The American Girls Collection History Project: A Third Grade and Teacher EducationCollaboration

Karen Hoelscher
November, 1854 - Riverton, Minnesota:

Kirsten hurried down the path beside her cousin Lisbeth. In one hand she carried a lunch in her wooden tine. With the other she held her shawl tightly around her shoulders.

"You're walking too fast!" Kirsten said.

But Lisbeth didn't slow down. "Mr. Coogan will be angry if we're late. He's really strict," she answered. Lisbeth was eleven. Mr. Coogan had been her teacher since she was nine. She loved to tell stories about how fierce he was. In fact, ever since July, when Kirsten and her family had come to live on Uncle Olav's farm, Lisbeth and her sister Anna had talked about Mr. Coogan and Powderkeg School. Now it was November. The harvest was over and it was time for the fall term to begin. Today would be Kirsten's first day in an American school.1

Kirsten Larsen is a fictional character who emigrated from Sweden with her family to start a new life on the American frontier. After traveling for six weeks as steerage in a cramped sailing ship, her family made their way from New York to Minnesota by rail, paddle-wheeler, and foot. They arrived at Uncle Olav's tiny farm where everything was different from what they left behind in their small village-people dressed, talked, and traveled differently in Minnesota, and her new teacher was strict and not very understanding. Kirsten's life story is one of several in The American Girls Collection, developed to chronicle the lives and adventures of children who lived long ago.2 This article describes a collaborative project using the "Kirsten" materials with preservice teachers and elementary students. The project involved planning, conducting, and evaluating a hands-on history experience connecting 16 preservice elementary teachers at Western Washington University with 110 third graders in Bellingham, Washington. Over a period of six weeks, preservice teachers and students studied pioneer life with thematic, interdisciplinary materials. The goal of the project was to practice small-group classroom teaching skills within a social studies methods course using the "Kirsten" trade book series and realia (dolls, furniture, and accessories from the 19th century).

Teacher education students guided small groups of third graders who participated in classroom activities and developed dramatizations of Kirsten's story for presentation to their classmates, teachers, and invited family members. A subsequent field trip to a local pioneer site allowed university and public school students to re-enact a day in the life of a local pioneer, complete with chopping wood, churning butter, making bread, and dipping candles. Practicum experiences such as these provide opportunities for preservice teachers to interact with students and classroom teachers prior to their student teaching assignments.

The practicum was developed in response to the need for preservice teachers to cross the bridge between theory and practice that is often missing in the preparation of elementary social studies educators.3 In setting up such practica, it is important to find meaningful ways-of value to both the university and public schools-to connect university students with local elementary students. Western is a medium-sized university (10,000 students, 1,000 of whom are preservice teachers), and Bellingham is a medium-sized town (population 58,000).

Planning the Project
1. Become familiar with the local school district curriculum. Local third graders participate annually in a long-term study of pioneers and local history-first by looking at how immigrants settled and prospered in Whatcom county, then by examining changes in our community since the late 1800s. In addition, the district uses an interdisciplinary curriculum structured using the concept approach, with the current theme being "change." Given these curricular directions, and third graders' enthusiasm about The American Girls Collection of books and dolls, I expected teachers at a local elementary school to be interested in working together to weave part of the collection into their annual study of local pioneer lore and history.
2. Develop connections between the potential practicum experience and the NCSS Standards. In a teacher education program, methods courses give preservice educators experience in examining and applying current professional standards for each academic area. The NCSS Curriculum Standards for Social Studies are organized in ten thematic strands, and are a valuable way to introduce standards-based planning and curriculum development in teacher education programs. Each theme includes performance expectations to clarify what students are expected to gain in knowledge, skills, and attitudes when classroom activities are conducted related to the theme.4

Two themes for early grades social studies activities guided planning for this practicum. They are Time, Continuity and Change (i.e., identify examples of change, identify and use various sources for reconstructing the past such as documents, letters, diaries, maps, and photos); and 3People, Places, and Environments (i.e., describe how people create places that reflect ideas, personality, culture, and wants and needs as they design homes, playgrounds, and classrooms; examine the interaction of human beings and their physical environment, use of land, and ecosystem changes). These themes helped us to develop relevant classroom experiences for preservice educators to practice selected performance expectations from the curriculum standards.

3. Identify a personally meaningful timeframe or character from The American Girls Collection; establish a local public school connection with one or more classroom teachers. My personal interest in the Swedish immigration experience in Minnesota (my grandparents journeyed a similar route in the late 1800s) spawned an interest in Kirsten's story. Trade books from The American Girls Collection are appropriate beginning at about the third grade reading level. After reading some of the books to my daughter and her friends, I became especially enthused about using them with my college students to expand on our theme of immigration, pioneers, and community changes. I knew, also, that local third graders studied pioneers in-depth followed by a full-day visit to a local "pioneer site." The next step was to convince a group of teachers to allow us to introduce the American Girls materials to their students. It did not take long to locate a group of third-grade teachers interested in collaborating on a practicum plan.

4. Determine logical links to third-grade curriculum by establishing a clear content focus and learning approach. At this meeting, I outlined several teaching ideas that seemed manageable during the quarter. These were drawn from the America At School Teacher's Guide to integrating the American Girls materials in social studies, literature, and language arts.5 The teachers then brainstormed other ideas that might be suitable for third-grade use. We discussed each idea, and then invented an action plan for learning about-and dramatizing-pioneer life in 1854. Our plan is outlined below.

Working the Plan
Before WEEK 1 of Practicum
All participants: preservice teachers (16), third grade students (110), classroom teachers (4), methods course instructor (1)
GOAL: Become familiar with concepts and storyline in Book 1: Meet Kirsten.

Preservice Teachers
GOAL: Become familiar with concepts and storyline in Book 2: Kirsten Learns a Lesson; examine components of thematic unit; prepare initial teaching plans.
Classroom Teachers (4)
GOAL: Familiarize students with concepts and storyline in Book 1: Meet Kirsten; set up classroom groups
Methods Course Instructor (1)
GOAL: Familiarize preservice teachers with concepts and storyline in Book 1: Meet Kirsten; set up classroom teaching assignments
Week 1
Same general plan for each classroom
GOAL: Get acquainted; build a "bridge" between events from Book 1 and Book 2.
4' x 8' rectangle on the classroom floor, discuss how it might feel to travel with your family for several days or weeks in a covered wagon of this size).
Week 2
Small groups from here through final day
GOAL: Review main events of Book 2; introduce the practicum format leading to the final dramatization; begin focus on assigned chapter.
Weeks 3-5
GOAL: Use feedback from classroom teacher to continue chapter work; encourage collaboration within small groups to develop a creative approach to presenting chapter events (includes identification of main events, creation of background scene, and development of characters and storylines for eventual presentation of chapter to classroom colleagues).
Week 6
GOAL: Present (in each classroom) chapter-by-chapter dramatizations of Book 2; help third-graders consider similarities and differences between Kirsten and local pioneers in the 1900s; assess general understandings of third grade students.
Back on Campus
Preservice Teachers and Methods Instructor
GOAL: Evaluate practicum outcomes (e.g., content understandings of third grade students related to the material presented in the Kirsten books; child development/classroom teaching understandings of college students related to the practicum experience they had completed)
Passe urges methods professors to coordinate coursework and field experiences in elementary social studies education. Such field experiences require considerable planning and coordination among university students, classroom teachers, and university methods professors. However, the potential is great for students-both university and elementary-to experience exciting and meaningful and social studies education when the campus extends into the real world.7 v

1.J. Shaw, Kirsten Learns a Lesson: A School Story. The American Girls Collection (Middleton, WI: Pleasant Company Publications, 1986).
2. The American Girls Collection is a series of books and related products designed to give children an understanding of America's past and the traditions families have shared through the ages.
3.S. Adler, "The Education of Social Studies Teachers" in J. Shaver, ed., Handbook of Research on Social Studies Teaching and Learning (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 210-220; J. Passe, "Early Field Experiences in Elementary and Secondary Social Studies Methods Courses," The Social Studies 85, 3 (May/June 1994): 130-33.
4. National Council for the Social Studies, Curriculum Standards for Social Studies: Expectations of Excellence (Washington, DC: Author, 1994).
5. America at School Teacher's Guide. The American Girls Collection (Middleton, WI: Pleasant Company Publications, 1994).
6.This form was a vital link in connecting the preservice teachers, classroom teachers, and methods instructor. The importance of soliciting, and using, feedback from classroom teachers cannot be overemphasized, since they know best what methods, strategies, and ideas motivate their students.
7. Passe.

About the Author
Karen Hoelscher is associate professor at the Woodring College of Education of Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington, where she teaches elementary social studies and multicultural education courses. Like Kirsten Larsen, she spent her formative years as a Swedish girl in Minnesota.