The Trust’s Teacher Institute: A Recap and a Thank You

Phil Caskey at TI Touchdown

American Battlefield Trust 2006 Teacher of the Year, Phil Caskey, shares his jubilant mood about the Teacher Institute.

With the American Battlefield Trust’s 2018 Teacher Institute now in the books for a week, and my own dispatches finally exhausted, I want to offer one final thank-you to the Trust for allowing me and Emerging Civil War to participate.

I wish I could have had the time to report on more of the conference. Participants had nearly twenty workshops and programs to choose from, and many of them ran concurrently. I couldn’t be in three places at once, especially when I was presenting. I also had to choose between the Civil War and the Revolutionary War tours on Saturday (and since I was leading the Rev War tour, I kinda had to choose that one!). 

The best part about the event is that it’s free for teachers. They have to pay their own way to get there—although a limited number of scholarships help subsidize that travel for some people—and the Trust takes care of the rest, courtesy of generous donations. If you consider how many students 200 teachers have the opportunity to influence, you quickly begin to understand how those donations represent an important investment in our future by encouraging historical literacy.

Most of all, it was inspiring to see so many teachers willing to travel from all across the country, giving up part of their summer vacation, because they’re so passionate about their jobs, their students, and the field of history.

Garry and Group at TI

Garry Adelman (second from left), the mastermind behind the Trust’s education efforts, talks with Teacher Institute attendees.

ECW was privileged to be one of the Trust’s partner organizations for the event, and Dan Davis, Phill Greenwalt, Dan Welch, and I were all delighted to be there. We’d like to offer a special shout-out to our ECW colleague, Kris White, the Trust’s education manager, who organized the event, and to Garry Adelman, the Trust’s education director, for his boundless energy in support of Civil War education.

I encourage all teachers to consider attending next year’s Teacher Institute, which will be held in July in Raleigh, North Carolina. The T.I. is an exceptional experience, well worth the time and travel.

In case you missed any of my dispatches from this year, here’s a recap:

The Valley Forge Summer of the American Battlefield Trust

The Trust’s Teacher Institute: The American Way of War

The Trust’s Teacher Institute: Garry Adelman’s Photo Extravaganza!

The Trust’s Teacher Institute: Dan Welch’s Music Lesson

The Trust’s Teacher Institute: Independence Forever!

The Trust’s Teacher Institute: Where’s “Waldo”

The Trust’s Teacher Institute: Rethinking George Washington with Phill Greenwalt

The Trust’s Teacher Institute: Teaching Through Turning Points with Kris White

The Trust’s Teacher Institute: The Men Who Invented the Constitution

The Trust’s Teacher Institute: Helping Teachers Teach History More Effectively

The Trust’s Teacher Institute: Helping Teachers Teach History More Effectively

Lesh.jpg“What do historians do?” Bruce Lesh asks the room full of social studies teachers.

The teachers offer answers: Solve problems. Research. Write. Argue.

“In that discussion, we leave out the only thing we do in the classroom,” Lesh points out. In the list of responses, no one says “Memorize information.”

Research shows that students want to mimic, in their social studies classrooms, the things historians do. “They understand that history is about information, but they want to be able to explore that information,” Lesh says. They want context. They want a reason. 

Instead, history education overemphasizes memorization, and memorization “doesn’t lead to achievement or student engagement,” Lesh says.

Teaching Just Facts

If I could take one presentation from the 2018 American Battlefield Trust’s Teacher Institute and ship it around to every Civil War Roundtable in the country—and every school board and every state department of education—it would be Bruce Lesh’s Friday morning talk, “‘It’s not what or how much we teach, but how we teach it that matters’: Confronting the Legacy of History Instruction.”

Lesh is a former social studies teacher who now works in education policy at the state level in Maryland. In 2008, the Organization of American Historians recognized him as the pre-collegiate Teacher of the Year; in 2013 was named Maryland Secondary Social Studies Teacher of the Year.

Lesh’s brilliant talk struck to the heart of a problem I hear all the time when I’m on the road talking to Civil War groups. So many buffs worry that students today don’t seem to know history very well.

Lesh started with that very point. He shared a news story that lamented a poor level of historical literacy among students. What year do you think that’s from, he asked. While it sounded like something from a contemporary publication, it came from a 1917 report that tested 1500 Texas students to determine their sense of history.

“We’re used to hearing this particular story,” Lesh says, “that students are bad at history…. This is the kind of narrative that’s promoted by people like David McCullough who go before Congress to testify about the lamentable state of historical literacy.”

The narrative is there, he says. We’ve heard it all the time. “It’s become popular to bash teachers,” he adds. “Teachers get the blame.”

The narrative, though, is wrong.

Golden Age of Facts“The good news is that there’s not a single piece of data that shows students knowledge of history is in decline,” says Lesh. The bad news: “Students’ knowledge of history is consistently low.” In other words, it didn’t just suddenly get bad—it’s always been bad.

When he began teaching, he taught the way he had been taught. “And my students looked like they were at a visit to the dentist’s without any Novocain,” he admitted. The problem, he discovered through his own experience and through subsequent research, is that teachers get trapped “in a system that perpetuated a low level of proficiency.”

“We teach history the same way in 2018 that we taught it in 1890,” he says. “And in 1890 there was no electricity. There was no VCR. There was no one-to-one.” The biggest change: “We no longer have students recite by memory speeches.”

Essentially, “the mode of history instruction has not changed.” And if that mode of instruction resulted in poor achievement in 1917, it isn’t going to get any better by 2018. “Assessment and accountability has reinforced this persistent instruction and use of a single source,” he says, referring to the 70-90 percent of teachers who use a textbook as their single source of information in their classrooms.

Lesh lamented the increased culture of testing in schools. He pointed to Virginia’s assessment program, the Standards of Learning—or “SOLs,” as they’re called for short. He invites the teachers in the room to consider that acronym for just a moment. “Is it any wonder?” he asks as everyone gets the joke (which he doesn’t explicitly say, so I will: “Shit Out of Luck”).

Virginia’s SOLs feature 300 statements of “essential content” students need to know. Facts to memorize. As a result, he says, “I see more teachers looking at history as an exercise in trivia—the SOLs reinforce that.”

“Outside this room, people don’t love our discipline,” Lesh warns. He cites research that asked respondents to describe the field of history in one word.

“History is boring!”—that was the single most frequent description, and negative descriptions significantly outweighed positive ones. The other negative responses were simply synonyms for “boring.”

A complicating factor in the field now is that many students can opt to take online courses. The number one course they choose to take online are history courses—an alarming development to Lesh because, he says, it means, “Our practices are not meeting the needs and demands of students.”

So, he asks the teachers in the room, if methodology and student outcomes are the problem, what’s the solution?

Students don’t like being given an answer. They don’t like being given the facts.

They like to have something to figure out.

And isn’t that what historians do? This is when he asks the room full of teachers to explain the main job functions of a historian.

After developing the job description list, Lesh synthesizes the information:

  • Historians ask questions that frame a problem for them to research.
  • Historians gather and ask questions of a variety of sources.
  • Historians develop, defend, and revise interpretations.
  • Historians argue in their books and through their publications.

“Questions are powerful tools,” he says.

Discipline-Based InstructionA question can help students organize and remember information. It can better facilitate engagement and retention.

Curiosity releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps improve attention and remembering.

For teachers required to teach information—like the SOLs—figure out what the question was that someone asked which then led them to add the “required fact” to the list.

In his research, Lesh has found a recurrent theme from students, who say, “I want to do something in history class.”

Lesh suggests creating a history lab that puts students in a situation where they have to take a disciplinary approach to history instruction. They can do what historians do and, in doing so, learn the material they’re required to learn in a way that boosts achievement and retention.

But, he offers a cautionary note, too. “I don’t sell this as a silver bullet,” he warns. “It’s not going to help you when a kid comes to school hungry. When a kid comes to school once every couple of weeks. But it is a way to get them to eat their vegetables and get them to know what they need to know.”

The Trust’s Teacher Institute: The Men Who Invented the Constitution

David Stewart at TI“There are, every now and then, rooms where it all happens,” said David Stewart. “If we have a sacred space in this country, that’s it. That’s the room to see.”

Stewart, author of The Summer of 1787: The Men Who Invented the Constitution, was referring to the room in the Pennsylvania state house where delegates in 1776 debated and signed the Declaration of Independence and then, again, where delegates in 1787 debated and signed the Constitution of the United States. Today, it’s Independence Hall.

During Friday’s morning session at the American Battlefield Trust’s Teacher Institute, Stewart treated us to a book talk called “Inventing America: The Constitutional Convention of 1787.”

“It matters who’s there, who’s in the room,” Stewart said. “The personalities were fascinating.”

Here are a few of my takeaways from Stewart’s talk, as I tried to listen and take notes: 

Madison’s notes are the best source of what happened.

“The debate happened at such a sophisticated level. Most of them [the delegates] had participated in creating their state constitutions.” As a result, they had sophisticated understandings about government, and about what worked and didn’t and why.

“How do you have a strong government, but still have control? How do the people have control?”

“I didn’t understand how important slavery was to the convention. It’s something we didn’t talk about [when I was growing up].” It’s something that’s generally been overlooked by many modern historians.

“It’s a remarkable story. Not necessarily a heroic one.”

“The Articles of Confederation set up a very weak government. It’s hard to appreciate just how weak it was.”

“It was not a sure thing that America was not going to survive at all.”

“It was a long summer. They met for four months. It gets hot. They didn’t have very forgiving clothes.”

“They met in secret. You could speak freely if you knew it was going to be confidential. But that meant they kept the windows sealed and the doors locked.”

*     *     *

Stewart focused on “six all-stars who really made it happen, who were terribly important.”

George Washington

“We have to start with the big guy. He was president of the convention. The indispensible man. There’s no other term. No one would have come. It never would have been written. No one would have signed it afterward if he hadn’t supported it.”

“He was almost entirely silent” but “He let people know what he wanted.”

“Everyone knew he was going to be the first president. He said to those people: ‘I trust you. Do the best you can. I’ll try to make it work.’ There is no more powerful message to get people to behave well.”

Ben Franklin

At 81, he was old enough to be Washington’s father, old enough to be Madison’s grandfather. He didn’t make it to every session.

“He was a wonderful, conciliatory force.”

“Everyone loved to be around him because he was funny. That always works. He would lower the temperature. He would crack jokes. He acted as an essential glue.”

The so-called Connecticut Compromise—state representation in the upper house and population representation in the lower house—was really Franklin’s idea.

James Madison

“He was the consistent voice of reason at the convention.”

“He is often called the Father of the Constitution. I quarrel with that. The final constitution didn’t look much like he wanted it to.”

“He doesn’t change the conversation. He’s just this guy—short, kind of annoying. He’s just there. He doesn’t move the needle.”

“Another measure is the committees. The committees are where the work really happened. Until the last couple of weeks, he didn’t appear on any committees.”

He’s terribly important with the Virginia plan and in the run-up to the convention, though.

John Rutledge

“He was called ‘The most imperious man in America.’”

He was “a steadfast supporter of slavery, an effective proponent for it.”

“He was important, and we ignore that at our risk.”

“After he speaks, the conversation changes.”

“Nobody was on more committees: he was on five. Nobody chaired more: he chaired three.”

Because of his advocacy, delegates entrenched slavery in the Constitution.

James Wilson

A delegate from Pennsylvania, an immigrant from Scotland, “a lawyer, a fine lawyer,” “about as unlovable as John Rutledge”

“Having an argument with Wilson was like being occupied by a foreign country”

He introduced “resolutions that make us cringe—but the nature of compromise is that they’re compromises.”

A central question of the convention: were slaves people or were they property. Wilson came up with the idea of counting them as 3/5 of a human being. “It makes us cringe today—and it should—but it got them past it.”

“Another issue was how to choose the president. He came up with the Electoral College. It broke down almost immediately, which required the twelfth amendment to get it to at least work badly.”

Gouverneur Morris

“Morris is fun. He loved to party. He was a New Yorker there as a Pennsylvania delegate.” Lost a leg in a carriage accident. Extremely rich.

Didn’t worry about making friends much.

Did a couple wonderful things.

“Morris objected to the pro-slavery elements. he gave what’s become known as the first abolitionist speech.”

He’s the one who actually wrote the Constitution. “He writes the constitution in two days. He simplifies and clarifies.”

“There needs to be a statue to him somewhere.”


“John Adams would’ve made a difference if he had been in the room. I’m not sure about Jefferson. He tended to be quiet, and it was a room full of noisy people.”

The Trust’s Teacher Institute: Teaching Through Turning Points with Kris White

Kris in TI workshopWhat is a turning point?

That’s the question Kris White asked the assembled room of teachers in Valley Forge. They’d come to his Teacher Institute workshop to hear him talk about “Teaching Through Turning Points.” As co-editor of ECW’s Turning Points of the American Civil War, part of our “Engaging the Civil War” Series with Southern Illinois University Press, Kris has had turning points on the brain for well over two years. He has a little experience with the topic.

“This isn’t a book talk, though,” he promised the assemblage. “I used to hate professors who would make us buy their books, so I’m not going to do that. But Mackowski in the back might have some.”

“I do,” I chirped up from a corner—although, by that point, I’d already nearly sold out. Turning Points turned out to be a hot commodity. 

“Let’s start by coming up with a definition,” Kris suggested. That would give us all a common point to work from. He offers the following: “An event marking a unique or important historical change of course or one on which important developments depend.”

He admits, though, “That’s an awful glossary term.”

After all, what’s an important historical change?

He suggests that one way to examine that criterion is to ask, “What came from it?”

There are any number of milestones through history. Pick a point and dissect it, Kris said. To get students involved, he suggested working in gamification—using the typical elements of game playing to increase student engagement in the learning process.

“Take Gettysburg back to Chancellorsville,” Kris offers as an example. “Go into the war room with the Confederate high command. Debate the pros and cons of the different options available.”

For the Cold War, split the class into two teams: the U.S. and Soviet Union. Pull names out of a hat so that every student gets a person. Students then research their person and explain how he/she would react in specific situations.

“I’ve done this in my own classes,” Kris said. “They would bomb each other within the first class.” He shook his head while the audience laughed. “I had to rethink the options I made available to them right away,” he chuckled.

Kris's TP SlideDoes a turning point have to be a military event, Kris asked? No. “People sometimes focus too much on military events,” he said. He lists a number of non-military turning points in the grand flow of history: the Agricultural Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, the invention of the printing press, the invention of the wheel, the invention of vaccinations.

He pointed to the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire as an event that brought about major social reforms for workers, for instance.

“But because I’m a military historian, that’s what I focus on because that’s what I like to talk about,” Kris admitted, smiling.

He used the battle of Waterloo and D-Day as two examples. In both cases, he outlined ways you can start with the event and work your way in either direction: How did you get there? Where did it go? By looking at before and after, you can explore the impact of the turn and tie it into the flow of history.

“Work your way to it,” he suggested.

“You can tie the battle of Waterloo to the American Revolution easily,” he suggested. “Revolution in America gets the attention of everyone in Europe wearing a crown.” As a result, how did events in France unfold?

Turning points can be turning points in personal lives, too. “Can one person really change history?” Kris asked. Look no further than right there in Valley Forge for an example: George Washington.

“George Washington is a fantastic leader,” Kris said. “He’s a terrible general.”

You can also tie turning points together. For instance: the Declaration of Independence and Washington’s Crossing—“Both take place in that glorious year of 1776,” said Kris. “But the Declaration means nothing without battlefield victories.”

Similarly, the Emancipation Proclamation meant nothing without battlefield victories. “It’s like trying to impose a 55-mile-per-hour speed limit on Canada—you can’t do that,” Kris explained. “At that point in the way, the Confederacy is essentially a different country.”

He urged teachers to compile a class list of turning points. When he invited the assemblage to do so as an example, only four hands raised for Gettysburg as a turning point. Many more for Vicksburg. None for Tullahoma. “Ever heard of it?” Kris laughed? The Rise of Ulysses S. Grant, the Election of 1864, and Antietam—“tied into the social end of things with the Emancipation Proclamation”—also made the list, as did the Merrimac vs. the Monitor as an example of the Industrial Revolution’s impact on the war, and “improved medical advances.”

“Test preconceived notions,” Kris said.

But, most importantly, “I’m trying to give you ideas that will let you talk about cool things in your classroom that really interest you,” he said.

The Trust’s Teacher Institute: Where’s “Waldo”

I’m not normally one for taking selfies, but I got to spend time with a lot of cool people and see a lot of cool stuff at the American Battlefield Trust’s Teacher Institute in Philadelphia this week, so I want to share some of those meetings and interactions. Everyone heads home today–although I’ll have more dispatches to share once I have the time to get my notes written up!–but I thought this would be a fun way to close out the conference. It feels a little like “Where’s Waldo” to pop up in photo to photo, though.

I’ll start with a pair of my ECW colleagues and good friends, Dan Davis and Phill Greenwalt as the three of us shared lunch at City Tavern:

Here’s the owner of City Tavern, the multiple-Emmy Award winning host of A Taste of History, celebrity Chef Walter Staib. Chef was a gracious host who provided a great historic atmosphere and a delicious lunch, including the best chicken pot pie I’ve ever eaten in my life!

On Saturday night, one of the Civil War community’s greatest military historians, Carol Reardon, presented the keynote address. Carol is so down-to-earth and friendly.

Phill Greenwalt took a selfie with the Baron von Steuben statue at Valley Forge, so I felt like I had to, too. There’s a new tour stop, parking area, and small plaza (complete with pergola and benches) to help visitors enjoy the spot and appreciate von Steuben’s immense contributions to the Continental Army.Finally, I took a selfie with some of the folks on my bus on Saturday. It was such a treat exploring Philadelphia with a busload of teachers (who are usually the ones chaperoning the busloads of students!). I was so amazed by the enthusiasm they have for their profession and for the kids they teach.

The Trust’s Teacher Institute: Dan Welch’s Music Lesson

ECW’s Dan Welch has joined us in Philadelphia for the American Battlefield Trust’s Teacher Institute. He’s offering a fun session this afternoon that takes advantage of our location: “At the Hop” to “Love Train”: The Philadelphia Sound & Philly Soul.

Dan Welch Philly Sound