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Release: Oct. 17, 2001

UI graduate student wins $700,000 national history education grant

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Go ahead, roll the die. A one? Your great-great grandfather's diary about farm life during the 1800s was destroyed in a fire. A three? All the letters sent home from Gettysburg during the Civil War by a distant cousin who fought for the Confederate Army were lost during a move. A six? You're in luck. A family tree compiled by Great Aunt Edna was carefully preserved and survives to this day.

The exercise isn't a game, exactly. It's a novel approach to teaching history, in this case a lesson on how few historical documents manage to survive the ravages of time. And it's one way University of Iowa graduate student Elise Fillpot believes history education can be made more engaging, interactive and personal for elementary school students.

Fillpot, who is working on a Ph.D. in the UI College of Education's Policy and Leadership Studies program, has secured a $701,133 U.S. Department of Education Teaching American History grant for the Washington Community School District to improve the way history is taught in elementary schools. She worked extensively with the Grants and Research Services Center in the College of Education, and credits as well the Washington Community School District and the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library-Museum -- which is also assisting in the project -- with helping her assemble a compelling grant proposal.

The grant, one of the largest ever secured by a graduate student in the College of Education, is coming from $50 million earmarked by the DOE to support programs that raise student achievement by improving teachers' knowledge, understanding and appreciation of American history. Sixty projects in 33 states received three-year awards ranging from $386,762 to $1 million. Fillpot's grant was the only Iowa award.

"From the Mayflower Compact to the Articles of Confederation to the civil rights marches of the 1960s, American history is alive with stories of discovery, bravery and ideas about how we live," U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige said in announcing the awards. "The Teaching American History grants will help teachers share the ideas and events that shaped our nation with more children, deepening their understanding of the complexity and variety of American history."

Bringing History Home, the name of Fillpot's project, is a professional and curriculum development project for kindergarten through sixth grades in the Washington Community School District. It seeks to connect children with the concept and excitement of historical inquiry. In partnership with the University of Iowa and the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library-Museum, the project proposes to:

  • Develop a state-of-the art K-6 history curriculum
  • Adapt lesson plans to include the contributions of disadvantaged and minority groups to American history
  • Provide professional development activities to 29 Washington Community School District elementary teachers with an emphasis on source-based research and teaching methods
  • Implement and evaluate the curriculum developed through the efforts of the project

Fillpot said she wanted to work with the Washington Community School District because the district has a reputation for being receptive to innovations in their curricula.

"Washington is playing a critical role in this project because it's really serving as an incubator for curricula and ideas that can eventually be adopted by elementary schools everywhere," Fillpot said. "As a result the district could become a leader in rejuvenating history education, not just in Iowa, but across the country."

Fillpot, who has a master's degree in history from Texas Tech, said her interest in improving history education began on a personal level. She said she was unhappy that there was no history curriculum in her second-grade daughter's elementary school and wanted to propose some solutions. Around the same time she learned about the Teaching American History grants and decided to parlay her ideas into a broader project.

"History's been marginalized in elementary schools, rolled into social studies along with civics and geography and diluted," Fillpot said. "All of these subjects are interrelated, and you don't want to make too big of a distinction. But today's social studies methods are outdated. They don't show people how to do history, don't tell students that history is story and interpretation. People read a textbook and believe they are facts."

In contrast, the history curriculum Fillpot envisions will make history more engaging for students by encouraging them to create their own historical narratives, to examine local history with a critical eye and learn basic research methods. Even children who cannot yet read and write will be able to use pictographs and art to create historical narratives.

Assisting Fillpot in the project will be two history experts at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library-Museum, director Tim Walch and education specialist Mary Evans, who will co-direct the grant with Fillpot. Evans has developed several innovative programs at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library-Museum with names like Attic History and History Detectives -- the very kind of innovations Fillpot would like to see incorporated into elementary school history curricula.

Take the die-rolling game, for instance. Evans, who taught K-6 for 19 years before joining the Hoover Library-Museum staff, developed the exercise to show students that today's histories paint an incomplete picture of the past because they rely solely on documents that have survived.

"You ought to see the students' faces when we roll the dice," Evans said. "If their document is destroyed, their voice is no longer heard. We have many voices that are missing from history."

At the Hoover Library Museum, children also get to handle actual historical documents in a structured educational environment.

Walch said Fillpot's project is unique for many reasons, not the least of which is that it will involve an unprecedented level of intergovernmental cooperation.

"What we're excited about is it reflects teamwork between a federal agency, a state agency and a school district," Walch said, adding that the Hoover Library-Museum is donating time and expertise to the project. "You hardly ever see that."