FPU part of new effort to pique student interest by putting American history on-line

A dozen or so teachers gather in a computer lab at Fresno Pacific University. Working in pairs, surfing the Internet, they debate the quality of various sites: design, video, links and navigability.

This is teaching history? Where is the wall map of the westward expansion? The timeline of the Industrial Revolution? The chart of 19thcentury population growth? The portraits of Washington and Lincoln? This was the paraphernalia that for generations inspired an enlightened few to illuminate textbooks with Hi-liters and drove a drowsy multitude to deface margins with doodles.

The Teaching American History Grant is an effort to demystify and demustify the many stories that make up the making of a nation. The idea is to demonstrate how the World Wide Web can transmit not only the promise of the future, but also the wisdom of the ages. “The purpose of this project is to raise student achievement in American history by improving their teachers’ knowledge, understanding, and appreciation of American history,” grant documents state.   

“High school kids today are the first generation to grow up on the Internet. Each generation will be more Internet savvy. It’s important to meet kids where they are with the technology they use to become lifelong learners,” said Rob Darrow, project director. An FPU alumnus and adjunct faculty member, Darrow serves as library media teacher on special assignment/on-line learning specialist at Clovis Unified School District.

Many on-line resources exist if teachers and students know where to look. The Library of Congress, for example, has the letters of Abraham Lincoln and other papers that show historical figures as live people instead of plaster busts and link past events and present life. “In the Central Valley and other places the access to documents is limited. This will change that,” said Scott Key, FPU education and history faculty.

The Teaching American History Grant is financed by $996,000 in federal funds shared by Fresno Pacific University, Clovis Unified School District (CUSD), Fresno County Office of Education (FCOE), the California Department of Education, Microsoft and the Library of Congress. Year one of the three-year project brings together 40 eighth- and 11th-grade teachers from 32 schools in 18 districts. In the second year 20 fifth-grade teachers will be added. Participants range in experience from 1 year up to 30. The objective is to increase knowledge of history among fifth, eighth and 11thgrade teachers and develop on-line activities based on California state standards.

Darrow invited FPU to be part of the project because he felt it fit the university’s strength in developing curriculum and reputation for service. “The willingness of people at this university to work with the community is very positive. It’s a very community-based university,” he said.

Work began in January with monthly meetings at FPU that continued through May. Teachers met in groups (called cohorts) in classrooms, the computer lab in AIMS Hall of Mathematics and Science and the Center for Mennonite-Brethren Studies, located in Hiebert Library. What these teachers create will make them leaders at their schools in American history. “Hopefully they’ll be able to train other teachers,” Key said.

Key is one of several participating FPU faculty. Richard Unruh, political science, and Kevin Enns-Rempel, history and archives, also work with the teachers. Rod Janzen, acting graduate dean, sits on the project implementation team (made up of the project director, the three cohort leaders and a representative from FCOE).

Not only individual activities, but on-line classes and teaching strategies such as supervised dialogue are being explored. “The goal is to create content standards that infuse teaching,” Key said. Standards, set by each state, are what teachers are supposed to teach and what students are supposed to learn. “The goal is not to replace teachers, it’s to use technology to help students learn,” he said.

The project is important for FPU as well as the participating schools. “One, it shows people respect the faculty here and believe we have expertise to offer,” Key said. “Second, it allows us to do something of significance for the Central Valley.”

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