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For high drama, romance, intrigue and suspense, look beyond summer's blockbusters to American history, where the content rivals the best fiction and films.

That's the message of Tennessee Tech University history faculty member Michael Birdwell, who infuses his classes at Tennessee Tech with the gorgeous and sometimes awful landscape of our heritage, including the local history of our region.

For his enthusiasm and desire to share the relevance of history with students, Birdwell has been appointed project director of a nearly $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education. Coordinated through the White County Board of Education, the newly formed Cumberland Plateau Consortium Teaching American History will bring the passion of the past to middle and high school teachers throughout the region.

"It's been said that all politics is local," said Birdwell, an assistant professor of history. "Well, all history is local, too. We have a wealth of resources here, thanks to the TTU archives and numerous regional history museums. One of the things we're going to do with this program is make history more personal."

Over the next three years, the consortium will bring area school teachers to campus for a series of eight week-long summer institutes that will cover the greatest hits of American history — from colonization and settlement to the Civil War and Reconstruction and on into modern history. Sprinkled throughout the curriculum will be the personalized approach to history that can help bring the topics alive for area youngsters.

"History doesn't just happen to great people and isn't just about great events — history happens to all of us," said Birdwell. "When you teach local history, you give students a hook they can latch onto. They say, 'Gee, it isn't something that happened far away to people we don't know; it happened to our families, and now we have a vested interest in wanting to know more.'"

In addition to the summer institutes, the program will offer mini-institutes throughout the school year, as well as annual workshops, regional lectures, mentoring and networking opportunities, and a web site that will serve as a hands-on curriculum resource.

"This is a real opportunity for teachers to have access to other teachers in their area," said Birdwell. "And in these times of limited resources, the program will make it much easier for teachers to build up their libraries."

That's especially important at the middle and high school level, where history classes are sometimes taught by teachers who specialized in other areas. And with the enacting of the No Child Left Behind federal legislation, it's never been more important to address teacher credentials.

"The big push with No Child Left Behind is for all teachers and teacher assistants to become 'highly qualified,' to specialize in the subject they're assigned to teach," said Karen Benningfield, federal programs director/grant writer with the White County Board of Education, which will administer the grant.

Many history teachers are certified in general social studies, which covers a variety of topics but leaves little room to emphasize a specific area such as American history. The new program will address that, giving teachers an opportunity for meaningful staff development.

"One way teachers can prove they're highly qualified is through a 'professional matrix,' which recognizes years of experience, credit for college courses and staff development in the specific area they're teaching," said Benningfield. "This grant is perfect for that, because participants are going to have hours and hours of study in their specific area."

Teachers taking part in the summer program will have access to a rich source of supplemental materials. The idea is to encourage teachers to rely less on the textbook and more on supplemental material, so that students get more out of their classes.
TTU history chairperson Jeff Roberts, academic director for the grant, has always been a proponent of hands-on learning.

"Field trips, for instance, are very effective," he said. "They inspire people; they make students want to go out and learn more. We certainly do that here, and I think you can do that on the secondary level just as successfully, especially since our region is so rich with Civil War sites and other local history sources."

That's what brings history to life, Roberts said; that's what makes history relevant.

"When history is personalized," said Benningfield, "it becomes so much more meaningful. Often times, our teachers are so overloaded, so overworked, that they don't have the time to get out and explore our area to learn about local history. The Tennessee Tech faculty will be able to pull all that together for them."-more-

The U.S. Department of Education has funded similar programs in other parts of the state. They all share the goal of improving the way American history is taught. And they have one other thing in common: They're all partnerships between secondary education and higher education. That's a partnership whose time has come, said Michelle Ungurait, social studies specialist with the Tennessee Department of Education.

"It's my hope that every public university in the state will get involved in partnerships like this," she said. "The willingness of Tennessee Tech and White County to work together was inspiring; they were immediately willing and eager to jump right in. Both sides stand to learn a great deal from each other."

The grant forming the Cumberland Plateau Consortium Teaching American History is the largest ever to involve faculty from TTU’s History Department.