During a whirlwind of summer research trips, USC Rossier doctoral candidate Kate Rogers was struck by one sight in particular: a small handprint in a brick wall at Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia plantation, Monticello. The tour guide said the handprint was probably left by a child—one of the more than 400 enslaved people who helped build the grand house. The teachers in Rogers’ group pressed in close to take pictures, which they vowed to share with students when the topic of slavery came up in the curriculum.
Their excitement confirmed for Rogers “the power of place” in preparing teachers to teach history, especially contested history. “Teachers are on the frontlines of the culture wars in America,” said Rogers, whose work as executive director of the Alamo Trust in San Antonio involves broadening the story of Texas’ beginnings, including reconciling conflicting views of the part slavery played in Texas’ war for independence from Mexico in the 1830s.
“Giving teachers the language and tools to open up a real dialogue with students, versus just getting them to memorize dates and facts, is so important,” Rogers said. “Historic sites and museums can help support teachers at a time when they desperately need it.”
The role of “institutions of informal learning” in professional development has been Rogers’ consuming interest since she entered USC Rossier’s Global Executive Doctor of Education program in 2021. Her dissertation examines the ways these sites can strengthen history education by providing teachers with resources to deepen students’ appreciation of history and develop empathy and critical thinking skills.
“We have many contested spaces and histories in the United States, and we struggle as a society to find common ground on how to teach those histories,” said Professor of Clinical Education and History Mark Power Robison, who chairs the Global Executive EdD faculty steering committee. “Kate’s dissertation asks how historic sites and museums can help teachers convey the richness of our history to their students.”
Besides Monticello, Rogers has conducted research at Gettysburg, George Washington’s Mount Vernon, and the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. She also visited the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, South Africa, with her cohort. Her experiences at those sites have kept her mindful of the needs of educators as she oversees a $450 million Alamo redevelopment plan, which includes 10,000 square feet of exhibit space opening in early 2023.
She hopes to create classroom materials and in-service programs that foster inquiry-based instruction and help teachers lead honest classroom dialogues on emotional issues like slavery and the pervasive effects of racism. She envisions featuring primary source documents, including accounts of an enslaved Black man named Joe who was one of the few survivors of the 1836 Battle of the Alamo, as well as such priceless items from the Alamo’s collection as a sword that belonged to Mexican General Antonio López de Santa Anna.
The redevelopment of the Alamo site has stirred impassioned debate. Traditionalists want the focus to remain on the heroism of those who fought for Texas’ freedom. But others have pressed for recognition of the Indigenous people who built the Alamo for Spanish missionaries and for acknowledgement that Alamo defenders such as James Bowie were fighting in part to uphold their rights as enslavers.
Rogers said she is committed to telling the full 300-year history of the site—the good, the bad and the ugly. “Our big goal,” she said, “is to push visitors to think about things they hadn’t considered before because the story is more complicated than it has traditionally been told.