An Important Partnership: The Walter and Leonore Annenberg Presidential Learning Center and the Cal State Northridge Writing Project
By Dr. Kathleen Dudden Rowlands, Department of Secondary Education
Director, The Cal State Northridge Writing Project
The scene was remarkable. By 8:00 a.m. on a stormy Saturday morning in late January, the windswept parking lot at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley was filling with cars from San Diego, Fresno, Sacramento, and the greater Los Angeles area as roughly 40 history and social studies teachers from elementary, middle, and high schools gathered to participate in a one-day workshop called “Civic Engagement through Writing,” jointly sponsored by the Walter and Leonore Annenberg Presidential Learning Center and the Cal State Northridge Writing Project.
For the Writing Project, the workshop provided another way to fulfill its mission of “improving writing and literacy in the San Fernando Valley and beyond.” That is, following the National Writing Project model of teachers teaching teachers, the workshop gave us an opportunity to provide history and social studies teachers with flexible, effective, standards-based instructional strategies that they could use at all grade levels to improve students’ abilities to read complex historical texts and write about them meaningfully.
For the Walter and Leonore Annenberg Learning Center, the workshop provided an opportunity to share its writing-based civics curriculum and introduce teachers to its many educational offerings, including access to primary source documents from the Reagan presidency, tours of the Library and the Air Force Once Discovery Center, and a participatory re-enactment of the invasion of Grenada in October 1983.
Tony Pennay, Director of the Presidential Learning Center and a Writing Project Teacher Consultant, opened with an overview of student performance in social studies nationwide:
- 5th grade—50% are deemed proficient
- 8th grade—the number drops to 21% proficient
- 12th grade—only 20% test proficient (just as students are approaching voting age!)
Having demonstrated the need for explicit civics instruction, Pennay then introduced a lesson called “Letters to the President” developed by the Presidential Learning Center. This lesson incorporated current multimedia (a video of Obama regarding the letters he receives), primary sources (letters Reagan had received and written in response), and a lesson on writing a letter to the President.
History and Social Studies Teachers gather in the Command Decision Center at the Reagan Library to re-enact the decisions made by military leaders during the 1983 Grenada Invasion.
Workshop participants then divided into four groups and spent an hour rotating through four stations manned by Writing Project Teacher Consultants and Directors, each of whom demonstrated a different literacy strategy using a primary document from the Reagan Library collection. For example, I demonstrated the prereading use of a “Double Entry Anticipation Guide” using Reagan’s speech to the nation after the Challenger disaster. This rotation cycle was repeated with new strategies so that teachers were introduced to eight different ways to infuse Common Core standards-aligned literacy strategies into their social studies instruction. In addition to the “Double Entry Anticipation Guide,” they learned about using: “Say, Mean, Matter,” “RAFT,” “Brainstorming,” “Says and Does,” Twitter, Blogging, and “Faction.” After lunch, the teachers toured the Library and the Air Force One Discovery Center before participating in the Grenada invasion scenario. During this historical re-enactment, the teachers assumed roles as advisors to the President, top-level military officials in the Command Decision Center, and members of the White House Press Corps—and president Reagan—just as students would.
History and Social Studies Teachers assume roles as President Reagan and his advisors during the 1983 invasion of Granada.
The event’s success is demonstrated by teacher comments on the evaluations. Many are now planning student visits to the Library. Every single teacher noted at least one literacy strategy that he or she intends to use—often with grade-level-appropriate modifications. Many left with an increased appreciation for the importance of social studies and explicit civics instruction. One first-grade teacher wrote:
This event was an eye opener for me, because of the shocking statistics given. I’ve always known that it is important to teach social studies, but it is so easy to get overwhelmed with all of the other demands of teaching. I have decided to block out a specific time to teach social studies and stick to it. I will also be using our local newspaper to bring in appropriate grade-level current events to keep my students updated on what’s going on in their city. I am taking these new ideas and using them with our curriculum. The strategies presented can be used across the curriculum and with all grade levels; I will be sharing them with my colleagues!
Professional development doesn’t get much more rewarding than this!