K12 Teaching and EAR?

Peter Knupfer, H-SHEAR's picture

I could use some assistance with helping preservice K12 teachers identify general works in our field that balance breadth and depth and thereby help them prepare for their future K12 classes.

The Michigan state curriculum requires that the early republic be covered in 5th and 8th grades.  For example, the 8th grade curriculum includes “Era 3 -- Revolution and the New Nation” with a subsection, “Creating New Government(s) and a New Constitution,” under which are arrayed a dozen sub sub topics, like “U3.3.1: Explain the reasons for the adoption and subsequent failure of the Articles of Confederation (e.g., why its drafters created a weak central government, challenges the nation faced under the Articles, Shays’ Rebellion, disputes over western lands).”  The typical 8th grade teacher has maybe one to two hours per week for social studies.  In her search for background information she faces rows of specialized works on the subject at the library and is more likely to rely on reviews at Amazon.com or Goodreads than on reviews in the scholarly journals, none of which helps her think about this material from the perspective of teaching.

I’ve been teaching a course for undergrad history education majors that tries to address this problem.  The course is based on the idea of domain-specific teaching, or pedagogical knowledge of the kind championed by Sam Wineburg and his mentor, Lee Shulman.  The students are preservice teachers and the challenge I face is helping them to think like “generalists” rather than like “specialists.” 

For this course, the students have to map out a learning plan that they would use to prep for class once they are out in the schools; the plan targets a slice of the state mandated curriculum that the student feels especially weak in, and is essentially a syllabus for self-learning to fill that gap: it includes learning objectives and targeted questions, notes on background reading in a college survey text, a list of secondary sources to consult, a small list of networking resources (links to professional associations and journals in history teaching), a collection of primary source databases (American Memory, or the National Humanities Center’s primary sources site), and a mini-“lecture” to themselves that provides a narrative or back story for the curriculum.  They share these resources in a Zotero group library so that ultimately they will leave the class with a fistful of these syllabi created by themselves and their classmates.  The students do not write lesson or unit plans in my course; instead they use this syllabus to write curriculum during their teaching methods classes and eventually when they’re out in the schools.  They can also take the format for this syllabus into other history courses at the University and even ask instructors if they can substitute it for the usual long paper (or as an add-on).

The problem I have is with helping the students learn to locate background readings appropriate to what generalists and teachers need to do. 
The “further reading” recommendations in many college survey texts are highly variable -- in many cases they recommend specialized monographs or very lengthy works like Sellers’s Market Revolution that the typical history teacher just will not read or benefit much from reading to prepare for class.  Documentary readers like the Heath or Bedford St. Martin’s series that are popular at the college level tend to channel the reader into specific sets of sources, while I want these students to learn to make their own choices about primary sources on the basis of their own reading and understanding of their future students’ learning capabilities.  I’m thinking here of concise biographies, surveys, or works aimed at a general readership that are authoritative and could be connected to the state’s curriculum mandate.

In the early republic, I can think of biographies of major characters or short but very effective surveys like Steve Mintz’s Moralists and Modernizers, but I’d be grateful for ideas about readings that highlight significant issues or turning points between the Revolution and the Civil War, from which teachers can cull examples, imagine primary sources that would work in their classes, and conceive of a discipline-based framework for learning that would inform their classroom activities.  I’m particularly interested in economic history, an area in which these students are weakest but that is part of the required curriculum in our state.

So... is there a role for specialists like the subscribers to this network in brainstorming works that would be especially useful for K12 teachers when preparing for class?  And where might teachers go to get advice on works that fit this general description: the reviews sections of major newspapers?  Maybe there's a service out there that I've missed and is already doing this.

thank you

Peter Knupfer, Michigan State University

Paul E. Johnson, The Early American Republic, (Oxford, 2007) -- 165 pages of lucid  and engaging analysis. Thematic and chronological, I have used it in an undergraduate course with great success.

Hi, Peter,
As a former sixth grade teacher, I read your post with a great deal of interest.  Here are some ideas: Robert V. Hine and John Mack Faragher, The American West: A New Interpretive History offers a great history of westward expansion that teachers could easily use to pull out specific incidents they wanted to teach as well as identify key primary source documents. Many of the topics examined also would really play into economic history--things like the development of the railroad, the fur trade, gold mining--etc; another idea is Ruth Schwartz Cohen's More Work for Mother, which I recommend because it both discusses the entire time period under discussion, but also integrates a history of consumption, production, and gender.


You pose the central connundrum for pre- and in-service teachers: the necessity to have sufficient contextual knowledge of the field and the capacity to translate in-depth learning into the middle and secondary school classroom.  All to often we succumb to the tempation to provide potted answers by trying to find the magic balance in terms of consciseness of material and depth of understanding i.e. the cliff notes version that can be resurrected to give the impression of depth of understanding and knowledge and not the actual demonstration of that understanding and knowledge.  Why should Sellers not be the expectation for teachers?  While I would not recommend assigning it to the middle schoolers, surely a college graduate trained in pedagogy should have the capacity to take some episode out of Sellers and provide an example of the market revolution at work.  Why not teach students how the construction of the Erie Canal lowered transportation costs and facilitated the growth of enterprise?  Somehow that doesn't seem to be too  difficult a conceptual leap for those we expect to teach our children.

Jonathan M. Chu 

Professor and Interim Chair

University of Massachusetts-Boston

Chief Reader, Advanced Placement United States History

Jonathan Chu's observations have merit and I applaud his expectation that teachers should be able to extract good material from a Sellers synthesis, but his sample use of Sellers for examples does not illustrate the need for the context to which he alludes.   I doubt very much that the typical middle school teacher was ever directly exposed to syntheses like Howe's or Sellers's, no matter how influential or elegantly-written they may be.  In our state, a major in history is not required to be a social studies teacher.   A reasonable observer may expect that these teachers read or even know of Sellers, but who ever said that the folks in charge of certification were reasonable observers of the field, let alone the classroom?  Only the survey courses, a course on Michigan history, and, for those who are history majors, a range of classes that rarely involve EAR, are required in our state (and most states, I venture).  Most history teachers were not history majors.  So, when is this exposure likely to occur and would an in-service teacher even have the opportunity or incentive to pursue it?

The premise in my class is that the blending of historical and pedagogical knowledge is unique and specific to the circumstances of teaching, and I want to locate authoritative materials that fall in that very special category.  The subject area knowledge one needs for this purpose is not a "cliff's notes" version of the historical literature, it is not a dumbed-down or diluted form of learning, it is not the lazy man's way of getting by in a classroom.  A wonderful example of this in action is Elizabeth Green's splendid New York Times Magazine article, "Building a Better Teacher," about teaching math:

teaching math obviously required subject knowledge, [but] the knowledge seemed to be something distinct from what she had learned in math class. It’s one thing to know that 307 minus 168 equals 139; it is another thing to be able understand why a third grader might think that 261 is the right answer. Mathematicians need to understand a problem only for themselves; math teachers need both to know the math and to know how 30 different minds might understand (or misunderstand) it. Then they need to take each mind from not getting it to mastery. And they need to do this in 45 minutes or less.

Balance of breadth and depth challenges every kind of teaching.  What is challenging the middle school teacher -- who has to deal with a detailed and complex curriculum on the early republic in the middle of a semester, with barely an hour or two a week to do it in, a pacing guide that says "cover this within a week (actually 1 hour), because you have two weeks (i.e., maybe two to three hours) to fight the Civil War," -- is how to adapt that college-level learning and prepare lessons that at least approximate some of the most recent developments in the field, in a way that 13-year-olds might comprehend.  "In 45 minutes or less."

A teacher under such pressures is not going to read 700 pages of anything, let alone powerful works like Sellers's or Howe's syntheses.  She may well use those tomes for reference, as in Jonathan's example, and I would urge any teacher to have those books and others like them in their personal library for just that purpose.

But finding historical cases really isn't the problem that teachers face; there is no shortage of materials or examples.  They know how to use an index and conduct a search.  The problem they face is context for those examples: reviewing the general narrative of the period so that they can place primary sources and examples within the larger framework that Wineburg and other researchers argue is constantly missing from the K12 classroom.   They can get that framework by reading Sellers or Howe over the summer, but not in the middle of a semester packed with flying spitballs, note-passing between love-struck kids, and meetings with parents and administrators.

My thanks to Joe and Susan for the suggestions for Hine/Faragher and Johnson.  I sure could use other suggestions as well!  Feller's and Watson's surveys of Jacksonian politics come to mind.  A good survey of political developments related to the Articles through the passage of the Bill of Rights would be very useful to teachers who have to combine civics with history.  I can think of a couple, but more recent work would really be helpful.

thank you,


Having served as both a dean of a college of education, albeit on an interim basis, and for three years as a  licensure officer, there are few who would more underestimate the levels to which certification qualifications could sink than I .  Peter and I agree more than we disagree I think; but my point is that the larger historical context should already  have been integrated pre-service preparation even if the teacher candidate is not a history major.  Surely any candidate seeking certification certainly in middle or high school social studies or history should have sufficient advising to understand that he or she needed a US survey otherwise why teach history.  Peter cites Elizabeth Green's excellent piece.  Central to Green's argument though is the presumption that the teacher of math knows that the correct answer 139 but needs the deeper math understanding to be explain to the 30 different minds with different learning styles how to arrive at the answer while buillding the skills to apply to higher order mathematical thinking like mulitiplication and division.  

Having vented, I would recommend a series of short pamphlets produced by Bedford/St. Martin's on various topics that may be useful.  There are brief introductions that set the context, for example of Scott vs. Sanford, I think there is one on Marbury and then provide a number of  excerpted documents that are highly useful in providing shared readings and discussions.

Jonathan Chu

I suspect your teachers might find some of these books useful. I'm away from my bookshelves so this list is idiosyncratic(!). A few are "oldies" but I'm thinking about books that would engage the curiosity of the person who has had the US survey but majored in one of the more presentist fields of "social studies", and offer an array of paths into some of the big issues, even if they appear specific on first glance:

Brooke Hindle, Emulation and Invention (1981) [inventors of steamboat and telegraph, more or less biographical, a bit dated in its cognitive theory but could lead to discussions of how people think up new ways of doing things, as well as offering material for talking about the nature of change in transportation and communication -- and it's short! also there is an e-version]

Carol Sheriff, Artificial River (1996) [ties economic history to individual lives, state government, religion, reform movements, immigrants... lots of hooks for themes, a sense of overview with examples]

Seth Rockman, Scraping By (2009) [I think they could dip in here for thinking about urban growth and how to make cities work -- economy, social welfare, infrastructure, migrations...]

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Age of Homespun (2001) [chapters 8-11 deal with Early Republic, include households, consumption, markets, Lowell industrialization...]

Linda Kerber, No Constitutional Right to be Ladies (1998) [the chapter on the two women who challenge their assessed taxes because they can't vote -- they named two cows "Taxey" and "Votey" in the process -- is early Republic; the book overall would offer insight into ideas about citizenship and property and suffrage]

Ann Greene, Horses at Work (2008) [the earlier parts of the book, again infrastructure, energy, transportation, urban economies]

William Cronon, Nature's Metropolis (1991) [it's huge but the earlier chapters start before the westward expansion of the US and offer conquest-settlement-city]

Theda Perdue and Michael Green, Cherokee Nation and Trail of Tears (2008) [possibly also others in this Penguin series? -- Perdue and Green also did the one on this topic in the "brief history with documents" series -- this episode is good for thinking about the federal government (balance of power?) as well as the cotton economy, slavery, and the continuation of the story the students might have gotten in whatever grade they did colonial history about people from three continents all coming together in North America]