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When Teachers are Students

When I tell someone I am a high school teacher, I typically get one of two responses:  first, something akin to shock and awe that I voluntarily spend my days with teenagers, and second, a touch of envy as he or she imagines my carefree summers.  Many people envision a teacher’s summer as a string of alarm-clock-free mornings and endless days at the pool and beach.  While I have slept later than six am most days this summer, and I enjoy swimming laps at my pool, the highlight of every summer is the opportunity to attend workshops, seminars and classes.  Most teachers I know see summertime as the best time to embrace our inner student, seeking ways to hone content knowledge, explore new technologies, or read up on the latest in classroom instruction.

There’s a wide variety of summer workshops for history teachers, from day-long local seminars to week-long opportunites to travel and explore a new region of our nation (or even a foreign land) first hand.  In recent years, I have spent a week in Colorado learning about the history of the West, and a week in Chicago exploring architecture. I lived in the dorms at Columbia a few summers ago and studied the Harlem Renaissance through poetry, music, and walking tours.  Over the years, I have deliberately applied for programs that would stretch me intellectually and offer an opportunity to explore a field that I didn’t emphasize in my own graduate studies.  The chance to visit a new region of America has been an added bonus.

This summer, my professional development opportunity was closer to home, but on a subject I hadn’t explored in depth:  The War of 1812.  The National Park Service is gearing up for two years of events and ceremonies to mark the bicentennial of this “Second War for Independence.”  Truthfully, I am not a huge military historian–I can’t recount the specifics of troop movements at Gettysburg, and when I teach World War II we spend more time on Rosie the Riveter and Japanese Internment than D-Day.  That  said, in the interest of stepping out of my comfort zone and growing intellectually, I applied for this workshop back in the spring.

Our group of 16 Social Studies teachers from the DC metro area learned about the burning of DC, the role of Dolley Madison, and the bombardment of Ft. McHenry.  We toured the White House and visited the Octagon House, which served as the temporary home of the Madisons after the White House was destroyed.  We also learned how to use Photostory, and I worked with a partner to make a short video about The Battle of Bladensburg (yes, I actually picked a military topic!).  We had breakfast and lunch together each day and, as often happens, became fast friends as we shared stories from our classrooms and swapped resources.

At the end of the two day workshop, I had a deeper understanding of the War of 1812 and a bag full of books, posters, maps, and documents. I have a great multimedia tool to bring back to my classroom. I had the opportunity to be a student and ask lots of questions.  We met a professor from Ghent, Belgium (where the treaty ending the war was signed), and we hope to Skype with students in that city during the school year.  Similar to previous summers, I reveled in the opportunity to spend a few days as a student, and I hope this workshop will help make me a better teacher come September.

(Below:  Our group at the White House; “Dolley Madison” shares her stories)

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