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English professor promotes ‘A More Perfect Union’ with new research grant

photo of Jeff Wilhelm
Jeff Wilhelm

If there’s one thing people in the U.S. are aware of, especially during election seasons, it is the glaring lack of civil discourse at all levels. Abortion, gun laws, racial equity, immigration: these are only a few of the “hot-button” topics that make Thanksgiving dinners uncomfortable, and political debates hostile.

But if students today could learn in school how to understand, acknowledge and empathize with differing viewpoints over contentious topics, could there be hope for a more civil future for this country? Absolutely.

Boise State Distinguished English Professor Jeffrey Wilhelm intends to do exactly that with a grant of $60,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The National Endowment for the Humanities’s special initiative A More Perfect Union will demonstrate and enhance the critical role the humanities play in the nation while supporting projects that will help Americans commemorate the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in 2026. The initiative builds on the endowment’s investment over the past six decades in projects that catalog, preserve, explain and promote American history.

With support from teachers all across Idaho, Wilhelm will work to prepare the next generation of students to be able to contextualize documents and in-person interviews using what he and the Boise State Writing Project call the “EMPOWER Method.”

“We’re going to position kids as actual social scientists and historians who look at a variety of documents and hear different people’s stories and varying perspectives around these contended issues,” Wilhelm said. “We’re going to ask them to look at important issues in American history and culture that affect Idaho, and play out in Idaho in particular ways.”

“The goal of this initiative is to promote a deeper understanding of American history and culture, and to understand that there are different perspectives on these issues that have value,” Wilhelm said. “I want students to understand how knowledge is made and justified, and to understand what constitutes evidence and what is misdirection or information pollution.”

Ongoing educator support and excellence

Wilhelm and Idaho educators champion the ‘EMPOWER Method’ (which highlights the seven steps of cognitive apprenticeship through guided inquiry) as a way of engaging youths and meeting next-gen standards across the curriculum. Using document-based inquiry, school children gain experience contextualizing documents, interviews, and other materials about contended or complicated topics through the lens of social scientists and historians.

Wilhelm and his Boise State Writing Project teacher colleagues developed, composed, and published two texts about this method during their work to help Idaho teachers to implement the Idaho Core and Idaho State Science Standards. The books, entitled “Planning Powerful Instruction: 7 Must-Make Moves to Transform How We Teach–and How Students Learn” are written for elementary teachers in one book and middle school/high school teachers in the other.

Through the Boise State Writing Project, Wilhelm said he and the teacher consultants have delivered over 100,000 contact hours of services annually to teachers and students in Idaho over each of the last twelve years, reaching over 2000 individual teachers each of those years.