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Teaching History: New Ideas in a Changing Discipline

Upcoming Partnering to Improve History Teaching Events:

Teaching History Workshop at the East Tennessee Historical Society: Saturday, March 7.
Find out more

By: Nichole Stevens


While many people think that study of history is simply a matter of memorizing names and dates, UT’s History Department is working to help Tennessee high school teachers and students understand that it is so much more.

“It’s about inquiry and debate; historical knowledge is open-ended,” said Ernest Freeberg, Professor and Head of UT’s History Department. “We want students to see how important it is to learn to think historically.”

The History Department engages in Partnering to Improve History Teaching in East Tennessee, a collaboration between UT faculty, public school teachers and the East Tennessee Historical Society.


Participants engage in a Teaching History workshop.

History teachers, professors and supporters of history education have created several interrelated programs to help public schools teach history and to make history exciting for students, especially for those hoping to go to college.

A new program in Partnering to Teach History, UT Bridge to AP U.S. History, focuses on Advanced Placement U.S History classes taught in those Knox County Schools that have fewer resources and a high enrollment of children from underserved communities. When the students are motivated enough to take AP classes and aspire to go to college, then it’s important that the university does what it can to partner with local high school teachers to help guide them.

“We see this as part of our mission as a public land grant university,” Freeberg said.

History Day

Northwest Elementary students Lauren Hopkins and Terry Hoople stand in front of their exhibit “2 Captains of Flamborough Head.”/Photo by Nichole Stevens

UT faculty members go into the AP History classrooms and talk about historical thinking and approaches to the AP exam. KCS students can spend a day on the UT campus- experiencing a day in the life of a UT student and history major. The students attend a college-level history course, speak with history professors, tour the McClung Museum and speak with academic advisors about registration.

“It’s exciting for students to be exposed to a college environment and meet faculty members,” said Freeberg. “They see it’s possible for them to engage in that conversation with history professors and it makes college look more attainable.”


Middle and high school students set up their history exhibits for judging./Photo by Nichole Stevens

Partnering to Teach History also hosts an annual History Teacher Workshop, which is an ongoing program for the past 35 years. It welcomes about 60 teachers to the East Tennessee Historical Society, where they hear mini-lectures from faculty members on a range of contemporary history topics.

“It’s very important for high school teachers to stay abreast on the latest research in history,” Freeberg said, “and for university and high school faculty to compare notes about the best ways to make history come alive for our students.”

Teachers are well aware of the challenges they face in making historical topics interesting and current for their students. Freeberg says it is essential to work with them to see what it is they need in their classrooms. He said most of the teachers are very eager to participate and engage.

Freeberg says some of these programs are built on a partnership with the East Tennessee Historical Society that has been going on for more than a decade.


Students look at Exhibits at the 14th Annual East Tennessee History Day./Photo by Nichole Stevens

“We are very fortunate to be working with ETHS. They understand the rhythm of the school year and whether we’re presenting material that is useful to teachers. We wouldn’t be able to make this connection to the wider community of East Tennessee teachers and students without ETHS.”

The UT campus plays an integral role in History Day, as it functions as home for the regional qualifiers event. Several hundred students participate in the contest, with the winners moving on to compete at the state and national level. Several East Tennessee students have gone on to place in nationals, with some earning the top prize their exhibits.

High school students present their history research projects and presentations at the regional competition on the UT campus. Current and emeritus faculty members, graduate students and community volunteers judge the projects. Freeberg compared the excitement for historical research to a science fair for the humanities.

“One thing that always delights me is to see how excited the students are about the chance to engage in history,” Freeberg said. “Students are eager and it shows that the humanities matter, and the study of the past matters.”


Partnering to Improve History Teaching in East Tennessee was nominated as a Partnership that Makes a Difference. Click here to read more.