The Revolution Will Be Zoomed
Students from the United States and United Kingdom virtually debate the American Revolution through alum’s Young Historians Program
The COVID pandemic has produced significant challenges for K–12 education, but for one alum, there has also been a major opportunity.
“Due to remote learning, we have a more technologically proficient educator workforce than ever before,” says Heather Miller, Ed.M.’00. “This is true not only in the United States, but worldwide. We can now plan and execute international educational programs that would have been impossible a few years ago.”
As the director of Athena Learning, Inc., an educational services company, Miller has brought a number of innovative programs into classrooms around the world to improve student engagement, from adapting classical literature into plays for students to act out, to a math curriculum filled with word problems taught through fairy tales.
She created her oldest program shortly after her time at the Ed School. The Young Historians Program was founded in 2001 in response to young people wanting to understand more about the root causes of the 9/11 attacks. Since then, the Young Historians Program has had different iterations over the past two decades, but its mission remains the same — to enliven and deepen the study of history through the use of technology.
Now, the program is leveraging teachers’ proficiency in online learning in two countries. Using a curriculum authored by Miller, American and British schools spent the last school year studying the history of the British–American colonies and the roots of the American Revolution. As the culminating event of the program, students debated one another over Zoom on whether the American colonies had the legal and ethical right to separate from Great Britain.
Students didn’t just learn about the Boston Tea Party and Paul Revere’s famous ride, however. The curriculum challenged students to connect the dots between major historical periods and cultures, and covered a wide range of concepts, from Native American civilizations and European colonization to the Magna Carta and political ethics.
“Students can see how geography, politics, economics, religious upheavals, science and intellectual history all come together in the American Revolution,” Miller says. “The result is a rich narrative through which they can consolidate their understanding of history. And that leads to a much more sophisticated debate than would otherwise be possible.”
In the United States, the participating schools were all members of the Icahn Charter School Network in the Bronx. Teachers in England, where the American Revolution is not a part of the national curriculum, received subject-knowledge training via lessons created by Miller over Zoom, as well as the materials to teach and assess each lesson.
John Paul Duckworth is one of the lead teachers at Furness Academy in Cumbria, England. He says the program “allowed students to gain an insight into another country’s history and to consider the revolution from an American perspective. All of the students grew in confidence and knowledge and also made some excellent relationships with their American counterparts.”
Edward Tom, superintendent of the Icahn Charter Schools, echoed that sentiment. “At Icahn schools, one of our four pillars of transformative education is to transform instructional practices through innovation and creativity. The Young Historians Program, with its focus on subject matter depth and cross-cultural awareness, does just that.”
Miller says that a program like this might not have worked a few years ago when fewer educators took part in remote learning, but one of the positives that came out of the COVID pandemic is a more technologically proficient educator workforce. This opened up the possibility for collaborations beyond New York City — not only for students, but also for teachers.
“Teachers were very excited to meet teachers from other countries, to visit, if not in person, then on Zoom, and feel like they were part of an international profession and to learn from each other,” Miller says.
Technology also allowed the debates to be judged by a panel of historians, professors, and history educators from around the world, including Andrew O’Shaughnessy, professor of history at the University of Virginia and director of the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello.
“It’s not every day that you have seventh-grade debates judged by world-class historians,” Miller says.
Judges from both sides of the Atlantic say they were impressed by the skill of the students and the quality of their debates, as well as the depth of subject knowledge that students exhibited. Students made connections between the past and present, for instance, tracing gun rights to its beginnings in the 18th century with colonial militias and thinking about that effect today on events like school shootings.
While the majority of the debates took place over Zoom, one class of students actually got the chance to debate face-to-face. Thanks to funding from the British Council, British students from Furness Academy were able to travel to New York City in June to debate their peers at Icahn Charter School campus in the Bronx.
Miller says the quality of the judges and the excitement over the visiting British students inspired the American students to work hard on their speeches and delivery.
“For three weeks, we offered evening practices that were purely optional on three nights per week,” Miller says. “Every practice session was filled with students logging on to Zoom at 7:30 p.m. and staying on until 9:30 p.m. That is an extraordinary level of engagement and effort.”
After the success of this first year, Miller will grow the program next year to include schools from Barbados. This will include expanding the curriculum to compare and contrast the history of the British colonies in the Caribbean versus those in North America. In future years, Miller hopes to involve schools from Ghana and Ireland, since these countries were part of the larger historical narrative.
Miller says she is excited for another change. While this year students didn’t meet — virtually or in person — until their debate, next year they will have more time to spend building connection during the school year.
“Everyone was so moved by the mutual curiosity of the English and American students that next year we’re going to pair them up in Zoom interviews and as pen pals,” Miller says. “Students will be able to get to know each other before they debate. And maybe in the future they will even debate on the same team.”
Watch a video from the program: https://vimeo.com/741944650/7f6ed3f9dd
— Andrew Bauld, Ed.M.’16, is a writer and frequent Ed. contributor living in New York City.