- The Washington Times - Monday, March 31, 2008

High school history teacher Jim Percoco has a passion that literally is monumental.

Loving history, especially President Abraham Lincoln, led him to visit all 200 statues of the great man during four summers and even write a book about what he discovered en route.

Not really your typical vacation.

The 51-year-old veteran teacher at Virginia’s West Springfield High School has infected students with some of his fever — all in the name of interactive education that is a popular cry these days.

Changes in teaching methods have been under way for a decade or more, says Kelly Schrum, director of educational projects at George Mason University’s Center for History and New Media.

“It’s similar to the emphasis on science education that came after the Cold War when doing experiments was important in a classroom. It’s show, don’t tell,” she says.

It’s also about what she calls “democratizing history” — using technology to give voice to people in history whose lives often have been ignored.

“If you teach history in an exciting way, students have a better framework and remember more,” she says, giving credit to Mr. Percoco as being “very influential” in the education field and “very innovative” in his approach.

His third book, “Summers with Lincoln,” about seven of the Lincoln statues, is subtitled “Looking for the Man in the Monuments,” a feat that might be akin to locking the barn door after the horse has escaped. After all, what can a sculptural likeness in stone reveal that is not already part of the historical record?

But as West Springfield students who take his 17-year-old course on applied history learn, interpretation is at the heart of understanding great men and events as much as the often disputed facts. History for him, as he has explained to his classes, is “the eternal conversation.”

Students read a book about the Battle of Gettysburg, for instance, see part of the 1993 movie of that title, and then visit the site. They visit the American Museum of Art and the National Portrait Gallery to see images of the Civil War in paintings and sculpture and “learn what images say about history and see at what point reality becomes conjectural memory everybody can embrace.”

Film is important as “part of bringing the past to them and useful as a launching point about why this or that gets told or not,” Mr. Percoco states. Another part of his agenda is getting students to see that in understanding history they also may need to know some of the chemistry and math involved in the material culture — forensic evidence — that has an impact on memory and history and how to differentiate between them.

“This year we went to Harpers Ferry to see a monument there which is about the free black baggage master who was the first victim of John Brown’s raid. Two Confederate groups had raised the money for the memorial,” he says. “Each monument has its own history depending on the political climate prevailing.”

Students’ education also can extend to dressing up in period costumes and working as interns at local historic sites such as Mount Vernon, Gadsby’s Tavern and Arlington House in Arlington National Cemetery. Over the years, his students have given 25,000 hours of service to all kinds of museums and historic sites, he estimates. A number of his graduates have gone on to study what he calls public history — an emerging field of history for people who deal with issues that aren’t necessarily academic, such as National Park Service or National Trust employees who regularly communicate with the public.

Changes in his profession have been positive, he says, in spite of what he terms the “standards movement pushing the other way.” It is a “clash about content versus coverage that in some ways has been both a blessing and a curse,” he says. “Kids now need to know about Booker T. Washington and his [segregation and civil rights] debate with William duBois, for instance, but it’s hard to get into any depth because you have to stick to the curriculum. Applied history is saying I can take three weeks and look at a topic in depth, but in a regular survey you don’t have time.”

He has seen “a tremendous increase in the interest in history and in understanding why it is important. I would say today’s college grads getting into history teaching are better prepared, and kids are getting exposed to topics in better ways.”

Still, problems remain. “History is not an economic engine,” he says. “You need history for spiritual reasons and that doesn’t transfer into cash dollars. … I think you need to understand history to learn how to make choices.”

Choices such as the difficult ones Lincoln made, and how he grew and changed as a result.

Mr. Percoco tells his students Lincoln’s greatest growth took place between the ages of 51 and 56. Their teacher’s challenge, he says, has been his own “personal growth and bringing that to the kids.”

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