Lesley S. Herrmann: The Art of Teaching History

NYC-based Gilder Lehrman Institute has more than 65,000 original primary source documents in your collection. Why is it important for students to learn from primary sources?

Lesley S. Herrmann: These documents date back to 1493 and include manuscripts from George Washington, Frederick Douglass, and Abraham Lincoln. They help teachers move history out of the textbooks and let their students see it through the eyes of the people directly responsible for shaping American history.

In addition, to make sure teachers have every tool they need to bring these documents to life, we created History by Era, a section on our website that brings 10 different eras in American history to life with primary sources, essays from scholars, lesson plans, and videos with historians. These features have made it the most popular section on our site, receiving thousands of visits from teachers every day.

Grateful American™ Foundation: Teachers are obviously a key part of the Institute. In fact, you give out the National History Teacher of the Year award. Tell us about this program and others that you offer to teachers around the country.

Lesley S. Herrmann, Gilder Lehrman Institute: Because teachers are at the core of our mission to expand the teaching and learning of American history, we are delighted and proud to honor a “National History Teacher of the Year” at our annual fall ceremony. Each year we also award a “State Teacher of the Year” to a particularly outstanding history teacher in all 50 states.

Gilder Lehrman’s Teacher Seminars are arguably our most popular offering. They allow teachers the chance to attend free, week-long courses that dive deep into major topics in American history. Courses are led by top historians and take place at prestigious universities and historic sites throughout the United States and abroad. These selective programs — we offer around 40 a year — have proven so popular that our single largest day of web traffic happens every year on the day we announce acceptance notices.

Grateful American™ Foundation: You also have an Affiliate School Program network that on June 25, 2013, officially reached 3,000 schools across the country. How does this program work?

Lesley S. Herrmann, Gilder Lehrman Institute: Our Affiliate School Program, developed with the support of the National Endowment for the Humanities, offers exclusive resources to teachers and participating schools, including eligibility for our Teacher Seminars, free lesson plans, scholarships and discounts for online courses, and discounts on purchases of Gilder Lehrman materials in our History Shop. In addition, schools can display one of our traveling exhibitions free of charge, and their students are eligible to participate in the “Civil War Essay Contest” and “Dear George Washington Contest.”

The program continues to expand rapidly, and we’ve added more than 2,000 schools in the last year, bringing the total number of Gilder Lehrman Affiliate Schools to more than 5,000. Schools are encouraged to register for free on our website.

Grateful American™ Foundation: We understand that you also offer an online master’s-degree program to teachers, who otherwise might not be able to get their MA. How does this program work? How long does it take to complete? And what is the cost?

Lesley S. Herrmann, Gilder Lehrman Institute: Our new online MA program, which officially launches in July and will be offered in partnership with Adams State University, will offer people the chance to receive their MA in American History directly through Gilder Lehrman’s online graduate courses. Our online courses are led by top scholars and blend a traditional liberal arts environment with features that can only be found online, combining small class sizes with virtual field trips and interactive discussions.

Once the program is underway, enrollees can take as long as they need to complete the program. Even better, at an average cost of $600 per course, they can earn their MA in American history for under $6,000!

Grateful American™ Foundation: With so many projects going on, you have clearly accomplished quite a lot in the last 20 years. What are you plans for the future?

Lesley S. Herrmann, Gilder Lehrman Institute: We’re thrilled about the future of the Gilder Lehrman Institute and look forward to continuing to grow and expand the programs we offer. For example, “Teaching Literacy through History,” our new, primary source-based K-12 professional development program, has expanded to include Chicago Public Schools, Milwaukee Public Schools, and the Catholic Schools of New York City and Newark.

We also want to continue expanding student-friendly content, such as the video series launched this spring which offered “Last Minute Prep” for taking the AP US History test which drove record numbers of new visitors to our site.

To learn more about the Gilder Lehrman Institute, visit gilderlehrman.org.


Lesley S. Herrmann has been executive director of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History since its founding in 1994. She has spearheaded the Institute’s efforts to promote the study of American history and improve the quality of history education. Under Herrmann’s direction, the Institute has created seminar programs for elementary, middle, and high school teachers and the Affiliate Schools Program, a growing network of history-focused schools across the United States; and produced dozens of American history publications, digital resources, and traveling exhibitions for students and teachers.

Herrmann has also held a variety of development and planning positions with not-for-profit and educational organizations in New York City, including the Municipal Art Society, Asphalt Green, The New School for Social Research, and Pace University. She holds a master’s degree in Russian Area Studies from Harvard University and a PhD in Slavic Languages and Literature from Columbia University, and has taught Russian literature at The New School for Social Research and Manhattan College.

Herrmann serves on the board of the National Coalition for History and has served on the boards of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History and the National Council for History Education. She has contributed to the Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives and the Claremont Review of Books.