It goes without saying that Iowa's History Teacher of the Year knows a thing or two about history. But he may know even more on how to make history come alive, engaging students to pursue a subject that in the not-too-distant past was an exercise in rote memorization of dates and places.
James Heithoff, a seventh-grade social studies teacher at Winterset Junior High in the Winterset Community School District, is a 17-year education veteran. Here are some of his thoughts on history and the classroom.
When did you decide to become a history teacher?
In seventh grade, I had a wonderful teacher named Jeff Kaufmann. When I walked into his classroom, I felt excited to be there. He was also able to create a classroom environment in which I felt like I was part of a team - something bigger than just me. I remember that class being the highlight of my day, and if it was offered on the weekends, I bet most of the students would have showed up for it, too! That was the year when I started thinking about being a teacher.
What spurred your interest in history?
In grade school and junior high, I was always drawn to books that had a connection with historical eras. I remember reading books like My Brother Sam is Dead, Sounder, and In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson. They inspired me to want to learn more about those topics. Growing up in eastern Iowa, there were also a lot of rich opportunities to learn about the past. I remember my mom taking me to the Civil War reenactment in the East Village of Davenport, visiting the Old Capital at Iowa City and the Hoover Presidential Library and Museum. All of those trips played an important part in spurring my interest in history.
How do you make history come alive in your classroom?
Finding compelling questions related to history that can engage and challenge students is a key part of bringing history alive in my curriculum. Once students are hooked into the question, they want to learn more and share their knowledge with others, too. In this manner history becomes so much more than a parade of dates and events, but instead it is a living event that inspires students to research, debate, and ask more questions. The National History Day Program and DBQ project provide great opportunities and resources for teachers and students to engage in this type of learning.
How do you engage your students to be interested in history?
By teaching the students that history is a mystery waiting to be discovered. Like any good detective, you have to ask excellent questions, look at different sources, analyze perspectives, make a claim and then back it up with solid evidence and reasoning. Basically, teaching them how to think like a historian. The National History Day Program is the culmination of this process for our students, and it is always amazing to see students create a project in which they had to overcome some of the challenges real historians face and create a project in which they can take great pride.
Why is teaching history so important?
The critical thinking skills that the discipline of history teaches reach out to all areas. Now more than ever, students need to look at questions from multiple perspectives and analyze the source for bias and accuracy. I also think history provides a unique perspective for students in that history allows us to realize that we all leave a legacy behind for others to study, and everything we do shapes that legacy. That is an extremely important and sometimes challenging idea for young people to grasp and one that history can teach best.
How do you emphasize state and local history in your classroom?
I have been lucky enough to connect with local historians who have come into my classroom and helped design lesson plans and led field trips for our students. I think every community has people who are passionate about preserving local history. The passion they bring combined with the classroom experience a teacher has for designing lesson plans can really create powerful learning experiences for students. When students realize that history happens in their own backyard, they want to learn more. I believe we are laying down the foundation for our next generation of local historians who will strive to preserve our past.
The History Teacher of the Year program is sponsored by the Gilder Lehrman Institute. Gilder Lehrman is a national nonprofit dedicated to the teacher and learning and American history.