Media Coverage

Grant to bring history alive

AMHERST-For many high school students, the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights, with their archaic language and often obscure meaning , seem dusty, old and boring.

With that in mind and equipped with a federal grant of $864,000 a new partnership announced Friday intends to bring those revered but underread documents to life in high school history class.

The U.S. Department of Education Teaching American History program awarded the money to the Amherst-Pelham Regional School District for its Constitutional History Renewal Project. Other partners are the University of Massachusetts and the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association.

The school system is contracting with the UMass Donahue Institute to organize weekend and summer seminars for 40 to 50 western Massachusetts high school teachers, said Michael T. Hannahan, director of the UMass Civics Initiative. That is a new effort to improve civic education, he said.

"It's a way to present American history through the eyes of the debates over the Constitution, Hannahan said. We look at the Constitution as a living document."

The first year's seminars, to be led by UMass history and political science professors, will focus on the ratification debates about the U.S. Constitution in the 18th century. The second year's topic will be the Bill of Rights, including the 14th Amendment in the 19th century, and the third year participants will examine the 20th-century civil rights movement.

"I see a student coming out of a class knowing the difference between the Federalists and the anti-Federalists and also knowing there was a person in my area who took part in the debates," he said.

Hannahan stressed that the project involves several partners. "It's very important that we are not looking at this as professors telling teachers something. A lot of the people in the schools do very innovative stuff already," he said. Hannahan added that the role of the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association is critical in finding information about the local people who participated in the debates over the centuries.

"One of the strengths of this grant is that they are very strong local history providers and also very good with Web material. They can bring national down to the local," he said.

"The design is to increase teacher knowledge, especially regarding the Constitution, and help them to be in line with state curriculum frameworks," Hannahan said.

Students will learn not only the historical documents but also about the lives of the people who participated in the debates and how local lives were changed by the outcome.

Seminars will start during spring semester, he said. Nationwide, 114 grants were made from 450 applications. The only other Massachusetts project awarded a grant is in Salem, Hannahan said.

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