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Making Historians Out Of Students

Tufts graduate Alicia Kersten, a Somerville High School history teacher and Project LOCAL participant, was recently recognized for her innovative teaching methods.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [07.19.06] Tufts graduate Alicia Kersten never took to history in high school. In fact, it wasn't until she taught American history in China after graduating from Yale University that she really began to enjoy the subject.

"That's when I started liking history, because suddenly I had to explain America [to my Chinese students]," recalls Kersten, who went on to receive her Masters of Arts degree in teaching from Tufts in 2000.

Kersten, who has taught U.S. history at Somerville High School for the last six years, recently received the 2006 Massachusetts History Teacher of the Year award from Preserve America, a White House initiative sponsored by the Gilder Lehrman Institute for American History. She is now a candidate for the national award.

 


AUDIO:

Michael O'Connell, director of exhibitions at the Somerville Museum, talks about Kersten's strengths as a teacher


 

Kersten, who studied anthropology as an undergraduate, may not be a typical high school history teacher. There are some teachers "who love their subjects, and their passion makes it interesting," she explains, and there are others, like herself, "who have to work very hard to understand and to like their subjects."

However, it's the teaching that Kersten loves, especially when she is able to explore a more interactive approach to history with her students. This love led her to Project LOCAL (Learning Our Community's American Lore).

A partnership between Tufts University and the towns of Everett, Medford, Revere, Somerville and Winthrop, Project LOCAL trains teachers to incorporate the local history of their communities into the teaching of traditional American history.

During her work with Project LOCAL, Kersten has teamed up with Michael O'Connell, director of exhibitions at the Somerville Museum, to enable her students to research an aspect of local history, and then construct an exhibit for the museum based on their research. In the first year of their partnership, her Advanced Placement U.S. History class produced "The Vietnam Experience," which examined the impact of the Vietnam War on Somerville by evaluating newspaper accounts, obituaries, and oral histories.

This year's project, "The Highway and the City," is a study of how the construction of Interstate 93 affected the Somerville community. After interviewing Somerville residents, students learned that the highway divided much of the community and displaced many families. They also took photographs that documented the interstate as an urban environment and, at the exhibit's opening this June, they proudly showcased their work.

"A journey of discovery"

Project LOCAL takes an alternative approach to history by encouraging students to learn by doing their own extensive research projects. "I wanted them to be active, engaged learners, testing out ideas for themselves," notes Kersten on the Project LOCAL website.

O'Connell, who has the same goal in mind, couldn't be happier with the results of the project. "It's about kids becoming historians, as opposed to reading history in a textbook, and restating it on tests," he says. "It becomes a journey of discovery for them."

Kiley McLaughlin, who took Kersten's Advanced Placement U.S. History class last year as a sophomore, explains that Kersten "wasn't teaching us the stuff; we were finding it out for ourselves."

The Advanced Placement U.S. History course covers 200 years of history in seven months, allowing little time for in-depth inquiries and discussions, so Kersten relishes the opportunities for interactive learning afforded by Project LOCAL. "It's very refreshing, and it's a luxury," she explains.

The flexibility of teachers like Kersten is the driving force behind Project LOCAL's success. "You have to be very comfortable with it being really messy and out of your control," she confides. With almost 40 students participating, each working on a small piece of the puzzle, it's often difficult for them to see the big picture. Recognizing this, she implemented what she calls "history speed dating," where the students "sit in a little group and present what they've found; after five minutes, they switch."

It is this kind of innovative teaching that makes Kersten so endearing to her students and such a fitting choice for the Teacher of the Year award. But she's not resting on her accomplishments. Kersten is spending the summer working with colleagues on creating a new world history course that will focus on modern themes and events.

"I want the students to be doing things that make what they're learning in history relevant," says Kersten, "so that they can connect to it."

--James Gerber

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