Knox Historian Helps Improve Teaching of History

Catherine Denial: "Everyone, even kindergartners, can do history."

August 01, 2011

Catherine Denial - Bringing History HomeEveryone -- even kindergartners -- can do history, according to Knox College faculty member Catherine Denial, the lead historian for a program that is revolutionizing the way history is taught in schools nationwide.

Denial, assistant professor of history at Knox, has worked with the program "Bringing History Home" since its inception in 2001, serving as lead historian since 2006. This summer, she is leading workshops in July and August for teachers in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

"Bringing History Home has impacted thousands of teachers and students by allowing them to work directly with primary sources, teaching them to analyze and create history, not simply memorize dates," Denial says.

Photos, right: above, Denial with teachers at Bringing History Home; right, example of a display made by a grade school student.

Bringing History HomeLaunched as a cooperative effort by the University of Iowa and a single school district in Iowa, Washington Community School District, the program is now used in some 50 districts in Iowa, Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, Wyoming, Alaska, and New Mexico.

More than 900 teachers have participated in the program's workshops, and 45,000 elementary school students, and 15,000 middle and high school students have moved through the curriculum so far.

Tests administered by the University of Iowa's Center for Evaluation and Assessment have shown that the curriculum significantly increases students' recall and understanding of history, as well improving literacy skills across the board, Denial says.

Catherine Denial - Bringing History HomeWhat makes Bringing History Home different and successful is its emphasis on active learning.

"We are used to thinking of ourselves as active participants in many subjects -- we write stories in English, observe reactions in chemistry, and play instruments in music. But often we're taught that history is something we memorize, rather than something we do," she says.

"Whether we're in kindergarten or fifth grade, a teacher or a professor, we can collect and analyze primary sources, pose questions for further research, sort through materials to find answers to our questions, visually map the information we find, and think about change over time. That makes the past come alive."

Bringing History HomeThe program has been supported by grants totaling $3.6 million from Teaching American History, an initiative of federal Department of Education. All the materials developed by Denial, project director Elise Fillpot of the University of Iowa, and their colleagues are available free, through the program website, The materials include lesson plans, primary sources, teaching strategies, and links to further resources.

Denial also has written a series of web pages that show how the program can be applied at the college level. They are available free at

Photos right: above, a history teacher in one of Denial's workshops examines an engraving illustrating 19th-century Brazil; below, Denial leads a session on interpreting historical photographs. All photos courtesy Bringing History Home.

Catherine Denial - Bringing History HomeAt Knox, Denial's students have created exhibits that showcase her method for teaching history as an evidence-based and interpretive discipline. They include a full-size model of the Lincoln-Douglas debate site at Knox's Old Main, and a display that collected reminiscences of World War II from Knox alumni and area residents.

A member of the Knox faculty since 2005, Denial received her bachelor's degree from the University of Nottingham, UK, her master's degree from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and her doctorate from the University of Iowa.