Q&A with Sarah Winans, Nebraska History Teacher of the Year

Sarah Winans, a teacher at Kloefkorn Elementary School in Lincoln, Nebraska, has been named the 2013 Nebraska History Teacher of the Year.  The award is co-sponsored by The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, HISTORY® and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation on behalf of its Preserve America program. 

What are the key elements of the history curriculum in fourth grade?

The easy answer is 'Nebraska history,' but teaching fourth grade social studies is much more than that. Educating students to become good citizens demands extensive modeling, practice, and application of critical reading, writing, and thinking.

Preparing fourth graders for the digital world of the 21st century requires teaching students to read and think metacognitively about text. We call this “close reading” which is the central tool or skill we want all fourth graders to practice in social studies. Hopefully, they will carry this skill throughout their education and into adulthood. We also teach students to support arguments with evidence, discern truth, and write meaningfully. In social studies, this emerges through authentic literacy focused on a question. For instance, did Standing Bear change the lives of Indians? Was the Homestead Act a success? What really happened to Jamestown? Should Nebraska allow charter schools? Should TransCanada build the pipeline? Critical thinking is cultivated when a meaningful question is posed, and students are given the tools and opportunities to engage in inquiry through texts of varying perspective.

Investigation of such issues nurtures critical thinking, reading, and writing, along with key tenets of citizenship such as considering multiple perspectives, understanding of how to corroborate evidence, and the capacity to demand truth. These skills prepare fourth graders for high school, college, careers, and participation in a democracy.

Why were you drawn to teach history?

Another key belief essential to my teaching is the value of history as a guide for decision making. There is an inseparable interaction of the past and present. Past events, people, and previous decisions directly relate to the cause-effect relationship of our daily decisions. Segregation, slavery, the Holocaust, the Trail of Tears shock my fourth graders, but their sense of social justice and belief in 'doing it better' in their generation buoys the time spent reading, discussing, analyzing, and debating meaningful primary source documents. They may find it difficult to imagine the American government to which Red Cloud pleads, but they can imagine a world where injustice retains a position. How better to prepare future leaders than by allowing them to find or suggest their own solutions to injustice? Active engagement or 'doing' history promotes a deeper understanding of humanity while exercising the problem-solving skills that improve the human condition.

How has the teaching of history changed in recent years?

Teaching history has evolved beyond the traditional textbook-centered, teacher-centered approach to one in which students engage in the work of historians. Instead of limiting history instruction to dates, events, and places, students are practicing how to think in sophisticated ways as they write conclusions, construct arguments, close read critically and assess evidence. We have freed social studies instruction from a mire of memorization and impelled it into a place where authentic learning occurs. 

What useable teaching benefits do you get as a teacher leader for the NWU Master of Historical Studies program?

Every time I am involved with a project or class as part of the NWU Historical Studies program I learn something that makes me a better teacher! First, the program allows teachers to collaborate with experts in the field of history education. The partnership with Dr. Sam Wineburg and the Stanford History Education Group has been instrumental in our work to develop a district-wide curriculum embracing historical thinking. At the elementary level, we are engaged in action-research as we take what SHEG has done in high school and adapted it to our classrooms. Second, I have had the opportunity to work with LPS teachers in grades K-12. Rarely do teachers have time or opportunity to engage in conversations about best practices, standards, and assessment across grade levels. Our conversations and collaboration help all of us better prepare students for the next level. 

What are some new strategies or trends or ideas that are on the horizon for teachers such as you in History?

The work LPS has done with historical thinking has prepared us for many key tenets of the Common Core standards. Further, thanks to digital media, my fourth graders can access online archives, locate information, and traverse documentary records once only viewed by researchers with white gloves and microfiche readers; thus, it becomes essential for our history classrooms to embrace technology as we teach students to navigate the complexity of the digital realm in seeking answers to questions of the past, present, and future.

Published: July 29, 2013, Updated: July 29, 2013