By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Teaching teachers
ConnectSavannah Import Default Image
History has moved to the front burner in the Savannah/Chatham County Public Schools.

Teachers were finding that as students moved into upper grades, they knew virtually nothing about American history. As a result, history lessons are being introduced earlier, in elementary school.

Motivating students to learn is the most challenging aspect of teaching, says Dorothy Denegal, a second grade teacher at Pooler Elementary School. “You have to be motivated to learn,” she says. “If you aren’t, nothing gets in.”

A lack of experience compounds the problem, says Keith Kulikowski, who teaches eighth grade Georgia history at Hubert Middle School. “A lot of students don’t have the experience of getting out of the 10-block radius they live in,” he says.

Proving that learning never ends, two groups of 25 teachers from the Savannah/Chatham County Public Schools recently participated in a history summer travel institute.

One group, comprising teachers in grades K-3, traveled to Boston, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. June 22-30 to intensively study the history of the American Revolution. The other group, comprising middle and high school teachers, visited Civil War sites June 20-25.

The trips were funded by grants from the U.S. Department of Education as part of a program to increase teacher content knowledge in American history. The theory is that teachers can better understand and appreciate history when they stand where great Americans delivered speeches, fought in battles and made sacrifices for the greater common good. That in turn translates into better history instruction for students.

“I can better teach my students because I was there,” Denegal says. “I’ve got actual photographs of the places I visited and will be talking about. That will help supplement my teaching. I think the children will be more interested.”

The trips were organized through the Massie Heritage Center, and teachers had to apply for a place in the program.

At Pooler Elementary, American history lessons are consolidated into the curriculum. “We teach the three branches of government, American symbols, Thanksgiving and the Founding Fathers,” Denegal says.

Laura Filson, who teaches in the second and third grades at the Charles Ellis Elementary School, also is planning to tell her students about her trip.

“I think it will give them a good understanding of what early America was like,” Filson says. “It certainly gave me a better appreciation, not just for the founding fathers, but for the founding mothers, too. I learned what they had to go through and what it meant to them.”

The teachers learned that the nation’s founders were more than great leaders -- they were ordinary citizens who had faults and foibles. “We had a big discussion about whether this took them off their pedestals,” Filson says.

“It did, but that was good,” she says. “They were farmers, teachers, doctors and lawyers, just like people today.”

If students understand that great leaders started out as ordinary human beings, they might consider that they can achieve greatness someday. Yet in previous generations, America’s founders were regarded as heroes, almost superhuman in their abilities, and exaggerated stories about their greatness were taught.

“I’m in my 40s, and I grew up with the myth that Washington never told a lie,” Filson says. “Abraham Lincoln read by the fire’s light. But they were really all ordinary men with extraordinary traits.”

While Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, Franklin and others were great, they also were human. “They all had faults,” Filson says. “They all pretty much realized slavery was wrong, but it wasn’t in their power to change it at that time. They did their best to their ability.”

Some facts learned on the trips were new to the teachers. Filson was surprised at the proximity of noted Americans to each other as they went about their daily lives.

“When we visited Lexington and Concord, we found out that Henry David Thoreau, Louisa May Alcott and Ralph Waldo Emerson all lived in the same neighborhood,” Filson says. “In Philadelphia, the people working for independence all found themselves living in the same area. I found that astonishing. We are all so spread out now.”

Filson also learned that Paul Revere did not ride alone. “He had someone else riding with him and they met up with a third man along the way,” she says. “Paul Revere had help. He was caught, and it was the third person who got through to tell the people of Concord that the soldiers were marching toward them.”

Can young students reach an understanding of history? Yes, although very young students might have a little trouble grasping the notion of the passage of time.

Although history lessons are being taught in the early grades, they are not taught as intensively as they will be later on. “Our job is to really pique their interest,” Filson says.

“If they realize these were real people with interesting stories, they’ll have a fascination for history,” she says. “We want to give them something to plug into. It’s really important when teaching to begin developing file folders in their heads.”

In preparation for the trip, teachers read biographies written for adults. They were then given biographies to take back to their students. “They loved them!” Filson says.

The teachers were given a test before the trips to gauge their knowledge of American history. They will be taking another test now that they’ve returned to show how much they learned during their travels.

The trips were intense, not just in educational terms, but physical ones, as well. “There was a lot of walking involved,” Denegal says. “Especially on the last day, when we went to Arlington National Cemetery.”

Kulikowski had already visited many Civil War sites as a youngster while on a family vacation. “I had seen it, and although there were many things I did not remember, I did remember certain aspects,” he says. “I’m glad my parents took us there.”

Already, Kulikowski is thinking about how he can apply his experiences in the classroom. “Even something as simple as taking pictures will help them learn,” he says. “This is something that is not in the textbooks.”

The trip was extremely valuable to Kulikowski. “It’s a living experience that I took part in. When we toured the battlefields, I could almost see the Union and Confederate troops. It was definitely a living history type of experience,” he says.

“Just being there and seeing the different sights was great. It was like hands-on history in terms of the scale of the battlefields, the topography and terrain. There were quite a few things that surprised me in terms of how people on both sides went back into public life after the Civil War,” he says. “It was a very civil war in those terms. That was unique.”

Leah Colby, Massie’s K-3 project director, organized the Revolutionary War trip. Judy Newsome, middle and secondary project director at Massie, organized the Civil War trip.

“Both of the programs have the teachers coming to workshops on-site at Massie,” Colby says. “We have historians come to talk to them. We also provide high-quality lesson plans.”

The travel program was begun because most teachers have never visited the historic sites they teach about, Colby says. “This program allows them to teach things they have experienced first-hand,” she says. “They see where the treaties were made, the battlefields where the battles were fought.”

Every day was packed full of tours of historic sites and activities at those sites. On the first day of their trip, the middle and high school teachers visited Soldier Camp, a program that demonstrates a soldier’s life in a camp during the Civil War.

They also visited the Hollywood Cemetery, where many Civil War soldiers are buried. “We visited the Museum of the Confederacy and the Confederate White House,” Newsome says.

“On Tuesday, we went to Manassas National Battlefield Park and then went to Washington, D.C. to the National Archives,” she says. “The teachers got to see original documents, including the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.”

The group visited Harper’s Ferry National Historic Park on Wednesday morning. That afternoon, they visited Antietam, and participated in an educational program called Battlefield in a Box.

“On Thursday, we visited Gettysburg and the Eisenhower Farm,” Newsome says. “We went to the Gettysburg National Cemetery, as well as the battlefield.”

The next day, the group arrived in Staunton, Va. “We visited the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and the Frontier Culture Museum,” Newsome says.

The Frontier Culture Museum offers living history tours, with re-enactments of German, Irish and English farms that look as they did in the colonial era, complete with authentic buildings brought over from the Old Country. “All of them eventually blended into American farms,” Newsome says.

“On the last day, we went to Lexington to see the Stonewall Jackson House,” Newsome says. “We visited the Lee Chapel and Museum.”

Then the group traveled to Appomattox Courthouse National Historic Park for a tour of the Wilmer McLean House, where Lee and Grant signed the surrender.

While most people believe the surrender was signed at an actual courthouse, Newsome points out that Appomattox Courthouse is actually the name of the town where it was signed.

At each stop, the teachers were given a lesson. “Prior to the trip, we called each place we were going and talked to the educational staff,” Newsome says. “At each site, there was a demonstration or a lecture, as well as a tour.”

“It was not just sight-seeing,” Colby adds. “It was very intense. We told the teachers before we left that there wasn’t a lot of free time.

“They learned a great deal of history and learned from all the resources each site employs,” she says. “These were not tour guides, who are paid to be entertaining.”

Newsome says the Battlefield in a Box program at Antietam normally is taught to students. “That demonstrated to the teachers how they could turn around and do this with their students,” she says. “They actually got to see what happens in a war.”

Colby says starting history lessons at a young age is vital. “Middle school teachers were finding out that students were coming to them unprepared, without even basic content,” she says. “The K-3 program gives teachers the information they need to lay the foundation in the primary grades so the middle school teachers will have something to build on.”

The K-3 trip started at the Massachusetts Historical Society. “They have an amazing collection,” Colby says.

“On the second day, the teachers visited the Paul Revere House. Fanueuil Hall, Old North Church. Lexington and Concord,” Colby says. “Paul Revere didn’t say, ‘The British are coming! The British are coming!’ because everyone was British then. He said, ‘The regulars are out!’ or ‘The regulars are coming!’”

The next stop was Plymouth Plantation, with various colonial houses and buildings. “They have reconstructed Plymouth Plantation the way it was in 1627,” Colby says.

“The teachers got the chance to role-play there,” she says. “They each drew a duty they were to enact, such as bringing in the firewood.”

During a lecture on the Native American experience, the teachers learned about the interaction between the Indians and the early colonists. Turns out the two groups were not nearly as close as tradition would have us believe.

“There was a lot of dispelling of myths and legends about the first Thanksgiving,” Colby says. “We learned how things really were.”

Colby carefully prepared the teachers for a visit to Plymouth Rock, which literally is -- a rock.

“It was a huge disappointment to last year’s group,” she says. “This year, I prepared them for the fact that it wasn’t a huge thing.”

A visit to a recreation of the Mayflower, the ship the pilgrims arrived on, proved more exciting. “We went so they could see the conditions the people had to endure on the way over here,” Colby says. “What amazing people they must have been.”

Then it was on to Philadelphia and a visit to Valley Forge. “It’s where the Continental Army came together,” Colby says. “It’s where they taught the soldiers to be soldiers.”

The group saw the interactive exhibits at Constitution Center. “They have an amazing sculptural gallery with sculptures of all the signers,” Colby says.

At Carpenter Hall, the teachers visited America’s first library, which was founded by Benjamin Franklin. “We got to go behind the scenes,” Colby says. “They even had someone there playing the glass harmonica, which Franklin invented.”

At Independence Hall, the group learned even more about Benjamin Franklin. “He was such a multi-faceted person,” Colby says. “All most kids know about him is that he flew a kit with a key on it.”

The group then went to Washington, D.C. At Mount Vernon, Washington’s home, Dr. Stan Deaton of the Georgia Historical Society met the group and gave a lecture about Washington.

“The afternoon was spent at the National Archives,” Colby says. “We got a behind-the-scenes tour of the Smithsonian, focusing on the presidential exhibit.

“We also visited the monuments in D.C. and toured the White House and the U.S. Capitol,” she says. “The White House tours are done by lottery now, and last year’s group didn’t get to go.”

The next stop was Ford’s Theater, where Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth. “We also went to Arlington National Cemetery, where they saw the changing of the guard and President Kennedy’s grave,” Colby says.

The lessons learned by the teachers will give added impetus to their lessons, Colby says. “We’re trying to give more substance to grades K-3,” she says.

“The only time the kids hear anything about Washington or Lincoln is around Presidents Day in February,” Colby says. “We want to give teachers more historical content so they can teach it to their students.”

Sometimes, teachers don’t have the tools or education needed to teach history. “Most colleges do not require more than one American history course,” Colby says.

“Teachers don’t have a lot of content knowledge through no fault of their own,” she says. “We can’t expect them to teach something that they don’t know themselves.”

The program has been so successful, grants have already been applied for for next year. “We won’t know if we’ve got them until the fall,” Colby says.

For now, memories of the recent trips will have to do. “We saw a portrait of George Washington at 40 years old,” Newsome says. “I would never have recognized him.

“We saw a portrait of Robert E. Lee at Lee Chapel in Lexington,” Newsome says. “Robert E. Lee was a handsome young man. Until then, the teachers had seen only the traditional Washington, the traditional Lee.”

Such personal touches make history more interesting for everyone, Newsome says. “History is a collection of stories,” she says. “All of us are interested in stories.

“If people taught history as a collection of stories, it would be so much more interesting,” she says. “If teachers have gone to a place, then their perspective is better.

“It is more interesting when they can show their students a picture,” Newsome says. “It makes a difference if the students know their teacher has been there.”

“We put all these people on a pedestal, but they were just people,” Colby says. “Why was Washington a general? He had a good military background, but he also struck a very fine pose.”

To comment in a letter to the editor, e-mail us at