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Straight Up Conversation: 2017 National History Teacher of the Year Sara Ziemnik

By Rick Hess — October 19, 2017 8 min read
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Sara Ziemnik was recently named the 2017 National History Teacher of the Year by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Since 2004, Gilder Lehrman has celebrated exceptional American history teachers in grades K through 12. Ziemnik has taught American and world history at Rocky River High School in Rocky River, Ohio for 17 years. Of her approach, she says, “My students have the responsibility as American citizens to form their own opinions.” As a former social studies teacher myself, an award like this carries a special resonance. So I was pleased when I recently had the chance to chat with Ziemnik about her thoughts on teaching history, and how one nurtures open and respectful debate in an era of polarization and general nastiness. Here’s what she had to say.

Rick Hess: Sara, thanks for taking the time. Let’s start with the basics—how did you get interested in teaching history in the first place?

Sara Ziemnik: I grew up in a household that valued history, and we often took trips to historical places like Colonial Williamsburg. So as a kid, I associated history with fun. When I got older, I sometimes found that the subject matter could get the fun sucked right out of it. Too often, it seemed like my history classes turned into a memorization trap and I longed to find out more of the actual stories behind history. I knew I wanted to work with young people and study real, authentic history, so secondary education was the perfect fit.

RH: How do you explain your pedagogical philosophy when it comes to teaching history? Where did that come from?

SZ: I had solid training at Miami University and Cleveland State University. At Miami, as an undergraduate, my professor Dr. Michael Fuller challenged me to create interactive lessons with simulations, discussion, and debate. This was not how I was taught in my other history classes, and it helped me understand how important analysis and evaluation are for grasping historical concepts. At Cleveland State, through a Teaching American History grant, I had the opportunity to work with the Department of Digital Humanities to help create oral histories, moving history from the book to the iPod and smartphone. These experiences helped me focus on creating engaging, content-rich, and student-driven lessons that illustrate to my students how the past is influencing their lives every day.

RH: What are a couple of your favorite curricular units or historical developments to teach? What’s the appeal?

SZ: For world history, I enjoy teaching the French Revolution because we get to participate in a simulation that is a lot of fun. Years later, I have students coming back and telling me, “Remember when I was Robespierre and I got to jump up on the chair?” Anytime I can get students active, involved, and learning is a great day.

In AP U.S. History, I enjoy teaching a really difficult subject: Reconstruction. The historiography has changed so much over the past 140 years, and it reflects the changes we have gone through as a nation. There’s a rich amount of primary sources that show the era for what it was: a period of tremendous hope that ends in a colossal letdown. Reconstruction pushes a pause button on civil rights, and watching my students make connections between 1874, 1954, 1968, and today is rewarding. If I do a good job teaching Reconstruction, they really start to see how issues surrounding equality today are firmly rooted in decisions made in the past. It’s a huge responsibility to get this right, and I’m constantly trying to improve.

RH: In honoring you, the Gilder Lehrman Institute cited your gift for engaging students in thorny debates and helping them make up their own minds. That’s obviously much easier said than done. What have you learned are a couple of the keys to doing that well?

SZ: Yes, it’s a bit of a minefield at times, but one that every civics educator has a responsibility to walk through. We must help them navigate this world where civil discourse amongst adults has become a bit of a lost art. I think the biggest thing that I’ve tried to let them know is that I absolutely do not have all of the answers. I also tell them that respect is paramount; I do not tolerate any forms of disrespect in our discussions. If I can model a certain amount of vulnerability, a willingness to take a risk in a question or answer, and do all of this in a respectful way, it helps to set the tone.

RH: In an era as polarized as ours, I’d imagine it can be tough to cultivate this type of respectful, responsible classroom debate. Is that your experience? How have you negotiated these tides?

SZ: Absolutely. The last election cycle was a true test in how to manage this. Tensions were high nationwide and students were not immune. Allowing them to have an authentic voice within a climate of respect helped me navigate those waters. I find that if you give the students a chance to be heard, overwhelmingly it is positive. They have a lot of great things to say. People forget to ask them. It’s time we asked them. I’ve learned to step back and let them talk, and I’ve also learned to ask more questions instead of trying to tell them all the answers.

RH: Let me push just a bit more on that. On many of today’s hot-button issues—like immigration, transgender rights, climate change, and gun control—the disputants tend to talk in absolutes. Certain stances can provoke anger and even tears. Indeed, in some cases, certain views have been treated as disruptive by schools. How does one encourage honest, free-flowing debate amidst all that?

SZ: I couldn’t agree more. I often tell my kids that we—me and my students—didn’t do these things in history, but we have inherited the legacy of them. It’s our responsibility to accept that, own that, and use that. Again, I would reference back to last November. I was teaching during the Election of 2000, so I was no stranger to walking my students through a historic election. This one felt much different, though. The campaign rhetoric had left many of my students fearful, especially on November ninth. I was feeling a whirlwind of emotions that day, too, and knew I had a responsibility to lead a discussion that would set a tone moving forward.

I told the kids that some of us were happy, some of us were sad, and some were pretty scared—because words matter. I emphasized to them to listen, listen, listen to each other, and I challenged them to find someone they disagreed with to talk about how they felt about the results. For those who were scared, I asked them to share their fears, because again, words matter and their feelings are valid. For those that were happy, I told them their job today was to show the people who were afraid that they shouldn’t be scared, and to do that by listening to them and reassuring them. Seeing them talking to each other—really, truly engaging in discussion and listening, especially to those who did not share their views—was definitely the highlight of an emotional day. High school kids are pretty amazing if you give them the chance.

RH: What’s one technique that you find especially fruitful for fostering that kind of discussion?

SZ: I have found my kids in the past two to three years to be the most politically engaged, active, and informed group of students in my entire career. They are coming of age in a time where social media and political polarization challenge all of us to seek out the truth and defend our opinions with evidence. One of my favorite activities to do is a “Four Corners” exercise. I’ll ask an open-ended question and have each corner of the room be “Strongly Agree,” “Agree,” “Disagree,” and “Strongly Disagree.” Each group first discusses together the merits of their argument—with evidence. As they share it, other group members can switch groups if they are persuaded. I tell them changing their minds is okay. We shouldn’t be afraid to change our minds when presented with different evidence. I love watching them use evidence to persuade other groups that their position on history is “right.”

RH: You’ve spent the bulk of your career teaching in the high-stakes accountability era. Some history teachers express frustration and suggest that the emphasis on ELA and math has marginalized their work. Is that your experience?

SZ: Yes, I often joke that we are so focused on STEM that we have forgotten how to talk to each other. STEM is obviously important and valuable, but I do see a danger in disregarding the humanities. What good is it to know advanced science and mathematics if we can’t relate to each other, talk to each other, or understand how our democracy works? The more chances we have to reconcile this gap, the better. I think the past year has made many people realize the value in civic education.

RH: Is there certain advice that you find yourself routinely offering new history teachers?

SZ: The most common thing I say is, “Find your hacks!” I’m constantly trying to do more valuable, meaningful activities in the same amount of class time and the same 24-hour days. Find the shortcuts that allow you to do this. It’s easy to fall down the rabbit hole of comparison and feel like you are not doing enough. The best advice I can give is to embrace the uncertainty, trust your training, make your assignments authentic and meaningful, and show your students what it means to be a thoughtful leader. If you can do those things, you’ll be just fine.

RH: As you look to the next five or ten years, about what are you most excited?

SZ: I can’t say this enough: my students today are more civically engaged and politically motivated than ever. These kids are whip-smart, and they know they are witnessing history. High school kids are ready and excited to make some changes. They think they can do it better than adults right now, and I can’t say that I disagree with them! They are much better at listening to each other. With the tide shifting a bit toward valuing civic education alongside and as a complement to STEM, and with these kids at the helm, I have no doubt that the future of our republic is bright. Let’s give them the chance.

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