Lake Mills graduate named History Teacher of the Year
A fifth grade teacher from Pella has been named the state History Teacher of the Year.
Rebecca Helland, who teaches at Jefferson Intermediate School, was named by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History after being recommended by an Iowa Department of Education committee. The institute’s mission is to promote the knowledge and understanding of American history through educational programs and resources.
Helland is a 1999 graduate of LMCS and serves as a mentor teacher for Pella Schools.
“Rebecca Helland exemplifies the great teaching that is taking place in so many Iowa classrooms,” Iowa Department of Education Director Ryan Wise said. “As a former social studies teacher, I appreciate educators who help students deepen their understanding of history by making direct connections to their daily lives.”
Brian Miller, principal of Jefferson Intermediate, said Helland works to make history come alive for her students. “She has the students actively engaged in hands-on activities in collaborative groups. Rebecca doesn’t just instruct the students, she guides them through the process of learning by self-discovery and exploration of the topics,” Miller wrote in recommending Helland for the award.
Helland said she engages students by asking questions that are worth exploring. In addition, she incorporates primary and secondary sources for students to use in looking for answers.
One of Helland’s lesson plans, for instance, asks, “What should our new city park be like?” Social studies standards are incorporated into the lesson. Students must then glean information on historical concepts, economics, societal needs and desires before students can envision what the park should look like. Students ultimately record a video explaining why their concept of the park is best for the city’s needs.
Helland received a $1,000 prize from the institute.
In a brief question-and-answer, Helland explains her thoughts on teaching social studies:
We’ve all taken social studies, but rarely have we heard a definition. How would you define “social studies?”
Being a member of the Iowa Social Studies Leadership team, I’ll defer to our common definition: Social studies is the integrated study of the social sciences and humanities to promote civic competence. Within the school program, social studies provides coordinated, systematic study drawing upon such disciplines as anthropology, archaeology, economics, geography, history, law, philosophy, political science, psychology, religion, and sociology, as well as appropriate content from the humanities, mathematics, and natural sciences. The primary purpose of social studies is to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world.
Why is studying social studies so important? Why should we care who the third president is?
Studying social studies—which, in my opinion, ought to be called the “social sciences”—opens up conversations for kids to explore what makes people work. Social scientists study people: what motivates us, how we use the resources around us, how we handle conflict, how we keep order within our society, and much more.
Just like it’s important for students to understand the natural world around us through studying biology and physics, we need to help kids see how groups of people work, too. And that’s how history becomes relevant. Most of us who endured endless lectures about events in history retained little of that information, but when students look at people and events in history to help us understand the intended and unintended consequences of our choices today, that’s relevant. For example, one of the units we tackle in our fifth-grade classrooms is about the escalation of unresolved conflict. Kids experience conflict in many ways in their daily lives and will continue to encounter it as they mature and are more responsible for life decisions. In this unit, we look at the events of pre-revolutionary Boston to show how unresolved conflict grows over time. Kids apply the same principles to conflict in their own lives and can then analyze it more objectively rather than only responding to conflict out of emotion.
How do you engage your students?
Asking great questions is the best way to motivate students. Ask questions that beg to be answered and carry many layers of complexity. I engage students by crafting tasks that all kids, no matter their readiness level, can use to work on the same content with varying depths of understanding and can connect to a variety of situations. Students are motivated by looking at rich primary sources to help kids connect to and understand actual events.
Why is engaging students so important?
In today’s “Google-able” society, kids need to be equipped to field the deluge of information constantly coming their way. They need to understand how to prioritize and tell the difference between main ideas and small details. Today’s world requires us to take information from multiple places, decide what’s the most important and accurate, and then move forward with making a decision. Inquiry-based social studies does exactly that.
How do social studies classes differ today?
Inquiry-based social studies isn’t a new idea, but it’s becoming more widely used throughout our nation and our state. The C3 Framework (College, Career, and Civic Life Framework for Social Studies, published by the National Council for the Social Studies, 2010) really helps teachers to understand the components of quality inquiry. In addition, many organizations are assembling and publishing great primary sources that are free and readily accessible to teachers. The internet has completely revolutionized how teachers access the curriculum they use to teach the standards they are required to teach. A few years ago it was really hard to find quality primary sources. When a person knows where to look, they’re readily available today.
What would you like to tell teachers across Iowa?
I’d like to encourage elementary teachers to make social studies a meaningful part of the elementary classroom and to not underestimate what kids can understand. Give them big concepts to try to understand and complex sources of information to use. Help them figure it out, don’t tell it to them. Be patient and ask great questions to allow them to connect the dots – don’t do it for them. Last year I had a student conclude that the Declaration of Independence was the right move but at the wrong time. This 11-year-old wrote about how the founding fathers should have continued to work out a plan towards independence from England rather than issue the Declaration of Independence, basically declaring war. Whether or not a historian agrees with that conclusion, that’s some mighty big thinking for a fifth grader. Teachers ought to be presenting great questions and great tools to help answer those questions but get out of the way of kids’ thinking.