This summer Loudoun County teachers are going back to school.
Forty elementary-, middle- and high-school teachers are taking part in the county's first project for social studies teachers aimed at improving their knowledge about and skills in teaching Virginia's history.
"The goal is to help county teachers learn the American history content and improve their skills in teaching it," Kelly Schrum, the director of education projects for George Mason University's Department of History and New Media, which is partnering with Loudoun County schools on the project. "We want teachers to be able to teach history at a more sophisticated level."
The project, called Foundations of U.S. History: Virginia History as American History, comes as part of a grant from the United States Department of Education's Teaching American History grant program. Loudoun is one of nine county school systems participating in various projects through the grant program, this summer.
The full-year program is separated into two cohorts. The first cohort is for all fourth-grade teachers and focuses not just on the content of Virginia history, but on the best ways to pass the information onto their students.
"In the fourth grade the teachers are teaching Virginia Studies, so we thought it was an important time to get the information to them," Schrum said.
The second cohort focuses on middle school, high school and English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers, who Schrum said will be taught more about strategies of teaching, rather than the historical content.
THE TEACHERS INVOLVED in the project decided to participate for a variety of reasons. Maureen Fornatora, a fourth-grade teacher at Newton-Lee Elementary School in Ashburn, said she wanted to participate because much of the country's foundation took place in Virginia.
"I love Virginia's history," she said. "It is so exciting and interesting and I want to pass that on to my students."
Teachers in cohort A, such as Fornatora, will spend 11 days this summer in a combination of lectures, group readings and hands-on experiences, including working with history professors and taking field trips.
"The program will be very interactive, with a lot of break groups for discussion on how to apply the information to the fourth-grade classroom," Schrum said. "The teachers will also be going on field trips to places like Mount Vernon, Harper's Ferry and the National Archives."
It is the hands-on experiences and the chance to work with other county social studies teachers that attracted many teachers to the project.
"I really like the idea of being able to meet other teachers in the county and share ideas," Fornatora said. "We don't have a lot of time to get outside our building to reach other teachers, so it will be nice to create this network."
For Deborah Rice, an ESL teacher at Farmwell Station Middle School in Ashburn, networking was a large part of her decision to join the project.
"Since history is only one part of what I teach, I am looking forward to hearing teachers who actually do teach history all the time," she said. "I want to hear what they do in the classroom and how they teach history to get some ideas for myself."
Although Rice meets with other ESL middle-school teachers in the county once a month, she says it would be nice to have a network with other social studies teachers.
"It would be nice to have sessions for brainstorming," she said. "I talk to the history teachers here [at Farmwell Station], but the more ideas you can get, the better."
ONE OF THE main focuses of the project is how to find and use primary sources.
"Primary sources are things like letters or diaries," Schrum said. "We will teach the teachers how to find them, which ones are the good ones and work with them on the analyzing the sources."
The opportunity to work with primary sources was the main draw for many of the teachers participating in the project. William Wilken, a social studies teacher at Stone Bridge High School, believes that primary sources will add a lot to his classes.
"Besides learning a base of knowledge about the origins of our civilization, our history students need to learn several skills," he said. "One of the most important of those skills is the ability to work with the raw material of history: diaries, letters, official documents."
For Fornatora, adding to her knowledge of primary resources will only add to what she can bring her students.
"They are just now learning the difference between primary resources and secondary resources," she said, "so the more hands-on experience I can give them, the better."
The fact that history is only a part of what she teaches makes learning about primary sources an important aspect for Rice.
"Since I have to teach social studies I want to have as much help in knowing how to teach them as I can get," she said. "It is very hard for my students to understand history because their English is so limited. Anything I can do to make U.S. history interesting to my students is important."
In the end, county teachers are most interested in learning ways to continue to engage and enhance the classroom experience for their students.
"Whenever I find a way to get new insight of how to teach my kids it helps," Fornatora said. "The more I learn, the more enthusiastic I become, the more they become inspired."
"As citizens and voters, many of our students will use primary sources all their lives to vote and make the decisions of our republic," Wilken said. "In a way, teaching American history isn't about our past, it is about our future."