Article

Cool Teacher: Jill Szymanski

National History Teacher of the Year Jill
Szymanski on how she makes the past
relevant to today’s students.

  • Grades: PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8

Civil War Museum Don’t have the funds to visit a museum? Szymanski’s students create their own Civil War museum in the school cafeteria. It begins when students come up with questions they want to answer about the Battle of Gettysburg. Szymanski teaches her students research skills and then sends them off to search primary documents—like diaries, letters from soldiers, and photographs—to find the answers to their questions. Her students synthesize their findings in an essay.

But it doesn’t stop there. For a culminating project, Szymanski’s students choose different media to present their topics as exhibits in a Civil War museum. “Some of the kids do first-person retellings and dress up as characters,” Szymanski says. “One girl learned how to play Civil War songs on her flute.” The class sets up its museum one morning each year and invites parents and other students to visit. Students present their exhibits as patrons stroll through the museum.
 

Jill Szymanski admits that history was her least favorite subject when she was a child. In fact, she downright hated it. “All we ever did was read the chapter and answer the questions at the back of the book,” she says.

But if you walked into Szymanski’s fourth- and fifth-grade classroom at Brandywine Springs School in Wilmington, Delaware, today, you would never know that. You’d see a roomful of students actively engaged in studying American history. You’d observe kids digging through primary-source documents to answer questions of historical significance. And you would likely find yourself sitting next to a 10-year-old Civil War buff.

Because of Szymanski’s innovative ideas in history education, she was recently named National History Teacher of the Year by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. She shared her thoughts with us about how she makes history matter.

Q | Let’s set the record straight—are history and social studies one and the same?
A | In Delaware, we have four strands of social studies: civics, history, economics, and geography. I try to tie them together as much as I can. If I’m teaching economics, we might talk about an event in history and economic situations related to the event. I teach geography through history. As we learn about westward expansion, we’re looking at maps and analyzing why people settled where they settled.

Q | How do you find the time to teach history when there’s such an emphasis on ELA and math?
A | I’m a cross-curricular teacher. In reading class, I’m always looking for ways to read about the topics we’re studying in science and social studies. I try to integrate all of the subjects into a project-based learning approach to hit reading and math standards, as well as science and social studies.

I also think that because of Common Core, history is the perfect place to improve literacy skills. We read primary- and secondary-source documents. We look at an event in history for different viewpoints and compare and contrast those viewpoints. All the skills we’re asked to teach in literacy tie in perfectly with history.

Q | Primary-source documents are not a walk in the park for elementary readers. How do you make them accessible?
A | I scaffold the documents as much as I can. Sometimes I share them as read-alouds. Other times I’ll have the actual document, but I might paraphrase it or write it at a level that’s easier for my students to understand. Just having them sit down blind with a document is pretty challenging. But I think it’s important for them to see and hear the language of the original documents even if they’re not necessarily working with the documents independently.

Q | What’s your philosophy of history education, and what does it look like in your classroom?
A | My philosophy is to try to make it come to life. Anything I can do to make it hands-on—role-playing, using primary-source documents, showing photographs of events. We take field trips to Philadelphia every year when we’re studying the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. We also visit Old New Castle, one of our colonial towns, to learn about Delaware history. Last year for our Civil War unit, one of our local museums visited us as part of an outreach program. They brought items like uniforms to us. The kids got to dress up and feel how heavy the backpacks were that soldiers had to carry.

Q |  Speaking of field trips, what’s your advice for planning a successful one?
A | Contact the place you’re visiting ahead of time to see what exhibits are there so that you can best guide the kids on what you want them to get out of it. The discussion that happens when you come back to class—that’s the key. A debriefing afterward is important to zero in on the topics that you’re studying. Sometimes we do discussions; other times we do projects.

In the past, I’ve had the class make scrapbooks. The students take pictures while we’re there and then create a travel brochure that talks about the places they visited and why they’re important to our history.

Q | What training has made you the history teacher that you are today?
A | I have an elementary degree with a minor in history. I wasn’t trained as a social studies teacher. We have wonderful staff development through the University of Delaware. I’ve taken a lot of classes and was part of a three-year project called the Freedom Project. We spent days during the summer and on weekends with visitors from the Delaware Historical Society and Public Archives who brought us primary sources. We worked in study teams to create lessons. Then we had the opportunity to teach lessons, and our group members visited our classrooms to critique them. After that, we would revise the lessons. Having the opportunity to plan during staff development is a big benefit—I think planning time is a reason that social studies isn’t taught as much as it could be.

Q | “National History Teacher of the Year” has a nice ring to it. Tell us about the experience.
A | I was nominated by my social studies supervisor. We put together a portfolio, philosophy of education, résumé, original lesson plan, and a project with student work. I found out last spring that I had won for Delaware. There were 51 winners. Our materials were sent on
to a panel, and that panel selected me as a winner.

I was in absolute shock. Being from Delaware and being such a small state, we don’t usually get national recognition. I also think it’s amazing just because I consider myself a fourth-grade teacher who teaches everything. History is only one part of it.

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    Social Studies, American History, Economics, Professional Development, Geography and Map Skills, Social Studies through Literature, Teacher Tips and Strategies
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