For Joshua Bill, teaching history isn’t about asking students to memorize dates, places and names.
He wants his students to become historians. He wants them to study the event from every perspective, to come up with their own fresh interpretation of what happened and, hopefully, to appreciate history more.
It’s that passion to teach history and his commitment to students that led the Waukegan High School teacher to be named the National History Teacher of the Year by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.
Caroline Kennedy presented Bill with the award, which includes a $10,000 prize, during a Dec. 4 ceremony at the Frederick Douglass Academy in New York City.
Bill’s interest in history started while growing up in southern New Hampshire and taking grade school field trips to the site of the Boston Massacre or the Battle of Bunker Hill. In 2000, he came to the Chicago area where he says he fell in love with history when he chose to study history and education at Lake Forest College.
“That’s where I was introduced to a new school of thought in history, where I could add to the discussion, where I could be a historian,” he said. “I could engage in active construction of the past (rather) than passively learning what happened.”
Up through high school, history was taught through lectures, memorizing facts and taking tests, he said, but that notion was turned upside down in college. Teaching at Waukegan High since 2004, his goal is to make his students historians and to take that role seriously.
“It is a role that they have as members of society to not only know their history but also critique the status quo, so to speak, because there is a status quo behind history — the basic storyline narrative that most historians accept and textbooks write about. It is a lot more complex than that and they can take that on and their ideas can be respected,” Bill said. “Students enjoy the process. They enjoy debunking myths and constructing their own ideas of the past.
President Abraham Lincoln, for example, is considered a larger-than-life figure. However, in reading his speeches and letters when he ran for president, students are startled to discover he had a different opinion of race at that time. Bill said his job is not to show students what they knew before was wrong, but that historical figures are more complex.
“Once they are awakened to his racial views, the awesome part for me is when they talk about the Civil War, because he’s a different President Lincoln by the end of the Civil War,” he said. “They come to appreciate him even more because they see him as a human. They see someone who grew and evolved on the issue of race.”
Following a partnership with the Waukegan Historical Society, Bill’s students also study history within Waukegan.
“Local history, stuff that happens on a local level qualifies as American history. It is part of our story,” he said. “They see their own city as a more complex and wonderful place.”
The National History Teacher of the Year award is co-sponsored by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, HISTORY, and Preserve America. More than 1,000 candidates nationally were nominated. Ali Schultz, a colleague at Waukegan High, nominated Bill.
A panel of judges comprising the previous national winner, renowned historians, professors and teachers evaluate all state winners to select the national honor.
According to the Gilder Lehrman Institute website, Bill was recognized for allowing his students to take the lead in discussions on complex issues in American history. He also was credited for creative projects his students have done, such as a re-enactment of the Battle of Bunker Hill in the school auditorium or a simulation of a Supreme Court hearing.
Waukegan High Principal Brian Riegler said Bill brings history alive for his students, telling them not to just give their perspective but back it up with facts.
“He makes them active participants in history. They have fun and learn. It’s a great idea,” Riegler said. “It’s a humbling experience to say we know the national history teacher of the year — he is teaching our kids.”
Rachel Ragland, associate professor and chair of the education department at Lake Forest College, said seeing Bill earn this honor is a validation of work the college does and that Bill has taken to heart.
He talks about his commitment to students, families and community and holds high expectations for his students, which are all stressed by the college, Ragland said.
That’s why Waukegan students have earned recognition themselves. In his early years teaching, Bill revived the Chicago Metro History Fair program at the school and has since led students to success at the local, state, and national levels of the National History Day competition, she said.
Bill returns each year to participate in a panel discussion with new teaching students, she added.
Bill is quick to say his students share the honor.
“My students motivate me day in and day out to be at my best,” he said. “Without them, I would not be motivated to try to go above and beyond what I do.”Copyright © 2014 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.