In the Fall of 2020 I was honored to have been selected by my colleagues as our building level Teacher of the Year. This is the first step in a district wide competition with 56 teachers selected from every school. The first stage is the narrowing of the list to a “Top 10” based on an written application. This is the first part of the application called “Why I Teach“. Part two relates to the Teaching Profession.

Why I Teach (three double-spaced pages)

A.      What were the factors that influenced you to become a teacher?

             The simplest answer is that I was “good” at school, and I enjoyed my time as a student. Teaching seemed like a natural path. My interests leaned towards Social Studies. My favorite teachers were in that area, I enjoyed the subject, and I scored well on the tests. In truth, the choice to become a teacher was easy. The challenge was understanding what type of teacher I wanted to become. I recall two distinct styles in my high school Social Studies courses. The first was US History, a class with a high stakes “Regents” exam taught by a stereotypical “test prep” teacher. He assigned chapter sections and questions to be completed in class while he did paperwork at his desk. There were a lot of quizzes, a lot of free time, and mostly rote memorization. I was a fantastic test taker and excelled. The second was Mr. Ullman’s Current Events class which did not have a high stakes test. Most of our time was spent talking about big ideas that influenced current events. The class was engaging and thought provoking, but the lack of formal assessments made me uncomfortable based on my past experiences.  Both influenced me, but it took college for me to understand how. I was an arrogant freshman History major because of my high test scores, but during my first college History class, the professor stressed the importance of primary sources and research. I was expecting lectures and tests like my US History course and I floundered because I had little to no understanding of the tools I would need to be a successful Historian. Through my struggles, I realized that the path Mr. Ullman, my Current Events teacher, had started me on was far more relevant to teaching than the rote memorization of my US History class. The critical thinking skills, argument analysis, and respectful debates were core skills I used during college.  I fell in love with History as a discipline, and I wanted to help others learn these skills because Historical skills are lifelong tools that help people become well informed and active community members.

B.      Describe what you consider to be your greatest contributions and accomplishments in education.

             My family has a running joke that when my baby boy has a hard time falling asleep they send me in. I start lecturing about the American Revolution, and he’s out before the Stamp Act. History has a reputation for being a dull but when taught with better practices History is an engaging subject.  My greatest contribution to education is developing and advocating for game inspired curriculum designs to making the learning process more active and engaging.  In 2013, I joked with a colleague that class would be more interesting if it was a Role Playing Game. That year, I also attended a state training for the US History End of Course (EOC) Exam where the featured presenter boasted a 100% EOC exam passing rate but suggested “drill and kill” as the most effective technique. Based on my own learning journey, I knew that there must be a better way. I decided to move forward with my vision of a game inspired classroom. Instead of traditional grades, students level up with experience points (XP), and instead of worksheets and activities students go on Quests. As my understanding grew, I worked with the students to form a gamified classroom. I discovered a small online gamification community. I began blogging to share my ideas and reflect on my own practice. Students immediately showed increased engagement, more critical thinking, and enhanced creativity. Most importantly, the students’ experience became central with meaningful choices and learning that extended beyond the class walls. Two examples of game inspired designs that broke down classroom walls involved the Veteran’s History Project and the National History Day competition.

             The Veteran’s History Project consists of people interviewing veterans which are then archived at the Library of Congress. For this project, students perform interviews to learn content, use research skills, and humanize war. Veterans were honored, but they also benefited from sharing their stories. One student, Lauren, interviewed my wife’s grandfather – a Korean War veteran who always felt forgotten. The interview affirmed his service, and he made copies of the interview for the whole family. Lauren learned a lot from the process, but she didn’t know we played his interview the night of his funeral. My students have interviewed about 50 veterans whose stories have been saved and who have helped our students understand the impact of their service.

             The National History Day competition (NHD) allows students to demonstrate their skills in research based projects in one of five creative categories based on a topic of their choice. The project fosters feedback, revision, historic argumentation, and creativity and students who struggle with traditional assessments find success with NHD projects. They take ownership of their learning by investigating their passion. For example. two past students with mediocre test scores created a fictional rap battle between Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Owing to their creativity the project won at the regional competition and placed 3rd in the state. This is a common story. The ability to personalize their experience, incorporate creative and critical thinking, and incorporate modern digital tools allow students to flourish. These characteristics are shared with the game inspired frameworks I have used to build my classroom experiences. My role in this learning experience does not end with my classroom though. I have served as Regional Coordinator for South Carolina’s largest NHD region with nearly 600 students competing annually.

C. Describe your personal feelings and beliefs about teaching, including what makes you an outstanding teacher.  How are these beliefs demonstrated in your teaching style? How have you arrived at your personal view?

             My personal learning journey has helped me understand the limitations of traditional instruction. I have learned how systemic issues impact students from different geographic and/or racial backgrounds. Coming from a rural white community, I have been forced to question my own biases as well as those inherent in systems. This has led me to place that students’ humanity first. If I see students as developing people worthy of grace and empathy, I cannot judge them for a test score or penalize them for late work. Game inspired designs provide systems that center the student experience, create opportunities for internal motivation, and allow student voice to be heard through meaningful choices. Game designs also allow for struggle and that initial failure is a part of their progress not a reflection of their character. I have attempted to limit the impact of behaviors from their grading and instead offer opportunities for mastery and growth. These are structures that allow me to keep the students’ humanity centered in their learning.

             I also believe there is no such thing as a lazy student. They may have different priorities or needs and labelling a child as lazy attributes struggles to character flaws. My class structures allow for a dialogue about situational needs to create a collaborative effort and enables students to work to find solutions.  Recently, a student wrote to me asking how their positive COVID diagnosis was going to affect her grade. Until her recent diagnosis, she had been demonstrating a great amount of skill in the material. In a traditional classroom where students are penalized for late or missing work, this skill may not be reflected in her grade. Obviously, this is an extreme example, but if we apply that same mentality towards all students regardless of the impact behavior, we can become much better at assessing academic skills rather than behaviors that may be beyond their personal control. Focusing on the student’s humanity can be uncomfortable because it doesn’t fit neatly into a gradebook, but doing so creates a culture of mutual respect and educational growth.

C.       Describe the rewards you find in teaching.

As a National History Day Regional Coordinator I talk to many of the 600 competing students during our annual competition. This is one of my favorite days of the year because every student beams with the knowledge that they created something amazing. Game designers use the term “fiero” – a feeling of great achievement after overcoming a difficult obstacle – to describe this sensation and it encapsulates everything I try to bring into my classroom. I am often awed by my students’ creativity, ability to master difficult concepts, and thoughtfulness towards each other. History can be tragic, even demoralizing, if we allow it. My greatest joy comes from students recognizing both the successes of past generations as well the failures and then understanding how to amplify the former while working to change the latter. Learning historical thinking skills like source analysis and placing content in context are transferable skills that will help students long after they leave my classroom. I don’t always get to see the end results, but I can see glimpses through their efforts with the Veteran’s History Project or National History Day, those that tell me they are studying Political Science or History because they loved my class, or the occasional former student that I see in the community. At the end of my career, I will be happy knowing that students had the chance to learn and love History through the opportunities created in my classroom.