton High School in Farmville, Va., a site where African American students in the 1950s challenged the notion of “separate but equal” education. Participating teachers spoke eloquently about the ways in which the experience shaped their understanding of segregation, discrimination, and the Civil Rights Movement. The visit “brought home” history in new ways for a high school teacher while a sixth-grade teacher described the experience of seeing the physical space as “life-altering.”

TAH participant sketching the National Building Museum. Teachinghistory.org, 2012.

TAH participant sketching the National Building Museum. Teachinghistory.org, 2012.

In Visiting History, you can watch video of teachers as they sketch a historic building and learn about the structures that surround us every day. You can explore strategies for analyzing images of Abraham Lincoln as teachers learn to ask why some are well known and others remain obscure. Or listen as the conversation turns to the ways in which we create narrative and engage with history today, teaching about the present as well as about the past.

Visiting History is composed of three sections:

  •  Plan focuses on pre-activities and planning;
  •  Experience discusses creating substantive, meaningful field visits that meet the needs of all teachers; and
  • Reflect examines strategies for bringing valuable content and ideas back to the classroom.

 Planning for both the practical and theoretical

So what does good planning look like? As National Portrait Gallery museum educator Briana Zavadil White notes, “The best groups are the ones that come prepared. They’re the ones where I’ve had conversations with the [coordinator], who has then had conversations with the teachers. So all parties involved know exactly what we’re getting into.” Ideally, the planning takes place months ahead of time and involves input from teachers, integrating their questions and goals into the structure.

A TAH teacher learns about the holocaust through images and artifacts. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. © Miriam Lomaskin, 2011.

A TAH teacher learns about the holocaust through images and artifacts. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. © Miriam Lomaskin, 2011.

To help with planning and facilitate the conversation, Visiting History provides a checklist of questions. For example, what does a museum or historic site offer that is unique? How can workshops address topics that are challenging to teach, such as slavery or industrialization? What does an archive need to know about a group of teachers before they visit? How are workshops organized to meet the needs of adult learners?

Many museums and cultural institutions offer pre-visit materials such as selected readings, activities, or introductory videos. Some will schedule videoconferences to facilitate pre-visit conversations. As Nancy Hayward, vice president for education at Mount Vernon, explains, “We can do anything you want us to do. But we need from you what your expectations are and what you want your teachers to walk away with.”

Good planning combines the practical and the theoretical, but it is difficult to get to the latter without taking care of the former. If the group is hungry, cold, or exhausted, it is challenging to facilitate deep thinking and learning. Visiting History offers “Practical Matters” that deal with the nuts and bolts of a visit, as well as “Strategies” that focus on the substantive aspects of the experience. Getting through security quickly, for example, by making sure that everyone in the group has identification, leaves time to craft a meaningful workshop focused on building knowledge and developing historical thinking skills.

Experiencing primary sources deepens content knowledge

At the National Portrait Gallery, teachers explore history through art. Teachinghistory.org, 2012.

At the National Portrait Gallery, teachers explore history through art. Teachinghistory.org, 2012.

Teacher workshops often begin with the exploration of an image, object, document, or physical space. This is a skill that takes practice, but it is one in which cultural institutions are well versed. Whether teachers are asked to identify a mystery object such as a candle mold (that students often mistake for a hot dog cooker), read a diary entry to examine emotional responses to Lincoln’s assassination, or sift through archeological layers to uncover pottery shards, they are simultaneously doing two kinds of important work: engaging as adult learners and engaging as teachers. They are deepening their content knowledge while exploring techniques for teaching with primary sources in their own classrooms. They are also learning that both are essential.

One TAH participant noted that a talented museum educator does not simply tell teachers what to do, but models the approach, walking them through hands-on activities that explore primary sources. Another teacher commented that the professional development experience at a historic site “opened [her] eyes” to new ways of helping students “think more deeply about place and the power that it has.”

Reflecting, sharing, and implementing new ideas 

In addition to working with primary sources, meaningful workshops include discussion of how those sources are used to tell a larger story. Groups explore, for example, how a museum works, how curatorial decisions are made, and how exhibit narratives are constructed. Teachers go behind-the-scenes to examine artifacts, ask questions, and form hypotheses. They begin to “read” exhibits and think about the selection process, asking which objects have been included (or excluded) and why.

Engaging teachers during a workshop by brainstorming activities or strategizing ways to use new techniques in the classroom also helps solidify the experience, as does building in time to reflect and share ideas. Teachers return home with powerful stories to tell in the classroom and skills for making the investigative nature of history come alive.

And the learning does not end there. Well-crafted teacher professional development experiences in the field can mark the beginning of a productive relationship. Many sites provide classroom resources for teachers or follow-up with webinars. Others ask teachers to share what they have learned by sending back an activity or classroom video for use in future workshops.

The education specialists from various cultural institutions who contributed to Visiting History encourage teachers to stay in touch. “We’re always happy to open up our archives and share information,” said Talia Mosconi of Tudor Place. This sentiment was echoed by Suzannah Niepold of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, “We don’t want to really say goodbye when you walk out the door; we’re there for you for as long as you need us.” The experience can also strengthen professional relationships between teachers. Workshop participants enjoy learning from their colleagues and often follow the experience by designing and critiquing lesson plans together, sharing information, and creating activities across grade levels.

One of many resources available to educators

To create Visiting History, Teachinghistory.org facilitated discussions with museums, archives, libraries, and historic sites to learn about their experiences working with practicing teachers through the TAH program and to develop strategies for sharing that information nationally. While the guide draws examples from Washington D.C., its strategies are applicable for curriculum or professional development coordinators everywhere.

Visiting History is one of many teaching resources available on Teachinghistory.org. Explore Teachinghistory.org to:

Teachinghistory.org is making an impact inside and outside the classroom. In an independent 2011 survey by the Goodman Research Group, survey respondents reported using Teachinghistory.org for teaching preparation (90 percent), in the classroom (75 percent), and in their own professional development (55 percent). With its emphasis on both quality history content and teaching methods, Teachinghistory.org is helping educators everywhere improve their practice, learn new ideas, and connect with the larger historical community.

Guest bloggers:  Kelly Schrum, Ph.D., and Jennifer Rosenfeld are director and outreach director, respectively, of Teachinghistory.org (the National History Education Clearinghouse). They are also the director and associate director of educational projects, respectively, at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University.

Teachinghistory.org is the leading resource for U.S. history education in the classroom, providing K-12 educators with quality materials, teaching strategies, and current research. Funded by the U.S. Department of Education and created by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, Teachinghistory.org brings together key communities involved in improving history education.

Opinions expressed in this guest blog do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the Department of Education.  Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform.  Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum, or pedagogy.