Forum Journal & Forum Focus

Teaching with Historic Places Looks Back, Looks Forward 

12-09-2015 17:35

Teaching with Historic Places helps teachers bring history to life for our young people and nurtures our children to become caring stewards. In 1991 the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places and the National Trust for Historic Preservation joined forces to create the Teaching with Historic Places program, because we preservation advocates were not then and still are not doing enough to educate our children about preserving our nation’s heritage. Another goal of the National Register of Historic Places, beyond creating a record of such places, was to make the valuable documentation on National Register listings more accessible for public education.

To determine how to bring historic places into the classroom, the National Park Service (NPS) and the Trust convened a group of nationally recognized leaders of educational organizations, curriculum specialists, school administrators, classroom teachers, and preservation advocates. They enthusiastically embraced the idea of using historic places to teach history, social studies, and other required subjects in the core curriculum, even if students cannot visit the sites. To our disappointment, the educators emphasized that it was unrealistic to introduce new subjects such as historic preservation, architecture, or archeology into the already crowded curriculum, because teachers are not mandated and do not have time to teach them. As we read about the pressures on teachers and schools today, it is obvious how wise this advice was.

Format and Content
One of our big questions concerned what kinds of materials on historic places teachers would find useful. Our advisors recommended that we work with educators to develop instructional materials in a lesson plan format teachers easily could use to enrich the instruction of required subjects. They suggested we target middle schools, making the materials flexible enough to be used in American history, geography, and civics at the upper elementary and high school levels.

Nationally known educator, historian, and textbook author Fay Metcalf, former director of the National Commission for Social Studies in the Schools, and one of our advisors, agreed to develop the format for a series of classroom-- ready lesson plans based on properties listed in the National Register. Now numbering well over 100, these lesson plans are the heart of the Teaching with Historic Places (TwHP) program. Dr. Metcalf’s prototype lesson plan format has withstood the test of time and been modified only slightly in response to comments from teachers. The beauty of the lesson plans is that they can be used regardless of whether the students are able to go to the sites. When students can take field trips to these places, the lesson plans provide pre-- and post visit activities that make onsite visits more meaningful and educational.

As Fay Metcalf said in a 1993 CRM article, “my mission was to create lesson plans, using real historic places, that would not only be useful to teachers, but used by them. Part of the challenge was to infuse the lesson plans with some of the same aura possessed by the places themselves –that appeal that arouses the interest and curiosity necessary for real learning. For we realized that most of the teachers and students for whom the lessons would be applicable would never visit these sites. In addition, lessons would have to be flexible enough to fit comfortably into different school systems and curricula across the country.” (CRM, vol.16, no. 2, 1993, p. 12)

Each lesson plan includes an introduction that builds interest in the place and what can be learned from it. “About the Lesson” describes where the lesson fits into the curriculum, objectives with measurable goals of what can be learned from the lesson, and how to visit the site. The lesson for students begins with a “Getting Started” inquiry question and historical context in “Setting the Stage.” “Locating the Site,” “Determining the Facts,” and “Visual Evidence” provide students with readings, maps, photographs, drawings, and other primary and secondary source materials to analyze for information about the place and its history. “Putting It All Together” is a series of student activities that wrap up the learning. One of these activities always leads students back to their own communities. A goal of the program is to help students see how historic places and the history of their own communities relate to larger patterns of American history that are the subject of the lesson. “Supplementary Resources” provides additional information on the featured historic places and themes by linking to various internet sources.


Our advisors urged that we base our program on the successful document--based learning packages and teacher training program that the National Archives and Records Center ran for more than a decade with the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS). It published these lessons as a regular feature in the NCSS journal for teachers, Social Education. Fran Haley, the executive director of NCSS, another advisor, agreed to print some of the TwHP lessons in Social Education. This made TwHP known and accessible to schools and teachers through an organization and its journal they respect and use. It also gave us a partner in the education community where we had few contacts—connections our advisors knew we needed to make to have credibility with teachers.

The National Trust became the first publisher of the TwHP lesson plan series with the National Council for the Social Studies periodically reprinting lesson plans in Social Education. The first seven prototype lesson plans were published in 1992 and 1993, the same year the NPS introduced the TwHP program to the preservation community in its journal, CRM. The National Trust went on to publish and distribute the first 54 lesson plans. They were later marketed by Jackdaw Publications, which also published several additional lesson plans. The National Park Service, the National Trust, and Jackdaw learned early on that the published lesson plans were not going to be a big moneymaker. We all learned some lessons about the challenges of administering public/ private partnerships and the stresses of the financial bottom line.

Fortunately for TwHP, the internet revolutionized the means of making publications available to the public.

Utilizing the Internet

In 1995 the National Park Service launched the Teaching with Historic Places website. Once the NPS took over sole administration of the program and distribution of the lesson plans, it posted the first lesson plans on the internet in 1998. The decision to use the NPS website to publicize TwHP and as the primary vehicle for publishing and distributing the lesson plans has been one of our best strategic choices, making the program and the lesson plans available to a very large and growing audience of educators and others not only nationwide but worldwide. In 2003 alone, the TwHP website received over 39.1 million hits, by more than 1.1 million visitors. We now realize how important the internet has become in educating both children and adults.

The website offers the means to reach a large number of teachers, students, and others of all ages. Teachers are much more likely to use the immediately accessible lesson plans. The website also allows the NPS to better explain the values of teaching with historic places and to provide instructions for teachers and preservationists on how to create their own lessons using the TwHP method. The website contains information on professional development, special thematic features, and links to other related websites, including the National Register’s Discover Our Shared Heritage Travel Itineraries on registered historic places. These are linked when the places explored in TwHP lesson plans are featured in an itinerary. The TwHP and National Register home pages are linked, making it easy to familiarize educators with the National Register and the National Register Information System (NRIS), where viewers can find out about registered historic places nationwide and in their own communities. We can link from our website to a myriad of other websites, including those of preservation organizations, which we encourage to link back to us. The website also offers users an opportunity to provide us with feedback, and the response has been very positive.

All of the lesson plans are indexed in four ways on the website: by location, theme, time period, and the National Standards for History. Now we are preparing to index them by the Curriculum Standards for Social Studies. This is consistent with the advice we received at the outset of the program to fit lesson plans on historic places into existing curricula. Today some TwHP lesson plans are available in print, but all are accessible over the internet at We have worked hard to make our lessons known and accessible through channels that teachers use. The Department of Education’s website, Federal Resources for Excellence in Education (FREE), includes all of the TwHP lessons in the FREE online index, organized by subject matter. FREE acts as a clearinghouse for federal education materials and makes online teaching and learning resources from about 30 federal agencies easier to find. FREE has promoted specific TwHP lesson plans often on its home page as its “Today’s FREE Resource” feature. The National Council for the Social Studies has reprinted 22 TwHP lesson plans in Social Education. The Organization of American Historians (OAH) has reproduced three TwHP lesson plans in its journal for middle and high school teachers, the Magazine of History.

Professional Development

From the beginning, we followed recommendations to offer professional development opportunities to help educators, preservationists, and museum and site interpreters learn to use historic places as part of the curriculum and to show them how to prepare TwHP lesson plans. Fay Metcalf wrote guidelines, now updated and available on the NPS website, to help educators and preservationists prepare new lessons on registered historic places to add to the series.

As early as 1991, TwHP began holding workshops for preservationists and educators on writing place--based lesson plans, and we continue to conduct frequent workshops with field studies at the National Trust and NCSS annual conferences. The TwHP method was tested in two three--credit college courses at George Mason University Graduate School of Education in Fairfax, Va., in 1993 and 1994. In 1995 the National Trust published two TwHP publications, A Technical Source Book and A Curriculum Framework, to help schools of education, state agencies, community organizations, and school districts use the TwHP approach in graduate courses, workshops, and curriculum projects. In 2002 the NPS introduced a 15--minute training video on TwHP.

As a result of these instructions and the workshops, we receive a steady stream of lesson plans from volunteer preparers for the National Register staff to edit and add to the published series. More than 115 lesson plans published to date have been authored by educators, preservationists, and site interpreters from all over the United States.

Partners and Colleagues

Along the way, TwHP has benefited from the support of many partners, and we have learned that you cannot have too many if you want to succeed. The NPS’s National Register of Historic Places, Parks as Classrooms, Cultural Resources Training Initiative, and Battlefield Protection Programs, and the National Trust provided the financial support to develop the program and publish the first lesson plans. With monies from Parks as Classrooms, many NPS interpreters and historians have attended workshops to prepare TwHP lesson plans for their parks. The NPS’s National Center for Preservation Technology and Training provided a grant to TwHP to bring advisors together again to evaluate the program and the effectiveness of the lesson plans. Beyond that, the program has received support from other NPS programs: the Historic Landscape Initiative, Mather Center, Northeast Regional Office, and the Cultural Diversity Program.

Several recent National Historic Landmarks Theme Studies have led to the development of TwHP lesson plans for properties that were designated as National Historic Landmarks (NHLs) as a result of the studies. The two schools identified and designated NHLs as part of the congressionally mandated Racial Desegregation in Public Education in the United States Theme Study became the subject of the 100th TwHP lesson plan, New Kent School and the George W. Watkins School: From Freedom of Choice to Integration, launched in 2003. The schools were the focus of an important 1968 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Green v. County School Board of New Kent County, Virginia, which placed an affirmative duty on school boards to integrate schools. Three Ph.D. candidates at the College of William and Mary assisted by three students of the class of 2002 at New Kent County High School prepared the lesson.

New lessons plans on the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk and the U.S. Air Force Academy were created this year as part of the U.S. Air Force/NPS–sponsored American Aviation Heritage Theme Study. As a result, TwHP has helped broaden the National Historic Landmark program’s vision on how important it is to make public education an integral result of the identification and recognition of cultural resources.

In 1998 the National Park Foundation arranged for Target Stores, The Discovery Channel, and the Eureka Company to sponsor a kit of six TwHP lesson plans on National Park sites, Explore Your National Parks: Historic Places. Target Stores distributed 34,000 of the lesson plan kits in its stores on its annual teacher appreciation day. The Historical Society of Washington, DC, National History Day, and the Center/ Clearinghouse for Social Studies and Social Science Education (ERIC/ChESS) also have played a role in publishing and distributing the lesson plans. TwHP has been blessed with a talented and committed professional staff willing to learn. National Register historian Beth Boland, the tireless, creative, and highly effective coordinator of the program, was ably assisted by Marilyn Harper, another National Register historian and now a contractor still working with us. Kathleen Hunter, heritage education coordinator at the National Trust at the beginning, was instrumental in getting the program off the ground, as were Buckley Jepson and Kathy Adams who were responsible for the National Trust’s work to publish the lessons. Past and present National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers contractor employees Bill Wright, Brenda Olio, and Theresa Campbell--Page have also been essential to TwHP’s successes. TwHP has provided an impetus for others, such as a number of state historic preservation programs, to develop their own educational programs using historic places and to participate in TwHP. Beyond that, the program has attracted the interest and involvement of authors and publishers. Fay Metcalf was inspired to prepare a teachers’ guide on Teaching with Historic Places to go along with the high--school level textbook she coauthored, published in 1997. Oxford University Press is publishing an American Landmarks series of books for young people based on registered historic places in association with the National Register, the National Park Foundation, and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. The series is edited by distinguished American historian James Oliver Horton and authored by other fine historians. Of at least 13 planned volumes, the first two volumes—on landmarks of the American Revolution and the Civil War—are out. Not only is each volume designed to tell the story of American history from the perspective of specific registered historic places, but each book informs readers about the National Register and the Teaching with Historic Places program. In 2003, TwHP provided workshops on using places to teach history and helped educators create their own educational materials in three Teaching with American History projects funded by Department of Education grants.

Building on Our Accomplishments

It has been extremely gratifying to see our efforts recognized over the years. TwHP has been honored with a White House and National Endowment for the Arts Federal Design Achievement Award, a National Park Foundation/ National Park Service Park Partnership Leadership Award, an award of merit from the American Association of State and Local History, and the NPS Cultural Resources Award. At least a dozen awards and commendations for the TwHP website and online lessons have come from USA Today, the Washington Post, the University of Wisconsin, the National Institute for Literacy, and others. Most importantly, teachers are using TwHP lessons, writing to tell us, and passing the word on to others.

TwHP has succeeded because historic places truly do enrich the quality of our children’s education and the quality of their lives. So where do we go from here? Right now, we are barely keeping our heads above water adding new lesson plans to the series each year and responding when we can to requests for information and doing workshops and conference sessions. Longer range goals include continuing to improve the website, adapting the lesson plan series for use with younger children, and participating in efforts to involve young people in civic engagement. We would like to work more closely with professors of education and history in colleges and universities to assure that ways to teach with historic places are taught as standard methodologies in training new teachers. We know from the feedback we receive that TwHP has become a model people are using and adapting to their own needs. The good news is that more of our young people are learning from and about historic places, but there is so much yet to teach!

Publication Date: Fall 2004


Author(s):Carol Shull

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