I attended the Catherine B. Reynolds Civil War Washington Teacher Fellows institute during the summer of 2012.
Before I go any further, I need to admit something. I’m kind of a professional development junkie. There, I said it. I love to attend teaching institutes – especially when they involve traveling to interesting cities and when they discuss some of my favorite topics.
This strange addiction is what took me to Washington two summers ago, but it is what happened there during and after the Institute that has changed my teaching forever in a way that no other institute has.
Upon my arrival on the first night, I found a small group of dedicated teaching professionals. The very first thing I noticed was a shared commitment to learning and a distinct camaraderie that you don’t always find at institutes like this.
After a quick getting-to-know-you activity, we plunged head first, completely immersing ourselves in midst of Lincoln’s Civil War Washington. We were surrounded by history. From where we slept (the historic Willard Intercontinental Hotel) to where we learned (President Lincoln’s Cottage, Ford’s Theatre, Frederick Douglass’s home Cedar Hill, and Tudor Place), it all worked together to place 21st century teachers squarely in the center of the action of Civil War-era Washington. The result was something truly inspiring.
Each historic site not only gave us rich, meaningful content, but the presenters were constantly linking information to how we could use it best in our classrooms. Again, having attended many summer institutes, I have found this to be the key component that is missing from most of them. Teachers typically digest a ton of cool facts, but often don’t learn how to teach it. At every site, at every juncture, presenters were constantly modeling pedagogical techniques that could be used in the classroom. Because I saw them used, it was so much easier to use them in my classroom.
Timelines, maps, historic objects, photographs, primary resources, re-enactment and the power of place were all used throughout the week to not only give us the experience of a lifetime, but to demonstrate how we could best take this experience back to our classrooms and re-create it all with our students. It was indeed a powerful combination of teaching and learning.
One of my favorite lessons was how to teach my students about the Lincoln assassination. Using all the techniques I learned at the institute, my students now create timelines of the assassination and the resulting manhunt for the assassin. In addition, they create a map of John Wilkes Booth’s escape route from Washington to Virginia. They then take a virtual tour of Ford’s Theatre, and they read and analyze first-hand accounts of people who were in the audience at the time of the assassination. My students’ final project is writing a fictionalized, personal narrative in the voice of a person who was present at the assassination. It blends literacy skills and creative writing with significant historic content, and the results have been astonishing.
I have had parents contact me to thank me for teaching their children something that they didn’t know about or completely understand. I would trust my fifth-grade students to tell the story of the Lincoln assassination as well as any adult I know.
My week with the Civil War Washington Teacher Fellows taught me how to pull many components of effective teaching together and harness them to create lessons that both teach and engage my students in a meaningful and lasting way. It was a transformational week and, fortunately for me, I get to re-live that week each and every year when I share what I learned with my students.
I read a quote once that, “bad professional development seems to take a lifetime to endure, but good professional development stays with you for a lifetime.” This program is most assuredly good professional development, and I am so grateful to have had this opportunity.
Georgette Hackman is a fifth-grade teacher from Denver, Pennsylvania.