Thirty years ago, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation began an educational experiment. Armed with an idea, the Foundation challenged a team to create a program for teachers grounded in the concept that the work that went on daily in the Historic Area was a teaching tool transferable to the classroom. The costumed interpretation. The authenticity of the trades. The unrelenting reliance on primary sources to tell the story of America’s beginning. All of it could be used to help teachers bring history alive in their classrooms.
The Teacher Institute kicked off in the summer of 1990 with 44 fifth-grade teachers from California who attended one of two weeklong summer sessions. During this past summer, the 10,000th teacher graduated from the program and over the years, attendees have come from all 50 states, as well as several foreign countries. Altogether, 502 teachers took part in the most recent weeklong and three-day sessions, and they, like the teachers that came before them, attended because of scholarships funded by co-founders Bob and Marion Wilson and scores of other donors who want U.S. history to remain a vibrant part of the public-school curriculum.
Teachers attending the institute examined the economic, political and social events critical to the creation of America’s representative government. They learned strategies that marry primary and secondary sources with technology to create dynamic and thought-provoking lessons that stretch beyond history and social studies to math, science and language arts. And they were introduced to different voices — Native Americans, women, free and enslaved African Americans — all adding context to the American narrative.
“This is something that’s almost impossible to describe because it’s a complete experience,” said Mike Lebsock, a middle school teacher from Beaverton, Oregon, who attended the Teacher Institute as a student and returns annually as a Master Teacher. “You’re there in context. You’re getting sources — more than you’ll ever use in your entire career. You’re interacting with character interpreters on the street in costume that have volumes of information. And then the strategies on top of that. It’s layer after layer after layer of things. I tell teachers: ‘You’ll never teach the same way again. It’ll change you.’”
Tab Broyles remembers the day in the early spring of 1990 when her work world changed. Dennis O’Toole, then a vice president and chief education officer at Colonial Williamsburg, had an assignment. The educational objectives for fifth- and eighth-grade teachers in California were changing, and the Foundation was in a position to help prepare teachers for that change. The assignment: Create a program based on primary sources and the American Revolution. And have it ready to go by June.
Broyles and her supervisor, Cynthia Burns, were part of a team that included historians and interpreters that began looking for ways to bring the nation’s stories and foundational documents to life. They wanted engagement — opportunities to involve teachers in a hands-on way. They soon realized that the museums, the interpretations and the Historic Area itself were perfect vehicles.
Over 30 years, that tenet hasn’t changed.
“We need to have accurate content based on primary sources and allow teachers to read, learn, touch, feel and draw their own conclusions,” said Broyles, now the Peter L. and Patricia O. Frechette Director of Teacher Development. “We need to have engaging teaching strategies. It’s not sitting in a lecture hall. If we can’t be out in the 301-acre classroom, the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library and the museums learning, then we are not sharing Colonial Williamsburg’s wonderful resources with teachers, and the instruction could be held anywhere.”
Each summer, these teachers swarm the Historic Area. They do activities at the Powell House. They dance in the evening. They attend simulations at the Courthouse and they visit the trades shops.
The schedule is packed. Dian Self, who attended the first year with a teaching partner, remembers the daunting pace.
“We had no idea what we were getting into,” said Self, who has since retired as an elementary school teacher in the San Diego area. “It changed our whole way of teaching, our whole way of thinking, our attitudes, our classroom. We literally based everything on our experience from here — our science, our math, creative writing, art, drama, everything.”
That is exactly what those who built the Teacher Institute hoped for then — and today. In recent years, the Teacher Institute has responded to changes in the educational landscape. Technology has become more prevalent in schools, while the increased emphasis on standardized testing throughout the country has meant less attention to history education. In recent years, Broyles has also noticed a hunger among educators for help with infusing their curricula with lessons and discussions about how all Americans of all backgrounds, race, religion, and social and economic levels, have contributed to what it actually means to be an American and the responsibilities that come with it.
“What I always hope when teachers leave, they realize the struggle, they realize the sacrifice,” Broyles said. “That’s what (those who founded this nation) did for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
“And if you don’t know the stories of all the people, I don’t think it’s going to be as relevant or meaningful to students.”
As Mike Lebsock considered college courses of study that complemented his desire for a career in ministry, he naturally gravitated to education. His father was an art teacher. His mother had worked in his high school and eventually became dean of students at a local community college.
“So I kind of had education on both sides,” Lebsock said. “And low and behold, education became the thing. The classroom ended up being my calling. This was the place I needed to be.”
Now a humanities teacher at Meadow Park Middle School in Beaverton, Oregon, Lebsock teaches language arts and history to eighth graders and he channels his language arts lessons — especially the reading and the writing — through history. Finding ways for students to see themselves in America’s story is the key.
“When I’m looking at kids of so many different cultures, you wonder, how is this your history?” Lebsock said of his approach to teaching students of the ethnically diverse backgrounds found in his suburb of Portland, Oregon. “I refer to it as — this is the story of us. It is our story. It is your story.”
That approach is fueled by what he learned at Colonial Williamsburg’s Teacher Institute, which he first attended some 15 years ago. Since 2008, he has returned each summer as a Master Teacher, mentoring new classes of teachers and showing them how to use the tools they receive and the techniques they are taught.
Often, that means encouraging teachers to explore ways to take students beyond the history texts.
“A lot of times I just say to my students: ‘Shut the book. I’m going to tell you a story,’ And they sit on the edge of their seats. The power of stories is so much more real and rich than just reading a paragraph.”
One of the keys, Lebsock said, is introducing new stories told in voices students have never heard — like the story of Clementina Rind, who, after her husband’s death in 1773, took over his printing operation of a Williamsburg newspaper as the colonies were on the threshold of war.
“I remember the girls in my class (saying) ‘When the guys are done fighting, wake us up. It’s not about us,’” he said. “But it is. What were women doing during this time? Changing everything. They were running the show.”
It’s an approach that’s resonated with students. In 2017, Lebsock received a statewide excellence award from the Oregon Council for the Social Studies. But seeing institute attendees getting just as excited is just as satisfying.
What you see are people who are about to make a dynamic change in their classrooms, he said. “They’ve been significantly touched and that’s going to have an impact on the kids.”
FOR JASON RUDE, horticultural metaphors come easily. The middle school social studies teacher is from New Hampton, Iowa, a rural area dominated by agriculture. Because of their farming responsibilities, many of his students have never traveled too far from home.
Exposing students to a broader background, with ideas and concepts they may not have heard before, is part of Rude’s job and his own range of interests and skills plays a part. He is a member of his local rescue squad, which isn’t surprising given that his father was a career state trooper and his brother was a firefighter and rescue-squad member. Rude is on the air twice a month with a local sports radio show. It doesn’t hurt that he’s a Ford’s Theatre National Oratory Fellow, part of a network of teachers who cultivate student interest in public speaking through a program based in Washington, D.C.
From math to science to the art of persuasive thinking, it all makes its way into this 10-year teaching veteran’s seventh- and eighth-grade social studies classroom. When a social studies contact at Iowa’s Department of Education told him about the Teacher Institute, it spoke to his desire to bolster another element of his teaching arsenal — primary sources. Colleagues at Ford’s Theatre also encouraged him.
“They knew I was trying to do a lot more with primary sources and Colonial Williamsburg does a really good job of showing how to use primary sources in a good way,” he said.
When Traci Mitchell teaches English literature to her students at Carl Sandburg High School in Frankfort, Illinois, just outside Chicago, she wants to help them understand the tenor of the time. Who was the writer speaking to — and for what purpose?
“And if I don’t understand the historical context, then really we don’t get much out of it other than a summary of what’s on the page,” she said.
Mitchell will begin her 27th year in the classroom this fall after spending a week in June at the Teacher Institute. Several summers ago, she came to Williamsburg with her family, and after hearing about the summer program for teachers, she knew she wanted to return
“Being an English teacher and coming to a history institute might seem a little strange,” she said. “But for the particular course that I teach, it depends quite a bit on understanding American history. I got to that point where whenever I was teaching a speech or a figure, I was trying to learn all I could on my own and augment what I could with my friends who are in the history department in my high school.
“And I really fell in love with how much I don’t know and want to know about American history.”