Adding flavor with Florida

A group of history teachers participate in a workshop that shows how to infuse state history into broader American history while making information accessible to students.

Published August 22, 2006

LARGO - James Cusick was talking about Florida's colonial history, but the story sounded all too familiar.

"It's an awful lot like modern Florida, with the influx and exodus of folks," he said, referring to early European conquests.

Cusick, curator of the P.K. Yonge Library of Florida History at the University of Florida, was giving a group of Pinellas County eighth-grade teachers a history lesson on colonial St. Augustine. Settled by Pedro Menendez de Aviles more than 40 years before Captain John Smith landed at Jamestown, Va., St. Augustine is the nation's oldest continuously occupied settlement.

The workshop last Wednesday was made possible by a $1-million federal Teaching American History grant awarded to the School Board in 2005. The grant supports professional development programs for eighth-grade teachers who are adjusting to curriculum changes that began last year. The changes substituted American history for Florida history. For the previous 12 years, eighth-graders received American history instruction through their Florida history course. Last year's curriculum change was basically a swap, said K-12 social studies supervisor Randy Lightfoot.

"Now, you would teach American history, but where it applies, infuse Florida history," Lightfoot said.

Teachers and students also got a new textbook last year. At the district's request, the publishers included a Florida history addendum, Lightfoot said.

Cusick's presentation was a scaled-down version of a five-day summer workshop held in St. Augustine that draws teachers from across the country. Cusick introduced a variety of resources to the teachers, including books, articles and Web sites. He focused on infusing Florida history into broader American history lessons. "If you're talking about bigger topics like the Revolution or slavery, you can incorporate Florida history into that," Cusick said.

Repeatedly, the topic turned to how the teachers could make the material accessible to their students.

According to a 2001 study by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, more than a third of eighth-graders nationwide performed below the basic level of proficiency in United States history.

"Fifth grade has a real basic part of American history. But very little emphasis is given to it because it's not on the FCAT, so the children are coming to middle school with very little background in history or geography," said grant manager Linda Whitley.

Palm Harbor Middle School teacher Judy Buck said the training opportunity was a "shot in the arm" for teachers. Buck was representing her school's social studies department at the workshop, which included teachers from about 20 middle schools.

"(Whitley's) really good because she tries to involve as many of us as possible, with the theory that if we're getting excited about the history and the curriculum, it will trickle down to our students, and I think it does," Buck said.

After Cusick's presentation, teachers were treated to a one-man play entitled Matanzas: A Survivor's Story. Funded by a grant from the Florida Humanities Council and written by Minda A. Stephens, the play is an account of the massacre of Huguenot forces by the Spanish in 1565 - beginning the first Spanish period of Florida, which would last nearly 200 years.

Dave Goodwin, a social studies teacher from John Hopkins Middle School in St. Petersburg, said Florida's early history can't be overlooked when studying European settlement of the United States. "You can't teach American history without teaching Florida history. You just can't," Goodwin said.