The Search for Identity in American History: Linking Inquiry to Content

Article excerpt

What does it mean for a group to construct an identity in a pluralistic American society? How has it been done before in American history? With what consequences? What are the identifiers of identity in a society? How is it shaped internally and externally? What are the benefits and drawbacks of multiple identities in American society?

The questions above serve as the guiding frame for the Teaching American History (TAH) grant proposal being explored by our teachers and district partners in District 6. Since 2001, over 500 TAH grants have been awarded by the U.S. Department of Education. Nearly 100 of these were awarded to California school districts, providing three years of professional development for teachers of American History. In Los Angeles Unified School District, Local District 6 was awarded a TAH grant in 2002, which will be completed in the 2004-05 school year.

District 6 is one of 8 local districts in LAUSD. District 6 serves 65,000 K-12 students and their families in the southeastern area of Los Angeles, including the communities of Bell, Huntington Park, and South Gate. The student population of the district is 99 percent Latino and about 50 percent English Language Learner (67% ELL at elementary and 40% at secondary). All of the schools have school-wide Title I programs. District 6 schools are very large, with most of the 28 elementary schools serving more than 1000 students. Many of the 9 current secondary schools house student populations between 3000-5000. Due to their large size, most of the schools operate on a multi-track, year round schedule of 163 instructional days.

The theme of the District 6 TAH grant is "Constructing American Identity(ies) in a Pluralistic Society, ' which captures the essence of living, teaching, and learning in multi-cultural Los Angeles County. In the three years of the grant, we have held fast to studying that theme in various settings - including annual Institutes, exhibits at museums and archives, review of curriculum materials and gathering of primary source materials, use of technology, and by learning together in discussion with ourselves and our partners. The primary goals of the grant are for teacher participants to:

* Deepen their inquiry and research skills (thinking like historians) and develop habits of mind in studying the compelling questions of American identity throughout U.S History, highlighted through the California content standards at grades 5, 8, and 11 and the History/Social Science Analysis Skills.

* Enrich their teaching practices in the use of multiple curriculum resources and effective instructional strategies in teaching American history with their own students.

* Instill the same knowledge and skills in their students to enable them to explore the concept of identity personally and academically.

* Make an explicit link to California English Language Arts standards in reading comprehension strategies, writing applications (expository and narrative text), and speaking and listening.

* Increase student achievement for participating classrooms in American history as demonstrated on the California Standards Test in History/Social Science.

* Act as TAH resources within their departments and grade levels at their own schools and in the larger District 6 learning community.

Our grant partners include Loyola Marymount University, the National Council for History Education (NCHE), the Skirball Cultural Center, and the Galef Institute.

* Loyola Marymount has supplied meeting space for the annual Institutes and other TAH meetings, secondary historical pedagogy assistance, and historical perspectives through invited lecturers.

* NCHE has provided three annual History Institutes for our teachers - each examining the theme of American identity in one of the three American centuries. We have been most fortunate to have the same historian, Dr. Dan Usner, from Vanderbilt University, each of the three years, to provide continuity and depth in the historical context. …