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Taking History to School

Program aims to enrich California history lessons in primary schools

Taking History to School

The nine-year-old boy stood in the front of the classroom, under a hand-made sign reading “friar's quarters.” He held a slip of paper, from which he read out to his classmates, slowly and carefully: “I’m a Franciscan friar. I begin the day in my room saying my prayers for the safety and good health of the mission and of all the people living nearby.”

This time traveler is actually a student in teacher Brandon Landreth’s fourth grade classroom in Pasadena. Thanks to the imagination and the instruction of “Miss Rosina,” the students have been transported back to an early 19th century Spanish mission in California.

Rosina Lozano, a doctoral student in USC College’s history department, has found a unique T.A. gig. She helps teach history to 150 fourth and fifth graders at Pasadena Unified School District’s Hamilton and Longfellow elementary schools.

Lozano teaches California history, introducing the children to the study of primary sources while fitting her lesson plans to the schools’ curricula. She even integrates vocabulary words the children are studying into lessons. “My ultimate goal,” said Lozano, “is to get the students more interested in history.”

Her work is part of a joint pilot project of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West (ICW), and the USC-Huntington Early Modern Studies Institute (EMSI). Both institutes are interdisciplinary collaborations between USC College and the Huntington Library, which boasts world-class archives.

This K-12 outreach program enhances primary school history education using the Huntington’s resources and the latest scholarship available to USC College graduate students. The Huntington serves as the project’s home base for generating class materials and as a host for field trips.

“We’ve got bright young scholars working in this rich archival setting,” said College historian Bill Deverell, director of the ICW. “We’ve also got a school district with a lot of fourth graders who have to learn California history by state mandate. We thought, ‘Why not broaden the institutional partnerships we’ve already built?’ ”

“Both Bill and I have been working with schoolteachers for the past several years,” said EMSI Director Peter Mancall, also a history professor at the College, “with the idea that history as it’s taught in our schools often didn’t reflect developments in the field — that is, the way actual historians think about the past. This impulse is part of a much larger intellectual movement bringing together public school teachers with university faculty.”

Back in the Longfellow classroom, day had broken in the imagined mission. Lozano handed out index cards assigning roles to the children. As they eagerly raised their hands to get her attention, she assured the kids, “Everyone’s going to get a chance. Don’t worry.”

Earlier that morning Lozano had posted signs around the perimeter of the room naming different parts of the mission and its environs, such as “friar’s quarters,” “chapel,” “fields” and “kitchen.” The index cards she handed to the students told them where they should be and what their character would be doing at daybreak.

Reece was in the chapel ringing the bell to awaken the mission’s inhabitants. Israel was a Native American getting ready for breakfast in the nearby village. A pair of girls stood by the convent, portraying an unmarried native woman and the llavera who guarded the door.

At each location Lozano asked the student to read aloud about his role. Occasionally she stopped to define terms and to ask questions of the class. This exercise showed the kids history beyond the words in a textbook, introducing them to the lived experience of past people people to whom they could relate. In teaching about the mission as more than the ancient church buildings that remain, Lozano also engaged the children’s reasoning and problem-solving skills.

She asked the class to predict what a mission inhabitant would be doing at a certain time of day. After fielding a few suggestions she cued one of her role-players to reveal the answer, and then guided the class to the “why” behind the “what” with another series of questions. When a kid’s answer was off-base she praised him for hazarding a guess, and when a child was on the right track Lozano encouraged her to continue thinking through her answer.

Landreth offered kudos for Lozano’s work with his class. “We’ve engaged in activities that really give the children a unique perspective on history,” he said. “It’s something quite unlike the traditional style of teaching, and I’m learning a lot from this experience. Through the collaboration with USC, we’re achieving great heights with respect to history. It’s a phenomenal project.”

Lozano’s lesson on mission life was partially in preparation for a field trip to the San Gabriel Mission. She based the lesson on material from a graduate seminar led by Deverell. According to him, this effort paid clear dividends on the day of the field trip.

“It’s just thrilling to be at the mission with these kids,” said Deverell. “These 10-year-old kids ask great questions. And they can tell you that this building is more than 200 years old, what the landscape looked like in the early 19th century, and all about social relations between the Indians and the Franciscans. They’re connected to that past.”

Mancall believes working with K-12 students and teachers offers distinct advantages to graduate students. “Graduate education traditionally prepares future Ph.D.s to teach in college and university classrooms,” he said. “We think there’s a great intellectual benefit to our students in exposing them to the ways that history is taught in the schools. It forces the students to really try to interpret and to figure out how to talk about the past to a different audience.”

Deverell recruited Lozano to the pilot project because of her expertise as a historian and a teacher. She received her bachelor’s degree in history from Stanford and then completed her master’s in education at Harvard. She taught history in a Sunnyvale, Calif. high school for two years before coming to USC to pursue her Ph.D.

“We’re very fortunate to have Rosina as our pilot,” said Deverell. “She’s a gifted teacher with a credentialed background, and she’s a fine scholar.”

Plans are in the works to expand the program. Given the funding to cover graduate students’ stipends, in the coming years Deverell and Mancall hope to send their history scholars to fourth, fifth, eighth and 11th grade classrooms of public and private schools in Pasadena and Los Angeles. The ICW and EMSI would also host teachers from these classrooms for curriculum workshops at the Huntington.

“Conversations have begun,” said Deverell. “My hunch is that the interest out there is very high. If we expand this across schools and across grade levels, we could really put our graduate students to work as American historians. At the moment, as a pilot project, we’ve been really pleased.”