Teaching with Historic Places in Real Classrooms: James Percoco on engaging students with local history

Applied History: Placing Students in the Past

By James A. Percoco, History Teacher West Springfield High School, Springfield, Virginia

The following is a case study in the ways students can engage with history in their communities. James Percoco explains how his students explored history and its uses through field studies and internships.


One of the things I hear most often from teachers when I am presenting at a workshop is that the work I have done to incorporate historic sites into the curriculum has been easy for me to accomplish because I live right on the doorstep of the nation’s capital and in a region dotted with historic sites that cover the Colonial Period through the present. I full well understand and appreciate that argument, but I encourage teachers to explore the history in their own backyard and to incorporate their local tales within the bigger picture of American history. For many years I have been employing a technique I call the IFT – Individualized Field Trips. Here I make my students go out into the world and explore. These teenage historians are doing what I call Applied History.

Monumental Leadership

One project that works very well for my students could easily apply anywhere in the United States. This is my Monumental Leadership project. Leadership lessons have increasingly taken root in American schools. These leadership lessons are tied closely to civic education, an education that prompts young people to consider seriously their role in the democratic process. American public sculpture has always found a place in American life and culture, not only reflecting the individual or event commemorated, but also providing a window to the time in which the monument was erected.

For example, prior to his death in 1945, President Franklin Roosevelt expressed a wish that if the American people wanted to raise a memorial to him, he would want simply a small block of stone placed on a little patch of grass outside the Pennsylvania Avenue side of the National Archives and Records Administration building. All he wanted on the stone was his name and the dates of his life. After he died he received his wish. This begs the question: why then, in 1997, was a seven-acre National Memorial to Roosevelt dedicated on the Mall in Washington, D.C.? A clue appears in the words of President Warren G. Harding at the 1922 dedication of the Lincoln Memorial, when he said, “This memorial, matchless as it is, is more for us and future generations than it is for Abraham Lincoln.”

Who Deserves a Monument?

The Monumental Leadership project is inquiry based and combines student reading of Washington’s Leadership Lessons by James C. Rees, President of George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens, with visits to physical monuments in Washington, D.C. Pairs of my students set off together, each pair assigned a public sculpture of one of the lesser known figures of American history whose bronze or stone images populate the nation’s capital. The memorials to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Roosevelt are not on the list. Instead, students encounter people like John Ericson, John Barry, or Mary McLeod Bethune.

Using Rees’ book as a spring board, students have to create a PowerPoint presentation on the life and accomplishments of their assigned figures, explaining why each person deserves a monument in the nation’s capital by describing how this individual’s life embodies the principles of leadership modeled by George Washington. My students love this project! It is very hands-on and provides real world learning, while at the same time honoring timeless American values.

Local Monuments

Many communities large and small across the nation have a monumental landscape. These silent sentinels are community reminders of what our forefathers and mothers have left us. Archives of local historical societies and public libraries often contain primary sources related to these monuments, their creation, and dedications. I know this first hand because much of the primary material I used for writing my book Summers with Lincoln: Looking for the Man in the Monuments came from just such institutions. I encourage you to reach out to your local historical sites, museums, archives, and libraries and work with the staffs there to build similar lessons for your students.

Local Internships and Service Learning

With senior capstone projects becoming increasingly popular in schools, students can also complete service learning and leadership activities by working at the type of repositories, sites, or archives I mention above. For more than two decades I have been teaching a senior elective course that I designed and call Applied History. After a fall semester steeped in rigorous examination of themes and topics in history, including several field trips, these students spend their second semester not with me in a classroom, but working as interns at local historic sites, museums, and other historical organizations in the Washington, D.C., area.

These include, among others, the National Park Service units Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site; Manassas National Battle Field Park; Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site; and Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial.

At these sites students encounter the world of public history working as collections managers, providing costumed interpretation, performing curatorial work, and developing learning programs for young children. What I am most proud of is that, over the years, 36 of my students have turned their internships into positions as National Park Service rangers.


This type of direct involvement in both investigating history and exploring students’ own communities and interests is the best of all kinds of education. Students give back to the community while at the same time learning valuable history. Only the classroom is different – it’s the world.

Read Jim’s tips for Jumping into the Fray with Teaching with Historic Places

Read Case Study #1: Reeling Students into History Using Films Creatively

Last updated: December 19, 2015

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