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Teaching American History Grant Program Ending 13-year Run at Western

February 15, 2013

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MACOMB, IL – A 13-year-old partnership between Western Illinois University, regional junior and senior high schools and federal education officials has yielded hundreds of hours of educational opportunities for area history teachers who use United States historical sites as their classrooms. But, because of federal budget issues, 2013 will likely be the last summer for the program.

The "Exploring America: Teachers Bringing Traditional American History to Students" program brought more than $2 million to the region to extend the training of junior high and high school history teachers. Through the program, WIU Department of History faculty have provided numerous workshops for teachers, as well as a variety of educational summer trips for about 30 teachers annually to historical sites around the U.S.

WIU Professor Emeritus Larry Balsamo initially learned of the series of federal grants that brought the program to Western and the region. Balsamo said the first grant, for about $500,000, was received in 2001 and was spent mainly for workshops on the WIU campus for teachers from a 15-county region.

Teachers from Hancock, McDonough, Adams, Pike, Fulton, Schuyler, Henderson, Mercer, Brown, Cass, Morgan, Scott, Knox and Rock Island counties were on campus two times each year for the four-year life of the grant.

In early 2005, federal education officials approved a second grant of nearly $600,000 to continue the program at WIU. The final grant, a five-year award, was approved in 2008 for $1 million. Because of the current federal budget crisis, it is likely that the grant program will not continue past 2013.

All three of the grants were completed through a partnership with the Hancock-McDonough Regional Office of Education in Macomb.

Through the renewed grants, a program was developed to provide 28 teachers with a study-travel experience each summer. Each trip, planned and headed by Balsamo, and visits places where teachers can have a "hands-on" experience, but not necessarily tourist sites.

Teachers must attend bi-annual workshops to qualify for the trips and then submit a blind application to be considered for each summer's travel experience.

This summer, teachers will travel to Virginia and Washington, D.C. to visit historical sites, including the Ford Theatre. The grant covers all expenses associated with the trip, as well as accompanying educational materials that teachers can take back to their respective classrooms.

Balsamo said it has been an important goal of the WIU Department of History to reach out to regional teachers and to provide enrichment.

"We had a pretty strong agreement in the department that such a program would improve the quality of students that were coming out of high school and that it could increase the number of history majors coming to WIU," Balsamo said. "We have been impressed with the results and the experience the teachers are receiving through this program – we can really see results."

Balsamo said he is extremely grateful for the opportunities the grant money has provided teachers from around the region, including the network of relationships built by regional history teachers.

"They have made lifelong friends with each other, and there is a sense of professionalism and a drive to know more and bring it back to their classrooms – we've seen some things that most people don't get to see," he said. "(The WIU Department of History) also learns from the teachers and some of the challenges they face in the classrooms."

Jacksonville (IL) High School American history teacher Travis Brockschmidt is the only regional teacher who has been a part of every grant-related workshop and trip throughout the 13-year grant cycle, which includes eight educational summer trips.

Brockschmidt, who received his master's degree in history from WIU in 2000, said he incorporates the lessons he's learned into his lesson plans, and he believes his personal experience from the historical sites has given more legitimacy to what he teaches.

"I have definitely been to some places that I probably never would have experienced except for these grant trips, such as New York City, San Francisco, Boston and West Point," he said. "Every trip has had some hidden gem, such as Muir Woods near San Francisco, the World War II Pacific Museum in Texas, the recreated ship Amistad at Mystic Sea Port or the meeting with Jerry Mitchell, the news reporter for the Jackson Mississippi Clarion Ledger, who has been involved with reporting several major civil rights trials."

Monmouth-Roseville Junior High social studies teacher Tom Best, who received his master's degree in history from Western in 1991, has been involved with the program for five years.

"I believe one of the 'unexpected benefits' of this program is my ability to present a more thoughtful and moving perspective to a historic site or event," Best said. "For instance, when we were in Mississippi and visited sites related to the 1955 murder of young Emmett Till, I cannot tell you how much that experience affected my feelings and insight to the civil rights movement."

Best said when he taught the topic in his own classroom, he was able to do so with "a conviction that went far beyond what I would have previously described or demonstrated."

"I spoke with a new strength about the importance of respecting the rights of others," he said. "My students commented how much this lesson appeared to mean to me. They can tell when you are personally inspired to teach with real emotion and confidence."

Best said the grant program has also inspired him to work more creatively.

"I think beyond the classroom for ways to bring history directly into my students' lives and know that, with the assistance of other dedicated educators, I can always improve my knowledge and skills as a history teacher," he said. "We are given such an incredible opportunity with this program. We are now a network of educators who are able to offer not just advice, but a spirit of empathy for what we do daily in our classrooms. It is great to be able to travel and learn with other people who truly love history, teaching students and improving our profession."

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