By John Chambless

Staff Writer

The textbook recommended for AP United States history classes at Unionville High School opens up new doorways for interactivity, and it dovetails with the new ways of teaching that are coming to the Unionville-Chadds Ford School District. 

At a meeting of the education technology committee held on April 7 at the district conference room, school board members got a quick tour through the ways that “By the People: A History of the United States,” by James Fraser, will go well beyond the printed page.

Social studies teacher Fran Mulhern explained how the 2015 textbook will come in a hardback print edition, as well as an online component and e-book. 

“They've revamped the focus of the course, which is going to be not on content and a tremendous amount of facts, but in using thinking skills," Mulhern said. "We're going to be getting students to think about what they're doing, and how they're interpreting.”

The text reflects a new approach to teaching American history. “It's more thematically based," Mulhern said. "They're going to focus on social identity, work exchange and technology, politics and power, America and the world, environment and geography, and ideas, beliefs and cultures. The course is no longer going to be, 'Remember this fact about John Smith.' It's going to be the kind of test where kids can use their thinking skills and the bigger picture to put together the answers. A lot of the questions will be reading passages, comparing authors and their biases, and a lot more historical interpretation.”

The traditional drawback of rote memorization of names and dates is that American history is so sprawling “that it's extremely difficult for the kids,” Mulhern said, “although they do very well.”

A better way to reach them, and to get them to interpret broad themes of American history, is reflected in the style of “By the People.” 

“It is far better organized than what I'm using now,” Mulhern said. “It has content objectives that relate to the Common Core, right in the front of each chapter. It has practice tests at the end of each chapter. It has the analytical questions at the end of each chapter. Everything is right there.

"But what I really like is the website,” Mulhern said, showing the school board members My History Lab, a website run by the book's publisher, Pearson, that posts the whole textbook and a huge range of videos, audios, images and maps, online quizzes that offer instant grading, and links to primary source documents, all in one place. 

As she played interview clips and scrolled through the other features of the site, Mulhern said, “This can save an awful lot of money on paper” because all the materials can be accessed online instead of being printed out and handed to students.

While students will still have to memorize key facts, "the focus just won't be on covering absolutely every subject," Mulhern said. "My Civil War unit is three days. My World War II unit is three days. The way I've structured the course is to get all the content in by two weeks before the AP test."

The online component of the history text will also fit into the Learning Management System (LMS) being tested in a pilot program of 20 teachers in the upcoming school year. The district's technology integration committee has narrowed its choice of vendors to two firms, according to Ken Batchelor, the assistant to the superintendent. Teachers have been testing the two systems and will meet again with both vendors on April 24.

Essentially, the LMS will be accessed by students and teachers using their own devices – smart phones, iPads, laptops or Chromebooks – and will supplement classroom learning with instantly available videos and supplementary materials. Each teacher will also build and maintain a website that will hold whatever materials he or she feels necessary.

For students without such devices, the school will supply carts full of Chromebooks, a Google product that activates a web browser and can access online content. By using the BYOD (bring your own device) plan, the district will save money it might have spent purchasing devices for each student.

“The LMS is not tied to a particular device or platform,” Batchelor said. “That's because the world the kids will see when they leave here is a world of multiple devices. The more we learn, the more we realize that certain devices are better for certain things. ... Maybe the iPad apps are better for elementary students, and the Chromebooks are better for middle and high school.”

John Nolen, the director of curriculum and instruction, said, “We're being very careful about this. We do have a lot to learn. ... But we see this as the teacher having this incredible tool to use to improve learning, when it's appropriate. The students will not be tied to technology for the entire class period.”

School district superintendent John Sanville added, “We have a really rich curriculum that is well-written across all of our courses. We're not getting away from having that rich curriculum. This is about accessing that curriculum in a deeper way with technology.”

The new history text, e-book and website package will cost $130 per student, Nolen said.

School board member Eileen Bushelow held up the huge, heavy textbook in one hand and her tiny phone in the other by way of comparison.

Nolen laughed at the contrast, saying, “It won't be long until a student could have all their textbooks on their device, and that's a great thing.”

Nolen also addressed the fears of some parents that their children are already spending too much time on their devices. “When I visit a really strong teacher's classroom with this technology, the learning is enhanced," he said. "I see these as tools that have the potential to increase learning. I get really excited about the e-books and the 24/7 access that students can have. These tools will unleash great teaching.”