Teaching and Learning History - 062816

Local History

Re-placing the History Classroom –
The Old and New of Local Study

by Charles Elfer, Ph.D.
Clayton State University
Morrow, GA

Often in education it seems that we reinvent the old and re-cycle through reforms large and small (see Tyack and Cuban, 1995). Among the countless illustrations, one approach that educators have turned to over and again is the practice of teaching through the community. Contemporary scholars refer to the approach as place-based education, but, historically, terms such as Country Life, nature study, heimatskunde, community civics, or Foxfire, to name but a few, refer to essentially similar theories and practices. Place-based education draws on the local, in this context, local history, to foster relevance, engagement through experientialism, and, ultimately, the capacity for students to better navigate the communities in which they live.
The calls for more localized and experiential educational approaches have proliferated over the past 15 years, perhaps in response to an intense shift toward academic formalism. With the ever-widening scope and pressures associated with testing and standardization, space for local study in the history classroom is all the more difficult. Yet relevance, engagement, and civic capacities remain noteworthy goals for history teachers. So where can teachers turn for tools and resources in this very ambitious place-based educational project?
First, place-based education is, by nature, a localized endeavor. The first stage in linking classrooms to communities is to become a student of the communities we live and teach. Local historical societies and sites are must visits for teachers, novice and veteran alike.
Second, students and their families are the raw materials of the community, whether they trace their membership five generations or are transient. Be intentional and find ways to bring the narratives of citizens into your history classroom.
Finally, place-based educational ideas have been shared and supported by a multitude of like-minded educators who have come before us and many who are teaching and writing today. Capitalize on the curriculum history and the wealth of professional expertise. A shortlist of helpful resources is provided below, both new and old.
Colvin, C. R. (2011). Placed-Based Education Annotated Resource List. Children, Youth and Environments, 21(1), 332-348.
Bourgeois, E.J. (1999). A model history course: History practicum, researching, writing and publishing local history. The History Teacher, 32(3). 381-394.
Elfer, C. J. (2011a). Place-based education: A review of historical precedents in theory and practice. PhD dissertation, University of Georgia.
Elfer, C. J. (2012). Place-based education in Georgia: Imagining the possibilities for local study in the  contemporary social studies classroom. The Georgia Social Studies 2(2), pp. 46-51.
Greuenwald, D. A., Koppelman, N, and Elam, S. (2007). Our place in history: inspiring place-based history in schools and communities. The Journal of Museum Education, 32(3), 2330242.
Howe, B. J. (1989). Step out of your classroom and into your community. OAH Magazine of History, 4(3), 3.
Kammen, C. (2011). On the doing of local history in New York. The Public Historian 33(3), 58-69.
Keohane, R.E. (1946). The use of primary sources in the teaching of local and state history in high school. The Mississippi Valley Quarterly, 33(3), 455-460.
Scheuerman, R. Gritter, Schuster, C.J. and Fisher, G. (2010). Sharing the fire: Place-based learning with Columbia Plateau legends. The English Journal, 99(5), 47-54.
Sobel, D. (2004). Place-based Education: Connecting Classrooms and Communities. Great Barrington, MA: The Orion Society.
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The National Council for History Education promotes historical literacy by creating opportunities for teachers and students to benefit from more history, better taught.