LIVERMORE FALLS — High school history teacher Sue St. Pierre has her students reading biographies these days to help them learn American history.
After all, she has been doing the same thing over the past two years while taking the course, “Teaching American History Through Biography.”
She recently took her knowledge and experience to a national level when she spoke as part of a panel, “Teachers as Historians: Creating a Content-Based Teaching American History Program" during the 125th annual meeting of the American Historical Association. It was held over several days, with St. Pierre’s panel presenting on Jan. 8 at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston.
For her, the biggest thing was being asked to speak at a national conference, she said. “Although a bit daunting, it was a great experience."
She spoke on “How Learning to Be a Historian Informed My Work in the Classroom.”
The Livermore woman has taught history for 33 years, 27 in Regional School Unit 36, formerly SAD 36. The past 21 years, she has been at Livermore Falls High School.
Over the past several years, the Maine Humanities Council has partnered with three Maine school districts including Oxford Hills and Gorham to provide in-depth programming through the U.S. Department of Education’s “Teaching American History” grant program, according to the council‘s website.
St. Pierre and fellow staffers Cathi Howell and Nate Purrington read biographies and meet with others in the program five times during the year and attend a summer institute where professors lead them through discussions on the books. Two other staff members, Kym Bryant and Michelle Brann, have since joined.
Part of the agreement is that each participant has to write his or her own biography, St. Pierre said.
“I did mine on William Pitt Fessenden, a senator in the state of Maine in the 19th century,” she said.
Fessenden cast a deciding vote against impeaching Andrew Johnson, she said.
Students in their classes know their teachers have been reading 1,000-page biographies.
“We’ve probably read 10 to 15 biographies over the last two years,” St. Pierre said. “It is rare that we have the opportunity to learn content. We spend so much time in pedagogy, the process of teaching, and less time on content.”
It has helped refresh her mind on content, she said.
“It has been 33 years since I had the time and opportunity to be a scholar and it has been fun to get back to that and share the experience with my kids,” she said.
She has asked her students to do research, and now she can talk to them about her own research.
The course has had a “dramatic impact” on her teaching, St. Pierre said.
“A lot of what I read for this course, I probably would not have read it, given all the work we do during the school year, unless it was assigned,” she said.
Among the biographies she has had her students read is Nathaniel Philbrick’s “Mayflower.”
She and her class discussed the book the same way she and her peers have done.
One-hundred percent of the high school’s History Department, 40 percent of the English Department and 24 percent of the entire faculty are teaching America’s history through biographies, she said.
“We are doing the same thing," St. Pierre said. "We are all taking the same course, so we are all able to build off each other and collaborate and share.”