by ECW Correspondent Emily Losito
After a busy year of classrooms filled to the brim, day-long meetings, and time-consuming testing, the Civil War Trust thinks history teachers deserve a break—with a little education, of course. That’s why, when the Trust hosts its 17th annual National Teacher Institute in Memphis, Tennessee, on July 13 through 16, it’ll offer “the finest treatment.”
The National Teacher Institute, according to Education Programs Manager Kris White, exposes teachers to anything from topics about technology to how to teach difficult topics like slavery in the Civil War. White said the institute has workshops that prepare teachers to educate students in a variety of ways, from dressing up like a soldier to getting tours led by local experts.
Jim Percoco, the Trust’s teacher in residence, first spoke at the institute 12 years ago when he was still teaching. He said the program has gotten a lot more sophisticated since then.
“The institute program now is much more formalized. It’s more focused, and it’s a more gregarious approach towards teachers than when I was involved,” he said.
White, Percoco, and historian Garry Adelman pick the speakers. “We strive to bring the most knowledgeable and engaging presenters to our event, which helps to set the bar very high,” White said. One of this year’s speakers, for instance, is historian Timothy Smith, Pd.D., from the University of Tennessee-Martin, who White said is a “history pro.”
“We also look at teachers,” White said. “Teachers like Shirley May Snyder, who has come up with her own Civil War history club at her school. She could teach other educators on how to create their own. Jim [Percoco] is leading a panel of teachers who have put together interesting programs and show others how to approach administrative staff to get the funding.”
Percoco said, “We have a panel of current teachers who actually teach Civil War electives in their schools. We talk to them about how to create a format that works in a crowded curriculum where standardized testing is a norm; how do you create something that steps outside of the box; what materials do you use; how do you use the materials that the Civil War Trust provides for free.”
As part of its educational offerings, the Trust provides lesson plans, articles, and a series of short videos called “Civil War in 4.”
“They’re four-minute topical videos about black soldiers during the Civil War, the battle of Lexington and Concord, ammunition, or women during the Civil War,” Percoco said. “There isn’t a textbook we provide, but we do have a curriculum guide that’s being tweaked. It used to be a hardcopy, but now it’s available online.”
The Trust offers scholarships through the institute to some teachers who are in struggling areas. “Many participants apply for our scholarships, but unfortunately not everyone will receive one,” White said. “The scholarships help to defray travel expenses for teachers attending the Institute. We are proud to say that our program helps to bring many teachers in from Title I schools. These are schools that have a high number of children from low-income families.”
Getting the word out about the program is extremely important to the institute. Promotion plans include advertising on social media, targeted emails and outreach to education blogs, according to Communications Manager Meg Martin.
White added that the Trust’s program is the largest free history program in the nation. “Others have a limit to how many people can join. Others aren’t on our scale,” he said. “We have 180 to 200 educators, and we’re the best out there because we bring the best professionals in the history and education fields.”
Teachers aren’t the only ones who benefit from the National Teacher Institute. Students, ultimately, are on the receiving end of what educators learn in the institute’s programs.
Percoco works at the Trust two days a week, and he teaches part-time in Fairfax County at West Springfield High School. “Walking around the battlefields puts [the kids] in the moment,” he said, explaining that such experiential learning is all-hands-on, and it’s engaging. “Educational and brain research show that these things stick with them longer instead of reading a chapter, answering questions, and handing a paper in. It’s been changing in the last 30 years, or so. Instead of teacher-centered teaching, it’s more student-centered teaching.”
White mentioned the Trust’s Traveling Trunks program. “There are canteens, uniforms, and props, and kids can interact with what we have on our website or use what we sent in the trunk,” he said.
Percoco added, “There’s always four trunks checked out. Once a teacher gets it, we send the means to send it on to the next teacher in the queue.”
White said the traveling trunk program has been “wildly successful.” “It can lead kids on a history-related program and ease the burden on teachers and the district,” he explained.
Educating the educators is an important mission for the Civil War Trust, White said, because they teach the next generation about the importance of preserving and learning about battlefields like the ones their teachers will get to explore this summer in Tennessee.
For more information on the Teacher Institute, visit http://www.civilwar.org/aboutus/events/teacher-institute/