Historical Education In Action

“This is not about me getting up and spouting information. This is about making teenagers historians. It’s about getting students involved, getting them engaged.” – James Percoco

To fully utilize living history sites as supplements to classroom education takes a great deal of work. It is more than taking students to the sites, it requires teachers to be truly dedicated to the furthering of historic knowledge. They must be willing to engage in history in the same manner that they expect of their students. One teacher who has successfully created a public history program at the high school level is James Percoco of West Springfield High School in Springfield, Virginia.

Percoco began working at the high school in 1980 and began his Applied History course eleven years later.[2] Students in this class are not assigned text books, but instead are asked to read works written by historians. Their learning does not stop there, as one of the most important aspects of the class is the application of knowledge and learning through experience. Since 1991, those in Percoco’s class have “contributed over 30,000 man-hours to historic sites, museums and history agencies.”[3]

Percoco is very dedicated in his use of historical sites, but not as the final word on any particular narrative. While the sites give a very good sense of what the past is like, it is not the complete story. He highlights working farm sites as being a possible exception to this, as in these cases the sites are not pristine, making them more accurate depictions of what the past was actually like.[4]

Percoco acknowledges the difficulty some educators might have in duplicating his program, particularly in difficult economic times.[5] For a program to be successful it must have a lot of administrative support. Teachers need to have a plan for how the structure and activities of the class before entering in to it.[6]

Working out of Virginia, Percoco has a number of living history sites at his disposal. This may not be the case for all high schools. However, while other programs may not be identical to Percoco’s work, teachers can make the best of the resources available to them. Percoco points out that factor that is vital to the success of his course is getting people from outside interested in the program.[7] Gaining support from local historical sites, as well as from the community, presents a great deal more opportunities. Though his program is now almost twenty years old, Percoco continues to seek out connections with new sites each year.

Percoco’s work exemplifies living historical education with a foundation of institutionalized learning. Using a school setting to foster discussion about what is experienced within living history sites gives students a community in which to share their reactions and thoughts. As Percoco describes his class, “It’s not looking at notes or copying stuff down. It’s a giant conversation.”[8] Experiences gained at living history sites bring unique perspectives to these dialogues and bolster the historical education of Percoco’s students.

For more information on Percoco and his program, please visit his website.


[1] James Percoco, “TAH Annual Projects Directors Conference; Day One,” accessed November 16, 2010. http://teachinghistory.org/tah-grants/annual-project-directors-conference/day/23872.

[2]“Biography,” accessed November 16, 2010. www.jamespercoco.com/bio.

[3] Ibid.

[4] James Percoco, interview by Kelly Johnson, telephonic, November 17, 2010.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

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Published on December 1, 2010 at 8:52 pm  Comments Off on Historical Education In Action  
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