Tom Watts, a Nationally Certified 8th grade American History teacher at Madison Middle School, Mississippi has gone above and beyond to provide his students with extracurricular history activities. Tom started and continues to run the junior historical society at Madison Middle School, sponsored by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. Through this program, his students won the 2008 National History Day state level Junior Division for Mississippi. They made it all the way to Washington DC for National History Day with their documentary on Union General William Tecumseh Sherman. In 2005 Tom received the history teacher of the year award from the Gilder Lehrman Institute, and in 2007 he received the John K. Bettersworth award for the Mississippi history teacher of the year.
Q: Can you tell us about your career path?
TW: I started teaching back in 1970-71. I taught high school for one year and then went on active duty with the army for 28 years. I retired and came back home to Mississippi to teach again and I’ve been teaching in middle school since, it’s my ninth year.
Q: What inspired you to start a historical society with middle school students?
TW: I felt the need for young people to know more about their history and government. I see a real lack of both knowledge and understanding of American history as well as our government. I saw this while working in the military with young people who were coming in. Many couldn’t tell you who the president or vice president were, they couldn’t even tell you who the first president was. I saw a real need and saw a lot of young people who had a great interest and wanted to learn more outside the classroom.
I feel history is something that’s living. I was extremely lucky to work in the Pentagon and I was stationed in Berlin when the wall came down in 1989. I tell the kids that you might be from a small town in Mississippi, but you can never tell where you’re going to be 30 years from now and it helps to know a little history. It’s important to know history to understand what our mistakes are, and to be able to identify history when you’re a part of it.
I think “hands on history” is an important part of it and in the junior historical society we do a lot of that. We see the local government in action, we have historical re-enactors, and I have organizations like the DAR come talk to the kids. Sometimes that’s hard to do in the classroom.
Q: How do you get your students excited about history?
TW: I like to use personal stories about individuals in history, trying to connect the kids to that. Many times I use stories about young people, their age. When you talk about George Washington and Martha’s children and how they saw history at their age and their level, the kids understand it better. I also use letters from young people in the American Revolution to teach the Revolution.
Q: How do you do this and fulfill standards?
TW: We all have our standards that we have to follow. I try to balance looking at it within our goals and objectives that we have to follow. There are recommended activities that we can do and I try to use some of those.
I tell the kids to get out their drawing materials and I will have them draw a cartoon about something we have been studying. Instead of writing it down, they give a visual representation. Sometimes I have them do editorial cartoons or they’ll do a postcard home from someone on the Mayflower. They’ll do the picture having to do with their trip and then they’ll write their postcard on the back and send it home to their friends in England. I use “hands on” to get them interested in learning, sometimes that will stick better with someone that age, than a lecture.
I also have a lot of artifacts such as toys and coins; to see it, hold it, and feel it makes them part of the history back then. Of course the text book is part of it but seeing things like that and playing with those toys really helps. I try to mix it up, do different things, and work with other teachers.
Q: What advice do you have for other history teachers out there?
TW: The best advice is don’t give up, try something else if something doesn’t work and you feel like you failed in the classroom that day go back and think of something else to use with the kids. It’s hard to keep kids interest during your time with them, but don’t get discouraged. Have a big tool chest, the longer you’re in the classroom the more you have. Continue to be a student as well as the teacher. Go to workshops, not just on history but on class management and student learning. Again, don’t give up, try another one of your tools the next day or several, the kids are going to get it. Every child wants to be a success and that’s what I want to help them do.