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A group of about 30 junior high and high school history teachers from around the regional are pictured at the White House earlier this summer.

Teaching American History Grant Wraps Up Final American Trip

July 24, 2013


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MACOMB, IL – Junior and senior high school teachers from around the region have benefitted greatly from a 13-year grant-funded program at Western Illinois University that is now coming to an end.

In June, 30 teachers from the Hancock-McDonough Regional Office of Education coverage area traveled to Virginia and Washington, D.C. as part of the "Exploring America: Teachers Bringing Traditional American History to Students" program.

Over the 13-year life of the program, more than $2 million has been sent to Western to help train junior and senior high school history teachers. Through workshops and an extended travel experience, the teachers bring what they've learned back to their classrooms and students.

"I think it helps you as a teacher when you are discussing a place with your students when you have actually been to the historical site," said Jacksonville High School teacher Travis Brockschmidt. "The pictures from the sites have been incorporated into my Power Point lessons that I use in class with my students. The information and stories from and about the sites have helped in my lesson planning. A good story is a great way to get the students' attention when learning history."

Brockschmidt has been part of all of the program's travel opportunities and he believes the chance to interact with other history teachers has been an great asset to his teaching.

"Learning what others do with a certain topic has greatly helped me and given me many great ideas," he said. I think the two things I will miss the most are just visiting these historical sites from the trip. Many of them were places that I probably would never have visited in my life. The other is the friends I've made on the trips and trying to maintain those friendships and continue the sharing of ideas."

WIU Professor Emeritus Larry Balsamo and Professor Virginia Jelatis accompanied the teachers on this summer's trip. WIU officials learned recently that the grant program would not continue past 2013 because of federal budget issues.

Balsamo said WIU's Department of History feels the program has been an important part of enriching teachers in the area over the years.

Monmouth-Roseville Junior High School teacher Tom Best has been on five of the grant's travel opportunities. He said the trips have been beneficial to his teaching methods in a variety of ways.

"First, you cannot help be more inspired to teach your lessons after personally visiting and learning far more about historic sites, ranging from the site of Martin Luther King Jr.'s murder in Memphis to Independence Hall in Philadelphia," Best said. "For instance, for many years, I have taught the story of the British and Americans meeting and exchanging shots at the old North Bridge in Concord in April 1775. However, after walking the sloping grassy path of the American minutemen to this bridge and then reading their first-hand accounts of their experiences of battling the British redcoats, I have a much enhanced insight to this dramatic event. This experience has allowed me to bring my students face-to-face with the real people and anxious moments that initiated the American Revolutionary War. I can show my students pictures I took on the bridge and create an atmosphere with primary source accounts as if they are now the nervous militia deciding whether or not to fire their muskets into the ranks of trained British infantry."

Best said the trip also helps him collect teaching materials that the "average teachers could simply never locate or access by traditional means."

"Educational consultants, guides and living history reenactors have frequently provided our teachers on the trip with educational materials one will likely never see in a book or access from a web site," he said. "This series of trips has created opportunities for collaboration with the other teachers whom I have come to know and respect. I don't think it is cliché to say that those of us who traveled together on many of the trips have been more than simply educational colleagues--we're like a family."

Best said during this year's trip he enjoyed visiting the homes of several former presidents, and he got to stand next to the desk where Abraham Lincoln wrote the Emancipation Proclamation.

"These types of experience give a teacher the chills to know they are encountering history in such a personal dimension," he said.

These historical trips have become such a part of the teachers who participate that both Best and Brockschmidt said next summer will feel strange.

"Come next June, I know I am going to really feel like a part of my life is missing," Best said. "I will miss the challenge we have come to expect in trying to learn all that one can come to know about a famous historic site in a couple of hours. I have become a more focused learner because of these opportunities. Of course, I am going to really miss the other trip leaders and teachers who have shaped my life over the past five years. We are going to try to organize similar outings in our region in the years to come; however, I know these experiences will never fully take the place of what these grant trips have come to mean to us and both teachers and now friends."

Posted By: Jodi Pospeschil (JK-Pospeschil@wiu.edu)
Office of University Relations