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South Valley Journal

It’s not just history, it’s personal - Social studies teacher of the year makes history relatable

Mar 16, 2020 02:13PM ● By Jet Burnham

Gina Knowles receives the Middle School Social Studies Teacher of the Year award. (Photo courtesy of Gina Knowles)

By Jet Burnham | [email protected]

When a middle school teacher tells students they are going to study the best breakup letter of all time, they pay attention. That’s how Gina Knowles, Middle School Social Studies Teacher of the Year, teaches eighth graders about the Declaration of Independence.

“You can't just say, “Here, read the Declaration of Independence, and we'll discuss it,’” Knowles said. “There's no way for them to access that. You have to put it on something that they can understand. Otherwise, it's just a bunch of words—hard words.”

Her students study the Declaration of Independence for tips on how to end an unhealthy relationship. The colonists’ “Olive Branch Petition” becomes an example of how to butter up parents before asking them for more privileges.

As a teacher of Utah studies and U.S. history at South Hills Middle School, Knowles has thrown out the textbook. Instead, she uses primary source papers—authentic historical documents—to teach the curriculum.

“It's important that students understand the story from the people's point of view, those that were there,” she said.

As a class, students read and discuss selected excerpts from documents such as “Resolves of the New York Sons of Liberty,” speeches by Patrick Henry, Alexander Hamilton’s “Federalist Papers,” and the “Olive Branch Petition” colonists wrote to King George III.

“They learn how to annotate and look at primary sources and really think about those things in depth rather than just skimming over it from a textbook,” Knowles said. “Then they get to make their own conclusions and draw their own understanding.”

Knowles encourages students to find lines in the texts that speak to them and to consider what their life would be like if certain documents had never been written.

“It really gets them involved personally in what was going on at that time,” Knowles said. “The more that I can link it to them, the better.”

Knowles encourages students to make personal connections to history, such as finding ancestors who were involved in key events.

Eighth grader Peyton Alger said when he discovered he had ancestors who were on the Mayflower and who signed the Declaration of Independence, what he was learning in class became more relevant.

“It means more to me because that's my blood touching such an important document and doing such an important thing,” he said. “That's my ancestor, and they did this. I can look at what they've done, and then I can relate back to what we're learning.”

Students also gain personal connections through historical reenactments. In an activity called “Taste of the Santa Maria,” they snack on beef jerky, crackers and cheese sticks while discussing the conditions pilgrims experienced on their voyage from England to America. They measure out the ship’s dimensions in the area just outside the portable classroom (approximately three portables long and one and a half wide). The entire eighth grade student body remains inside the area for a few hours of the simulation, performing jobs related to navigation, organization and manual labor.

“I try to throw at least one of those activities into every unit, just so that they can get more of an experience-based piece,” Knowles said. Other times, Knowles uses games, video clips, period music, opinion polls, simulations, digital experiences and readers’ theater to teach concepts. Students show what they have learned by recording video ads, creating digital slide presentations and participating in formal debates.

“She has a variety of ways of teaching us so everyone has a different way they can understand,” said eighth grader Rylee Sanchez.

In her 25 years of teaching, Knowles has taught grades 1–9 and is always looking for ways to keep things fresh for herself and for her students. As the Social Studies Middle School Teacher of the Year for the Utah Council for the Social Studies, Knowles is now eligible to compete for the national title.