Emerging America shares stories of advocacy

Home E CES Stories E Emerging America shares stories of advocacy
Article Author: Martha Maloney
Publication Name: Collaborative for Educational Services
Article Date: 2/29/2024
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“On behalf of CES, the Emerging America program works nationally in conversation with the Library of Congress and many other partners to support the full inclusion of students with disabilities in history and civics education. That includes development and sharing of stories of disabled advocates for equal rights so that students who are so often excluded see themselves as agents in our nation’s history.” – Rich Cairn

The Emerging America project at the Collaborative for Educational Services (CES) has a mission to support K-12 teachers of civics, history and social studies in engaging all students–especially students with disabilities and English Learners. Based on the knowledge that students become energized to learn history when they understand how the past relates to their lives, Emerging America has helped many hundreds of teachers over time to develop lessons that speak to issues students care most about, including local communities, social justice, and civic engagement projects.

Rich Cairn, Director of Emerging America at CES, began his career with the National Youth Leadership Council in Minnesota focused on service learning, and it was this work that originally brought CES to his attention. CES was one of only two organizations that focused on doing Service Learning with Students with Disabilities in the nation. Rich served on the Massachusetts Community Service Learning Advisory Committee and was part of the group that, in 2018, persuaded the legislature to add a requirement for student-led civic engagement which included advocacy and policy work for the first time. 

When CES successfully applied for a Teaching American History grant, we began developing a series of summer institutes for educators. At the time, Rich named the project Emerging America, expressing the project’s ties to service learning, including local history projects for civics, history and social studies teachers. Of the name, Rich said, “We wanted the name to be aspirational, and to stand the test of time. It absolutely fits our work on our  work on immigration and disability history, to think about a positive view of change in the country, and recognize that America has changed a lot throughout its history.” 

In 2010, the Library of Congress was funding projects with schools nationally, but realized that none had been funded in New England to date. CES successfully applied to work with the Teaching with Primary Sources program. Coursework for teachers included the Constitution and the Civil Rights movement. “We wanted teachers to facilitate inquiry using primary sources as a fundamentally different way of teaching, not just through lecture and reading, and began leading courses on Accessing Inquiry with Primary Sources as a result. It made sense that our focus covered teaching English Learners, and Students with Disabilities. We thought about how the work would impact students who have learning disabilities, speak languages other than English, or are incarcerated.”  

More recently, Emerging America began explicitly focusing on disability history. There were some curricula on the topic, but nothing comprehensive for K-12., that fit. In 2023 CES published the Reform to Equal Rights: K-12 Disability History Curriculum which meets state standards, gives teachers materials in a highly usable format, and is built around Universal Design for Learning. 

The work with disability history awareness is forward facing, and has benefitted educators across the nation. Rich’s schedule includes travel, and he notes that he will go anywhere that there is a room full of people interested in disability awareness education, including work with partners in California, Minnesota, South Carolina, Georgia, Kansas, and Pennsylvania. Rich also works with the virtual Disability History Museum, including serving on their Board. 

Part of the work has been helping to revise Massachusetts state standards to include disability history content, and supporting others applying for grants that will continue the disability awareness work in education. Rich recently launched a disability history interest group, a discussion group built from contacts nationwide that will meet bimonthly to share information and keep the discussion current. “The goal is, at some point, to work myself out of a job because so many other people nationwide will be connected and doing this work.”

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