America's Top Teacher Gets Teens Out of Their Seats and Into History

Philip Bigler's students aren't surprised that their history teacher was just named National Teacher of the Year.

"He's incredible," says Samuel Davies, an 11th-grader at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Va. "We just love to hear Mr. Bigler speak. He has such a passion for everything."

Bigler is a master storyteller, and an even better listener. It shows in how he focuses on his students as they make a point, or lights up when a class speaker recounts an interesting experience.

His students vie with each other to come up with the most memorable Bigler moment. Everyone's favorite class is his marathon debunking of Oliver Stone's film "JFK."

It includes models, maps, films, tapes, clippings, and bullets. Students say that he lets them draw their own conclusions, but by the end of the three-hour session, there's not much support left for conspiracy theories, especially those located on grassy knolls, students say.

"We learned that people can make connections about just about anything. Most of the time, they're specious," says student Jim Suh.

Other students recall a computer simulation of the 1960 presidential election that got so animated that a neighboring class had to ask for quiet. "It had come down to the last two states: Whoever won those states, would win the election," explains classmate Christina Dee. "How could you not love a teacher who gets you so involved."

Bigler taught for 20 years, won 15 teaching awards, and wrote four books before winning teaching's highest honor.

But his early years in the profession were nearly his last: It took a year to find his first teaching job, and he was then laid off twice due to budget constraints - a period he describes as "disillusioning." "Teachers were getting clobbered by budget and pay problems," he says. "The starting salary in 1975 was $9,500."

He dropped out of teaching in 1983 to become historian at Arlington National Cemetery, but found his way back into a classroom two years later. "I really missed interaction with students and sharing what I learned."

Bigler often uses historical simulations in his teaching, instead of the traditional classroom lecture. His students debate issues of the day in a Greek polis, write for The Roman Times, negotiate medieval contracts, prepare a pilgrimage to Mecca, and try accused Salem witches.

On a recent trip to Gettysburg, his students learned how to fire a cannon and raced up Little Round Top to get a feel for one of the critical moments in the Civil War. They also tried to replicate the 20th Maine's battle-saving charge, as they'd read about it in Michael Shaara's "The Killer Angels." "They were exhausted charging up the hill and then discovered that it's not easy to swing in a line - you keep running into trees, rocks, and boulders," Bigler says.

Students at Thomas Jefferson are highly motivated and in one of the top schools in the country. Still, it's a challenge to get their attention, says Bigler and his co-teacher, Sheri Maeda. "There is so much competition for their time and energy. They leave for school early, and many don't get home until 8 or 9 p.m.," she says. "The greatest challenge facing education is getting kids to read."

"They are bombarded by visuals. That's why teachers need to talk about books all the time and why they're exciting," Bigler adds. "Books are to a historian what test tubes are to scientists."

One way to make books come alive is to link them to personal stories and experiences, he says. Student Katlyn Shearer recalls reading Russian history on her own all last summer because of a story Bigler told in class about Rasputin, notorious adviser to the last czar of Russia. "My dinner conversations have gotten a lot better since taking his class," she quips.

"Mr. Bigler tries to teach us that history is about people and textbooks can't tell you about individual experience," adds classmate Davies.

Individual experience is at the top of the agenda, as Bigler and Ms. Maeda round up students in their Humanities class for a visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, followed by interviews with veterans at the US Soldiers' and Airmen's home in northeast Washington. Many veterans remember talking with students last year, and line up to repeat the experience. Students will use their stories to draft a play that will be performed for residents.

Once classes end, Bigler begins a year of speaking and travel as National Teacher of the Year. He was nominated by colleagues for local honors before being considered for the award given by The Council of Chief State School Officers and Scholastic Inc. Winners often take administrative or research jobs in education after their term. But Bigler says, "I absolutely will come back."

One Teacher's Thoughts

On his application for National Teacher of the Year, Philip Bigler describes television as a teacher's "greatest rival." It's a theme that comes up often in his writing and comments to the Monitor:

On teaching:

"It's difficult to grow up in America. Kids have a shortened attention span and quick gratification needs. When I started teaching, we lectured and kids took notes. Now kids want to be stimulated and they demand more."

On learning:

"Teachers have to establish that learning doesn't just take place in the school. It's a lifestyle. In the information age, you have to keep current. Anyone who doesn't, stagnates."

On reading:

"I'm usually reading three books at a time, about 40 to 50 a year. I set aside an hour to read just before bed. I also spend lots of time in bookstores, sitting in a chair reading or impulse buying."

On the Internet:

"I try to focus, use the Internet for a purpose, and not just browse around. Often, I'm looking for first-hand material and good historical Web sites that I can add to my own Web page that students can use to support a [classroom] lesson."

On education:

"All students can and should learn. I have come to believe in an educational system where excellence is expected and quality is the norm. Otherwise, we are in peril of creating an intellectual caste system with an ever-widening chasm between the educated and uneducated."

On history:

"You can learn to be a better person from history. When you've seen what other people faced, you can take heart."

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