As America celebrates its independence with parades and fireworks today, teachers in Champaign and Urbana are getting ready to celebrate American history in the classroom come August.
As part of the Urbana school district's American History Teachers' Collaborative Fellowship program, 15 teachers are spending 40 hours each this summer doing hands-on research in local museums and archives.
They'll catalog documents, sort through artifacts and news clippings and create an original lesson plan to use in their classes – and potentially in classes around the country.
In the process, teachers will link local people, places and events to the national scene – and tie students to their place in the history of their community and country.
"Students have a real disconnect with the places that they come from," Champaign teacher Chris Adrian said. "Part of my doing this is to rejuvenate this sense of investment in history."
The project also aims to get students away from the single perspective (and the occasional boredom) provided by textbooks.
"Seeing something or photographing a primary source kind of brings it alive in a whole different way," said Don Barbour, an Urbana Middle School history teacher who is creating a lesson plan about the history of the Illinois prison system.
"It really encourages them to think like historians and analyze," said Kathy Barbour, the program's coordinator and Don's wife.
Fellows spend part of their time helping to organize records or artifacts in places like the Early American Museum in Mahomet or the Champaign County archives, housed in the Urbana Free Library.
The rest of the time is spent researching and creating lesson plans on diverse topics – from using death notices to show how a 1918 flu epidemic hit Champaign County to using letters and books to illustrate the part local citizens played in the Civil War.
Priscilla Kron, an English as a Second Language teacher at Urbana Middle School, is doing the latter. In the Champaign County Historical Archives, Kron looks at letters written by two local relatives enlisted as soldiers during the Civil War, along with texts and photographs of Civil War Col. Samuel Busey of the Busey Bank family.
For her lesson, her classes will make "museum books" full of clippings that tell a story of the war.
"My students need a lot of hands-on visual work, because they don't speak English very well," Kron said. "Hopefully, they'll learn a lot without having to read a lot and get a feel for what the Civil War was like."
A few miles away, at the Champaign County Historical Museum , other teachers are using artifacts to piece local history into history lessons.
University Laboratory High School teacher Adele Suslick looks through yearbooks to trace student opinion of different wars. "I'm specifically looking at who we honor and why in this country," she said.
Adrian, who teaches at Jefferson Middle School, looks at how perspectives form of famous people, particularly Abraham Lincoln. She's studying Charles "Chic" and Virginia Sale, 19th- and early-20th-century actor siblings from Champaign, who both revered Lincoln on stage and in articles.
In composition classes, Adrian plans for her students to each write a monologue about Lincoln and then judge each others' effectiveness.
Once the plans are complete, several will go online at www.americanhistoryteachers.org for use by other teachers.
The Web site also includes information about other aspects of the American History Teachers' Collaborative, a project funded by the U.S. Department of Education.
Though the collaborative is housed and staffed by the Urbana school district, its mission is to teach educators around the country about creative ways to learn history. The group accomplishes that by speaking at conferences, hosting institutes and through the fellowships.
Staff of the archives and county museum hope the enthusiasm those fellows bring to teaching local history will excite the students as well.
"We all look at this as just a fabulous opportunity to expand our users," said archives director Anke Voss, "to teach youngsters and teachers that there are resources in the community."
For Kron, the project has opened her eyes to teaching tools in her own backyard.
"It's not something just about dead people – it's living history," she said. "It's who we are and who they are – and it's fun to learn about."