How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.
For Virginia Clark DeCesare, teaching history isn’t about getting students to memorize names and dates. It’s about telling stories.
“It is about heroes and villains, ideas, decisions and lucky breaks,” she said.
DeCesare, who teaches American history as well as an elective class on World War I and II at Cherry Creek High School, was named the 2017 Outstanding Teacher of American History by the Colorado State Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution. She’s also a National Board Certified Teacher, an advanced credential that requires a rigorous application process.
DeCesare talked to Chalkbeat about how she fell in love with teaching, why she surveys students at the beginning of the year and how she helps them understand Hitler’s rise to power.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.
Why did you become a teacher?
I always enjoyed learning about history (my degree is in history) but it was not my initial plan to become a teacher. However, after trying several other jobs after college none of them gave me very much enjoyment. I decided to take a course where I got to observe and teach a few lessons. I absolutely loved it. I love the storytelling aspect of it, the creative aspect of it — coming up with new ways to teach an idea — and that I can continue to learn about the things that I love for my job! After that experience, I went back to school to get my teaching license.
What does your classroom look like?
It is covered with World War I and II propaganda posters. I have a particular passion for this time period and I created an elective course at Cherry Creek High School on it.
Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my ____________ Why?
Books. I have learned so much over the years from continually reading. Every new historical book that I read adds something to the lessons that I teach. My books have allowed me to create a fuller story to tell, and learning history is all about how the story is told.
What is one of your favorite lessons to teach?
I teach a lesson in which I give several groups of students German political parties in the 1930s to represent. Then I give partners particular German citizens to represent. The German parties need to convince the German citizens to vote for them (with very real issues facing them in the early 1930s such as the worldwide economic depression and effects of the Treaty of Versailles).
The German parties are actual parties from the time period (Communists, Social Democrats and the National Socialist German Workers party (Nazi)), but I have changed the names to party A, B, and C and each group chooses their own party names since their actual names would sway the students too much.
After the parties have presented their platforms the students representing German citizens tell about their problems and each party tries to explain, using their platforms, why they should vote for them. We then hold an election in which the students representing German citizens vote for a particular party. Almost every year the Nazis get chosen by the students — of course they do not know until the true names are revealed that they have just voted the Nazis into power. This is an instructive way of demonstrating how the challenges of the times could make a population very susceptible to particular political messages.
How did you come up with the idea?
I came up with this idea after finding party platforms and different German citizens’ views summed up in a book about the roots of the Holocaust. I have found it to be a very effective way to help students understand how a highly educated country of people could allow the Nazis to come to power legally in a democracy. It also helps them to better understand how and why such a country would follow the leadership of Hitler and the Nazis throughout the war.
How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
Right after the first test I meet with any students who are struggling. I offer to meet with them one on one before tests or sometimes several times a week to help them better understand the material. This process has helped many of my students.
How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
I usually try to infuse my teaching with humor. Making kids laugh is usually a good way to refocus their attention.
How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
At the beginning of the year I ask students to tell me about themselves in a series of survey questions. Questions such as: “What do you do in your free time?” and “What is the most important thing to you?” help me learn about the kids. I also attach a sheet in which they can ask anything they want to about me. I respond to each of these questions with a personal written response. The kids ask me all kinds of things from what I do for fun, to where my favorite place in the world is. This connection between us early on helps build strong relationships throughout the year.
Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
A few years ago I found out that a student of mine lived with his grandmother because his mother was a drug addict and his father had not been around for a long time. The student was acting out in class and not completing assignments outside of class. This experience helped show me that students often have a lot to deal with outside of my classroom and that I need to keep the importance of my assignments in their larger lives in perspective.
What are you reading for enjoyment?
I enjoy reading fantasy novels. My favorite books I recently read were Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo. I also read a lot of World War I and II history because I like to add to my knowledge about the period and add anecdotes about the time period to my lessons.
What’s the best advice you ever received?
It is not a failure to accept help.