By Brenna R. Kelly
Students in Sharon Graves’ 8th-grade social studies classes don’t just learn about U.S. history, they live it.
Students become bullets flying through the air during a Civil War battle, passengers on the Mayflower coming to a new continent or colonists choosing where and how to build a community.
“She makes history so fun and engaging,” said Kevin Presnell, one of Graves’ former students. “It’s really about the experience and not just about the content, which is what makes it so fun.”
Graves, who has been teaching at Clark-Moores Middle School (Madison County) for 24 years, was recently named 2014 Kentucky History Teacher of the Year thanks in part to a nomination from Presnell.
“Not only does she have exceptional teaching methods,” he wrote, “but she also has a genuine care for each of her students. She truly takes the education of each of her students very seriously.”
Graves does not have to look far to thank Presnell for his praise. This fall he is back in her classroom – as a student teacher.
“I learned about history the first time I had her, but now I’m stepping through as a teacher, so she’s really teaching me all of the methods she uses,” said Presnell, who will graduate from EKU in December with a degree in teaching history. “It’s really like learning from one of the experts in the field.”
The award is just one of Graves’ many accolades, which include being inducted into the Kentucky Teacher Hall of Fame and winning the Kentucky Department of Education/Ashland Inc. Teacher Achievement Award and EKU’s History Department’s History Alumnus Award, just to name a few.
“Each one that I have gotten surprises me that someone took the time to nominate me,” she said. In addition to Presnell, Abraham Lincoln re-enactor Larry Elliot also nominated Graves for the award from the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.
Graves was chosen from among 16 candidates in the state, said Tim Talbott of the Kentucky Historical Society, which helps administer the award. A panel of educators selected Graves, who was honored at a Madison County school board meeting earlier this month.
Graves received $1,000 and is a finalist for the National History Teacher of the Year award. The winner will be selected during the second week of October.
Besides their commitment to teaching American history, winners must demonstrate creativity and imagination in the classroom and effective use of primary sources to engage students, two cornerstones of Graves’ teaching.
“You have to use all your senses to learn, so when I do my lessons I use a lot of stories,” she said. “I’ve been to most of these places that I talk about, I take pictures and go on tours and so when they know that I have been there, I think it gets their attention a little bit more.”
For a Civil War lesson, Graves passes out bullets she’s collected over the years and tells students where each was found. The students then research the battle and write a narrative from one bullet’s point of view. Another lesson illustrates the harsh conditions passengers faced on the Mayflower. Graves then has students design and build the perfect 17th-century colony – including the laws, economy and 3D models of the homes.
Graves’ students also visit a Civil War re-enactment of the Battle of Richmond, a major Confederate victory in Kentucky in 1862. But they’re not just spectators at the event; they give tours and act as teachers for the 4th– and 5th-grade students who attend.
Though she has her tried and true methods, Graves is not afraid to try new things. For the first time, this year her students will participate in National History Day, completing a yearlong project. This can be a first-person narrative, working at the battlefield or making something from the time period such as a quilt, toy or butter churn. All of the projects will require a technology presentation and a bibliography, she said.
Graves hopes that some of her love of history will stay with her students after they leave her class and that they will use their knowledge to help preserve the past.
“I’ve always been passionate about history. You see an old building and it gets torn down, it just really bothers me,” she said. “We are losing so much of our heritage in the United States. I’ve traveled to other countries … and they preserve their old buildings and we just are not doing that. We are losing our history and our culture.”
The passion for history that infuses Graves’ teaching is part of what makes her so special, Presnell said. Graves has worked to help save the Richmond battlefield, which was threatened by development in 2001. She’s now the president of the Battle of Richmond Association, which provides programming and maintains the site.
“A lot of times social studies teachers are about the coaching and not about the content,” he said. “I really think that’s one way she really excels at teaching, she loves the content.”
Graves agreed that her love of history is the secret to her success, and it’s the advice she gives Presnell and all other aspiring teachers.
“If you go into it just to be a teacher – no. Anybody can do that,” she said. “You have to be passionate about your subject, you have to know your subject and I think you also have to be involved in your community.”
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