Influence That Never Stops, Inspiration That Lasts An Eternity

In an article between the Civil War Trust and James Percoco (one that includes some great images of him in action), my high school history teacher, stated “I think what will serve as my legacy is the numbers of young people who found their calling for life through their experiences in my classroom. The American historian, journalist, and educator Henry Adams once wrote, ‘A teacher effects eternity, he can never tell where his influence stops.’ ”

At his retirement party yesterday that influence was self-evident as former students (including me), family members, and colleagues stood up to talk about his accomplishments.

I know I’ve talked about Jim’s influence on my love of history (last year in a piece on the day of his induction into the National Teacher’s Hall of Fame) , and so I thought I would reflect on Percoco’s remarks at the gathering last night.

Continue reading “Influence That Never Stops, Inspiration That Lasts An Eternity”

And the Crowd Goes Wild: Introducing Hall of Famer Jim Percoco!

In high school you know how good a teacher is based on the rumor mill. Sometimes it is because the teacher is an “easy grader,” or someone who never notices that you cut class. Sometimes the teacher is Jim Percoco.

I’m not sure when I first heard about Percoco’s class. I must have been fifteen, a sophomore that had just dumped her computer science class for a course on typing. I can’t remember if I was unhappy, or just finding myself stagnated intellectually, but it was clear, that sometimes I was just bored. The next year I was assigned to Jim Percoco’s course, and from the moment I stepped through that door I could tell I was in a different world.

All the best teachers encourage you to look beyond yourself, to look up from the text book and learn from the world around you. Jim Percoco did more than that–he took a subject that many found stogy, boring, and lacking in relevance (in a generation before social media, blogging the ease of access of the internet on your telephone) and forced kids to willingly step outside and look at the “stuff” of history–to look beyond the words on the page and actually see the people who lived before us.

A lot of this continued into my senior year through his course called Applied History. The first half of the year was coursework, and the second half was spent in an internship (mine was at the Octagon House in Washington, DC). All just another step on my way to an undergrad degree and eventually an M.A. in history concentrating in public history.

The benefit of Percoco’s teaching style did not limit itself to his lesson plans. While the “reel” vs ” real” programs (looking at history on film and in the textbook), or the time we staged our own protest a la’ the Civil Rights movement were great, practical experiences, it was the way he carried and articulated his passion for the past that had the most impact. He wasn’t just a football coach teaching history, he actually cared about the lessons it could teach us–and the inspiration it could bring–Clio style.

From where I stand, almost eleven years since I first set foot in that corner room at West Springfield High School, there is no one more worthy of induction into the National Teachers Hall of Fame than Jim Percoco. (The induction ceremony is today June 17, 2011, in Emporia, Kansas).

Congratulations Jim!

Teaching American History Project Director’s Conference

In December I participated in the Teaching American History Project Director’s Conference in Washington DC.  I’ve been waiting for the video’s for the “lessons learned” part of the session, which should be available any day now, but I wanted to share the video of the keynote speech today. This way you can here the full presentation which included the description of Jim Percoco’s Applied History class, and the testimonial from another one of his students.

You can read the text of my part of the speech here.

Teaching With American History: The Five Senses

Last week I had the opportunity to speak at the Teaching with American History Grant Directors Conference. It was a short 3 minute talk, a testimonial of sorts to the course that started me on my journey to being a historian. I was going to wait until the videos became available (filmed by George Mason’s Center for History and New Media), but decided to post the text of the talk now instead.

Essentially the main speaker was my high school history teacher, Jim Percoco who outlined the basic tenants of the class called Applied History. The first half of the year is spent going on field trips, looking at films and books and really making students into teenage historians. The second half of the year involved sending us out into the world to work at historic sites first hand. As a supplement to his talk, Jim asked me and one other student to provide information about how we were effected by Applied History.

Good Morning,

If I had to summarize my experiences in Applied History I would do so by thinking about our five senses

Sight: Applied History taught me how to see beyond the words in the textbook. To walk upon the battlefields and see the ridges, to trace the road that Paul Revere took on his flight before the opening shot of the Revolutionary War, to recognize that these things really happened, that the evidence is everywhere we look.

The class taught me to touch (of course with gloves on): As the second half of the year involved a semester long internship, I was able to gather first hand knowledge about material culture, and consequently understand the role a simple basket, painting, or shoe played in every day life of ordinary and extraordinary people.

Applied History taught me to hear, to listen: Every line in a history text book is really a summary of a thousand different stories. That the movies we watch, the objects we touch, the sites we see are all part of a grander narrative. That even listening to my parents tell their stories, informs who I am, and who we are.

Taste: After Jim’s class I ended up at the College of William Mary where I took a course on foodways. Without the foundation I got in high school, I don’t think I would ever have been able to see the part that food plays in our very identities and culture.

As for the sense of smell: how many of us have walked into an archive and taken a deep breath. Imagine being a 17 year old student walking in and realizing what these documents and objects could tell you about the past.

Perhaps I can go on to say that the course opened up a sixth sense, you know, the one that allows us to see dead people and make them live again. This is the sense that lets us see the past as something tangible and worthwhile, something with meaning, and worth saving. Something with relevance not only to pass a test or to have random facts in our heads, but really to understand why we live the way we live. That the past really defines our present.

Lastly, I do have to say that this course gave me a passion—one that is reflected not only in my Masters degree at American University in Public History, but also in the work I do at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.