American history teacher Amy King says ‘we can never educate our children too much about our country’s past’
By Anna-Rhesa Versola | Photography by John Michael Simpson
An email from a stranger was the nudge Amy King needed to set her on a course that would change her life and the lives of her high school history students.
The message was from Wendi Pillars, a science teacher at Jordan-Matthews High School in Siler City. Wendi was a 2017 Grosvenor Teacher Fellow, who was selected for the professional development opportunity to gain field-based experience thanks to a partnership between Lindblad Expeditions and the National Geographic Society. Wendi used the fellowship to go to the Arctic.
“She emailed me wanting me to consider applying,” Amy says. After not hearing back, Wendi followed up again with Amy, who teaches at Chatham Central High School, to make sure she didn’t pass up on the chance at a learning adventure.
“Her encouragement led to my application, although we had never met at that point,” Amy says. “She has certainly served as a mentor to me since then.” Amy became one of 50 teachers out of 2,500 applications chosen for this year’s fellowship. She was matched to visit the Normandy beaches and the Normandy American Cemetery at Omaha Beach, specifically.
“I teach American history all day long,” Amy says, so she appreciated the chance to be a student herself on the expedition. In Normandy, Amy met two historians: Mark Bielski, director of Stephen Ambrose Historical Tours and Stephen Fisher, who is writing a book about D-Day. Stephen’s research helped Amy identify the Army division movements of the late Carl Scott, a Bear Creek resident who landed in Normandy on D-Day. This allowed Amy to bring to life Carl’s written retelling of that day, something she shared with students as part of her October unit focused on World War II. We asked her to share the importance of history, continuing education and the value of different perspectives.
Why did you want to teach history?
I decided as a sophomore at Meredith College that I wanted to teach history. I was a North Carolina Teaching Fellow with a full scholarship to attend college on the basis that once I graduated, I would teach for four years in a North Carolina public school. I had known since high school that I wanted to teach. As a freshman at Meredith, I had two professors who made a considerable impression on me: Michael Novak and Carolyn Happer. They introduced me to the world of Western civilization, and I was enthralled. Both had an ability to tell stories which made you feel like you were back in time. They were never shy about teaching hard history and being honest with their students. I developed an insatiable desire to learn more history because of [them] and determined that this fascinating subject was what I wanted to teach.
Why is it an important subject?
Recent events in America have proven that history is an invaluable subject. Students need to hear the truth, no matter how uncomfortable. When we as a people face our past, then we learn the traits of empathy, understanding and duty. These are the characteristics of a strong citizenry. History education has been under a fierce and relentless attack as of late. It is a shame that any government body or citizenry would consider it vital to teach less history. We can never educate our children too much about our country’s past: its glorious victories, such as WWII or the Voting Rights Act of 1965, as well as its merciless horrors, such as genocide carried out against Native Americans or widespread lynchings targeting African Americans. History education is invaluable, as it teaches our children to think deeply and critically, as well as to analyze information.
Why is making a local connection, like Carl Scott, an important tool in your teaching style? How does this impact the students?
In the teaching of history, I have found that the personal is profound. If I can connect our topic of study to the students in my classroom, that is always a win. This win occurs when students are energized and engaged by being able to see themselves in what they are learning, by exploring history’s impact on them years later and seeing the reflection of the past in what they look like or who they are and where they live. I often teach through a local lens in my classroom. I am blessed that I knew Mr. Carl Scott before he passed away several years ago. He lived in our community, attended community events and was a quiet WWII hero among men. It was a wonderful opportunity for me, both as someone who knew him and as an educator, to travel as a Grosvenor Teacher Fellow to Europe. I thought about his life and the example he set as I walked where he must have walked and reflected on the sacrifices he made as a young Army [soldier], far from home, fighting against fascism. I took these ideas and decided to design a project to help my students also experience imagining D-Day through the life of Carl Scott. Many of them are nearly the age he was when he traveled so far away, fighting for a cause that was bigger than himself. It is also fortuitous that two of his great-grandchildren are in my honors American History II class this semester. Carl Scott’s story became very personal for my students, who not only got to learn about someone from our community but also got to hear directly from Hallie Webster and Travis Crissman, who knew him as “Grandad.”
What surprises you each semester from the student projects?
Student-led historical inquiries always amaze and surprise me. My former students have engaged in a variety of projects based on topics related to our class. They have researched Chatham Central’s only graduate to die in war, the six Chatham County lynchings that occurred from 1885-1921 and a history of Chatham Central High School. For that last project, my students curated a collection of artifacts they displayed from the school’s past while also conducting oral history interviews. In each of these projects, students have uncovered riveting stories never before told. In addition, they have developed an insatiable appetite to learn more and have often insisted on sharing their research with our community. Engagement often looks like curiosity, and curiosity always gives way to deeper understanding. I have had parents message me about how much they have learned from their child’s eagerness to research more on the topic, about how many Thanksgiving meals and Easter celebrations have been filled with conversations about history.
What do you wish was different about teaching history?
I wish our society valued truth-telling. What would a citizenry look like if they valued history teachers and trusted them as professionals to be honest about our shared past? I wish that our legislators supported the teaching of history and encouraged more required course offerings in American history for high school graduation and not less. The American History II course I am teaching currently, and where this project is occurring, will be gone next year and I will be back to teaching as much American history as I can in one semester. To devalue the teaching of history is a disgraceful mistake that will affect generations to come.
How has the National Geographic experience changed you and/or your teaching?
I have become a National Geographic Certified Educator through this fellowship, and it has caused me to teach history holistically; my students look at historical events through the perspectives of economic, political, cultural, spatial and ecological impacts. In addition, the fellowship granted me [that] 11-day expedition with three other outstanding educators, who shared lesson ideas, pedagogical concepts and digital opportunities with me and my students. With them, I was given the opportunity to explore Europe and experience WWII history as a student. I can honestly say that this experience has been the most amazing professional development of my career. It was filled with life-changing events. I got to be with other like-minded, passionate educators traversing the globe and studying for hours on end after walking by day in the footsteps of American [soldiers]. I made videos while standing on historical sites to share with my students. I had the opportunity to interview a variety of historians and scientists while onboard the National Geographic Explorer. National Geographic and Lindblad Expeditions intended to uplift the teaching of history by selecting me, but they also uplifted my students’ education. I am forever grateful for this fellowship and what it has meant for my rural high school students.