The HistoryAccess.com Interview:
Gerry R. Kohler
By Harold Frost
“I see a big difference in the attention span of kids today versus when I started teaching in the ’70s. Kids need to be stimulated much more now. We teachers can say, ‘Well, we didn’t have all that stimulation, and we learned,’ but we didn’t grow up with iPods and video games and the Internet and all the things they have today that I don’t even know the name of.”
Q. How did you become a teacher, Mrs. Kohler?
A. That’s a very interesting question, because when I was young I had no desire whatsoever to teach; in fact, I was firmly set against the idea. You see, my aunt was a prominent teacher here in West Virginia – my Aunt Polly – and everyone constantly told me I was going to be “just like Aunt Polly.” I got pretty sick of hearing that! I set my mind against it, I fought the idea to the end, even in college. I went to West Virginia Wesleyan College. Then came the day when I had to declare a major and I found myself saying “education,” and I felt very good about it. I guess everybody was right about the Aunt Polly connection after all.
I started my teaching career in elementary education in 1973 in Wood County, West Virginia, and taught it for 18 years. I absolutely loved it. I found out, for example, that teaching a child to read is one of the most rewarding experiences a teacher can have. I prided myself on working closely with parents to help children get their reading to an age appropriate level. In 1991 I began teaching fourth grade. Up to that point I had been teaching mainly first-graders. In the fourth grade, of course, history is one of the key subjects. Well, much to my surprise, I discovered I had this love for history. I really didn’t know till then! Except, I can say, when I was a girl, I was always fascinated by old things – my parents and I would drive past an old empty abandoned house and I would be fascinated by it: Who lived there? How many children were born there? Why did they abandon the house? Also, I read “Gone With the Wind” in junior high school and loved it – I knew the Civil War was a fascinating period. But still, I didn’t fully recognize this deep love for the subject until I began teaching fourth grade history at Vienna Elementary School in Vienna, West Va., in September, 1991.
I just had so much fun learning about history and teaching it. I especially loved teaching West Virginia’s history to those kids. The other fourth grade teachers let me do their history segments, and they did various things for me. At some point I started doing living history – acting out historical characters for my class.
Q. This is one of the things that you’re known for. Please elaborate.
A. For instance, when we study the Civil War era and discuss John Brown, the abolitionist, I “become” him – I portray him as if I were an actor. I would also do Devil Anse Hatfield, a participant in the Hatfield-McCoy feud that took place here in West Virginia.
Q. I love this. Where did you get the idea?
A. I wish I knew! It just kind of came to me. I was teaching about John Brown, saying things he said, and I thought, “Why not be him?” I loved it and the kids loved it.
A few years later, when I began teaching in junior high school, I was actually very leery of doing the living history – I thought I’d be laughed out of the classroom. Teaching kids in junior high is obviously a lot different than elementary school. So, I was nervous, but I thought, “I’ll try it once.” I played John Brown for them, although I didn’t dress as him. I really got into it, I acted him out fully – he was a man with very strong feelings, of course, in fact he was pretty crazy, really, so I slammed my fist down and scowled and did the whole package, through his career as an abolitionist, including when he murdered five people in cold blood. I answered their questions as John Brown, and when there were no more questions I said, “OK, I’m Mrs. Kohler again.” The room was silent. Absolutely, eerily quiet. I said, “Hey, what’s wrong guys, don’t you have any questions for me as Mrs. Kohler?” A long pause. Finally one student said, “Mrs. Kohler – you scared us to death!” (Laughs.) All the fist-slamming, I guess I really got their attention! They weren’t scared scared, they felt safe and secure of course, but there was an edge to it, they were riveted. They definitely weren’t bored. That was pretty successful – the kids learned something! So I guess there’s a little bit of a frustrated actress in me.
Q. This kind of reminds me of the people who channel ancient spirits.
A. I actually do pretend with the students that there’s a mystical element to what’s going on. When I do John Brown I never say “I’m going to be him,” I say, “He visits me.” I take a deep breath and say, “I’m going to let John Brown come in now.” And when John Brown finishes answering the student’s questions, he says, “Well, I better get you back to that teacher of yours. She’s probably lost out there somewhere.” The students always play along with me, and if someone says something like, “It’s really Mrs. Kohler,” other students will say, “No, it was really him.” As they go out the door, they are all talking about it. For a while, other teachers would come in and say, “What in the world were you doing in here?”
Q. Who else do you do?
A. Mother Jones, the activist and organizer – I like her better for adults because I get to be a bit profane. She was very profane with the coal miners and the people she was trying to help unionize. I do a cleaned-up version of her for school. I might slip into Sally Hemings, Mary Chesnut, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln – any major character – for four or five minutes. For example, when we’re talking about how Lincoln’s aides advised him not to promote U.S. Grant because of his drinking, I might slip into Lincoln and talk about why I want him for the top job. I always do whatever I can to make historical figures into people. I dress in period clothing for Mary Chesnut and Mother Jones. I teach history as if it’s the story of people. Which of course it is.
Q. Have you been videotaped doing your portrayals?
A. A little bit of Mary Chesnut got videotaped at a teacher’s colloquium in Florida, but not much, really – the videographer didn’t arrive when he was supposed to, and I couldn’t do it a second time, it wears me out to do it even once.
Q. I would think somebody would want to capture your work on video, maybe for the public to watch and enjoy, maybe for the edification of other teachers. Maybe do a documentary about you.
A. Well – I wouldn’t be opposed to that. I don’t know. Maybe.
Q. To return to your career chronology – when did you make the move from elementary school to junior high?
A. My first year of junior high teaching was 1997. I thought, “Well, I love history so much, maybe I could teach it to junior high kids,” so I applied and was accepted. I was very afraid. You know, adolescence, and all those hormones. But then I thought, well, my own kids are just past junior high, and they’re good kids, and their friends are good kids – maybe I can do this. It was a real shock for the first couple of years. I had been warm and nurturing as an elementary school teacher and I started off the same way in junior high, and that didn’t work. I got taken advantage of, no end. It took me a while to understand that discipline has to come first. I had to establish myself as the authority. Not as a drill sergeant, but providing stability and rules. That’s what junior high kids want! Too many aspects of their lives are not stable. In my classroom they always know exactly what to expect, how I will treat them, and how I expect to be treated.
They’re very unpredictable, kids of that age, and they’re often quite needy, more than they know. Some teachers will get hit by that “attitude” thing that students adopt, and mistake it for the student being a nasty person. In fact it’s almost a plea for help. Today, I’ve got to say, I love teaching junior high and would not want to teach any other group. I enjoy getting to know them and what makes them tick. I very rarely have a student who’s disrespectful toward me. Establishing that respect is the foundation stone.
Q. Your approach reminds me of Mrs. Lucille Smith, my eighth grade math teacher at Murray Junior and Senior High School in St. Paul, Minnesota, one of my favorite teachers ever. She had a sense of humor, but by God, she was also strict and austere, and she knew how to run a classroom. You knew exactly what was required, she was like this granite pillar of stability – she mixed the good humor with the strictness, she hit the exact right balance. I found yourself doing the work she required and it didn’t seem onerous. I think 90 percent of what I know about math I learned from her. Maybe some of what I know about life too, or so I’d like to think.
A. Kids need stability. A lot of teachers want to be friends with their students. Kids have enough friends! They need a person who gives them stability! Then we build on that. Then we can have some fun. Maybe I can engage them in loving history, or at least arouse their curiosity about it.
Whenever I teach any unit in history, my first thought is, how will I engage the students? That’s the big word now in education – “engage.” When I see their attention slipping, I have all kinds of things ready – I might go into a character, such as John Brown – we might take out some primary documents and look at them – breaking up into small groups – passing out white boards and using them in some way – looking up something on the computer – any little thing that might do the trick.
I see a big difference in the attention span of kids today versus when I started teaching in the ’70s. Kids need to be stimulated much more now. We teachers can say, “Well, we didn’t have all that stimulation, and we learned,” but we didn’t grow up with iPods and video games and the Internet and all the things they have today that I don’t even know the name of. Households used to have one TV; today’s kids have TVs on their telephones! It’s a different world, and they learn differently. We as educators need to recognize that, and understand that they need to be engaged more.
Q. You mentioned your work with primary sources – I wonder if you could elaborate a bit – these are the basic core documents preserved from a historical period – letters, diaries, pamphlets, photographs, tax records.
A. I use primary sources because it’s the real stuff, it’s not diluted in some textbook. For example, when we’re studying the Boston Massacre of 1770, during our study of the American Revolutionary period, we bring in all kinds of neat primary documents. The starting point is the famous engraving by Paul Revere of the incident, based on a depiction by Henry Pelham. A lot of teachers use the Paul Revere artwork, it’s a pretty famous piece. Then we go deeper. We read eyewitness accounts of the event. We delve into John Adams’ defense of the soldiers in court. How close, physically, were the colonists to the soldiers that day? How much danger might the soldiers have felt themselves to be in? In the engraving, the two groups are eight, nine, ten feet apart. Is that in accordance with reality? Eyewitnesses talk about colonists banging sticks against the soldier’s rifle barrels. Well now – that sounds closer than eight feet, doesn’t it? So at this point I might pick up one of the blackboard pointers, to pretend it’s a rifle, and a student and I will re-enact what sort of distance we’re talking about. It’s really eyeball-to-eyeball. So, can Paul Revere’s engraving be trusted 100 percent? What was his audience for that engraving? What was its purpose in 1770? It was basically a propaganda piece. By using primary documents creatively, students can learn not only about the actual event, but also the value of assessing the bias and point-of-view of what they read and see, to understand that maybe what they read and see is not infallible. They learn to think, and assess, independently and freely.
Let’s say we’re studying the French and Indian War of the 1750s and early ’60s. This was of course a major event for the American Colonies, it’s a little obscure for most people, but it was a big deal, and I love finding ways to help students get into it. At one point in 1754, before the war started, George Washington surrendered Fort Necessity in Pennsylvania to a force of French soldiers and American Indians. He signed a letter, written in French, saying he had assassinated a man named Jumonville. Washington did not read French, but he signed the letter, he had to. Well, this letter blew up into a major controversy and helped set off the French and Indian War, which was known internationally as the Seven Years War, and was really a world war. In my class I don’t just say, “Oh, Washington signed and delivered the note,” we look at a reproduction of the actual note, we analyze it, the wording of it, and maybe the rain splattered some of the words and made them illegible, maybe the French interpreter made mistakes, and so on. It’s really a fascinating moment that reveals a lot about the bigger dynamics of the time.
Or we might read the diaries of Mary Chesnut from the Civil War period. She began writing it in 1860 and completed it in 1865, and it’s been published in various editions over the years. It’s a big part of the film “The Civil War” by Ken Burns, with Mary’s narration performed by Julie Harris. I want the kids to see, when we’re studying slavery, the viewpoint of a Southern woman whose family owned slaves, but hated slavery herself – she used the word “abhor.” If you’re going to study something and do a proper job, you have to study all sides, all the aspects. We also study narratives and oral histories of former slaves that were recorded at various times. It seems to me that many of the kids think the slaves were helpless; we read narratives where we hear first-hand accounts of brave and bold things done by the slaves to gain their freedom or escape abuse. Harriet Jacobs hid inside an enclosed porch roof for seven years to escape her master!
I used to worry that some of my students may not be mature enough to handle some of the material. The key to forestalling problems is to do plenty of background work beforehand. I’ve never had a student be inappropriate or rude when we’ve studied slavery.
Q. I’m reminded of a moment a few years ago when the film “Schindler’s List” came out and a group of high school kids laughed at some of the scenes during a special screening. Commentators were outraged, naturally. Thomas Keneally, author of the book, said maybe it was the case that those students were just sort of dropped off at the movie theater that day with minimal preparation for what they were going to see. He basically said, “This is heavy stuff, you need to provide a lot of background and context.”
A. So true. A lot of background, and presented well. For example, before we examine narratives left to us by ex-slaves, we talk about the “n” word. My students are going to encounter that word in these narratives; the word is used frequently – it was not offensive to ex-slaves in the days when these narratives were being recorded, but of course it is now, for us. I need to explain the evolution of our feelings toward this word. The argument is sometimes made, the teacher should run a Magic Marker through that word wherever it appears. I don’t do that. I really don’t have the right to delete that word if it was used by Mrs. Sally Smith in her narrative – she survived slavery and lived to 83 – I’m going to change her words or delete some of them? No. But I can discuss the hurtful qualities of the word today, frankly and forthrightly. I think that’s the better approach.
Q. Do your students get upset and depressed about slavery, or, about, say, the war against Native Americans in the 19th century – by the rather startling bloodiness of the American past?
A. Sometimes. I say, “Look, you’re not responsible. You didn’t do it. Your responsibility is to take what you’ve learned about the past and keep it with you when you walk out that door and work to make sure things like this don’t happen again to innocent people. If you mistreat a seventh grader or tell a lie about someone, you think about what you’re doing, and think about what you’ve learned here, and the consequences of mistreatment, and maybe find a different and better path.” The lessons of the past can really help students deal with their feelings and sort out how they view the world.
Q. What are a couple of history books you’re especially fond of?
A. Sixty percent of what I read are diaries and journals of people who lived through a period I’m interested in. I like Christopher Gist’s journal; he was an English explorer in our region. Mary Chesnut’s diary is available in a lovely edition, “Mary Chesnut’s Civil War” by Mary Chesnut, edited by C. Vann Woodward. I like “1776” by David McCullough, and his biography of John Adams. I like “A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution” by Carol Berkin; it lets me see the nation’s founders as real people, their humanity, and how they approached problems. I like the Civil War books of James I. Robertson Jr. You know, I have thousands of books. I haven’t read them all yet, but when I retire I’m going to read every one of them.
Q. Literally thousands?
A. Literally thousands! It’s amazing!
Q. Do you use history movies in your classroom?
A. I don’t show a lot of movies. I find that for the age group I teach, movies are more boring than anything I can do myself, unless you stop the film and talk about what’s going on, rather than just letting it go. I do use a couple of films. “The Crossing” is great, it’s about George Washington crossing the Delaware. “Gettysburg” – I usually teach the entire Civil War with that movie, showing 15 minutes at a time. Parents say to me, “We were planning to go to such-and-such a place for our vacation, but we had to go to Gettysburg instead, and it was great, thank you!”
Q. What a cool thing for a student to say: “We have to go to Gettysburg.”
A. It’s wonderful.
Q. “The Crossing” – it’s not a big budget effort, but it works.
A. My kids are fascinated by it. It shows, you know, we were really up against it, it was touch-and-go for the new nation.
Q. I must admit, I needed a few minutes to get accustomed to Jeff Daniels, of all people, as George Washington.
A. But he does a good job, don’t you think?
Q. Definitely. We should probably note for potential viewers that the language is gritty and there are scenes of violence, as one might expect in a war movie. I would also note that the historical novel that it’s based on, “The Crossing” by Howard Fast, is excellent, and “Washington’s Crossing” by David Hackett Fischer is one of the best histories about the Revolution. May I ask, what are your favorite historical sites?
A. Gettysburg. Valley Forge – I went there on a Teaching American History grant. There’s a lot to the Valley Forge story besides a lot of soldiers getting terribly cold and not having enough food. I have several favorite sites here in West Virginia – my students love Moundsville, for the ancient Indian burial mounds, and for the Civil War-era prison that’s right across the street, that’s been preserved. It’s very similar to Alcatraz in San Francisco. Oh, they love that. We love Prickett’s Fort State Park too. And the state capitol. I do as many field trips as I can. I was known as the Field Trip Queen for a while there. (Laughs.) The key to making trips work, of course, is, again, providing a lot of background.
Q. You mentioned the Teaching American History grants. This is the federal program launched several years ago through the initiative of Sen. Robert Byrd to encourage the development of history teachers.
A. Yes! Robert Byrd – God bless him – this is a great program. The first grant I was involved with, I learned so much – it opened up so many new possibilities to me in how to use primary sources, how to use music and photographs, on and on and on. Wonderful.
Q. Your approach to teaching – your level of commitment – it sounds like a lot of work.
A. It is a lot of work. I don’t think I could do it if I had small children. My kids are grown and gone. I’m at school sometimes until 8 or 9 at night. I’ve set off the motion detector alarm many times. (Laughs.) And in my spare time I’m often reading history. What I love is digging deep into the subject, as deep as I can go, and sharing what I find with the students.
Q. Have any of your students gone into the history profession?
A. One of my former students is planning to become a history teacher. But more than that, I get a great deal of satisfaction when they just say, “I never liked history but now I do.” Or, “History was always boring to me, but you made it interesting.” I get that a lot. That’s a great joy. The other day I was at the auto shop, my car had broken down, and I’m sitting there waiting, and a mechanic came out – I didn’t recognize him – he said very enthusiastically, “Do you still do John Brown?” He was in his 20s, he’d seen me do it years ago and still remembered.
At the end of every year I have the students evaluate me. It’s anonymous. They can say whatever they want to say. I very rarely get any negative feedback. I feel proud of that.
Q. Do you teach other teachers?
A. Yes, I do some work for the National Council for History Education (NCHE). They have a wonderful professional development program. They’ve done a lot of research on teaching models, and the ways teachers learn best.
They bring groups of teachers to a city, and they bring in three people to collaborate with the teachers: a historian who’s an expert on a period of history under consideration – the Civil War, the colonial period, whatever – an education specialist, and a master teacher. By the way, I choke on that phrase “master teacher.” I tell all teachers they’re master teachers in their classrooms; they know what their classes need.
The NCHE started in 1990 when some prominent teachers and historians felt that history was so important it needed to be looked at with more emphasis. The organization has done wonders to address that situation.
Maureen Festi, the 2007 history teacher of the year, has helped her students improve their reading scores significantly through the reading of history and primary historical sources. That says something valuable to elementary school teachers, in an age when they think they don’t have time for history because of all the emphasis on No Child Left Behind.
Q. What period of history do you find most interesting?
A. The Civil War and the years leading up to it. The whole period from the late 1840s to 1865.
Students ask me, “Why couldn’t they get this straightened out without a war?” Well, you know, they tried. They didn’t just jump into this horrible thing. They tried and tried to resolve the dilemma of slavery, and the expansion of slavery, and nothing worked. So we discuss in class the various efforts they made, the compromises they arrived at. We talk about the nature of compromise, why some compromises work and some fail. Who gains something? What do they lose? We talk about the caning of Charles Sumner by Preston Brooks in the U.S. Senate chamber – this was one of the deeds of 1856 that somehow gave permission to the nation to resort to violence to resolve the conflict. We look at the caning with primary documents and we look at both sides – this obviously was a terrible crime by Brooks, a horrible moment in our history, but it’s also true that Sumner had given what historian David M. Potter calls “remarkably vituperative” anti-slavery speeches, which included saying vile things about Brooks’ uncle, Sen. Andrew Butler, such as an allusion to “the loose expectoration” of Butler’s speech, which was a reference to the fact that Butler, who was elderly, had imperfect control of the labial muscles in his mouth. So the question comes up, what does “expectoration” mean? We look it up. He kind of slobbered.
Sumner and Brooks, in turn, lead into John Brown. After Brown and his army murdered five people in the Pottawatomie Massacre in Kansas in 1856, he turned out to be a hero for a lot of people. He went back east and the thing he wanted to do most was touch the bloody garments Sumner was wearing in the Capitol that day. He visited Sumner, and touched the garments, which he regarded as sacred. His eyes “shone like steel” as he did so.
Q. You act this out?
A. That’s right!
Q. You mentioned Maureen Festi and her recognition in ’07 as history teacher of the year, sponsored by the Gilder Lehrman Institute. You won this award in 2006 and I can certainly see why. What was your reaction to the recognition?
A. I was overwhelmed. The idea that I could be recognized so nicely for doing something I enjoy so much – wow.
The Gilder Lehrman people are phenomenal. They flew my husband and me to New York, and my son from California, and my daughter from Maine, and two students that I could pick and their parents. It was just so – I’m thinking the whole time, “I’m being treated like royalty!” I was talking recently to Maureen – she said to me, “When does it all sink in?” I said, “It never does! It never will!” Teachers – well, as you know, the fact is, we usually aren’t treated with much respect. Gilder Lehrman validates the idea that teaching is important, and that history is important. ●