History teacher first in Michigan to be named best in the nation


– Photo courtesy of Michele Anderson

Dr. Earl Lewis (left), former provost at Emory University and current president of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, presents Michele Anderson (right), a history teacher with the Wayne-Wesland Community Schools, the 2014 National History Teacher of the Year Award.

By Kurt Anthony Krug

Legal News

Michele Anderson has not only been named the best history teacher in the nation, but also the first teacher in Michigan to receiver the prestigious honor from The HISTORY Channel and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.

“It’s unbelievable,” said Anderson, 43, of New Boston, who is the recipient of the 2014 National History Teacher of the Year Award.

Anderson has been a teacher for 21 years and has taught history at John Glenn High School in the Wayne-Westland Community Schools for the last 17 years. She earned her undergraduate degree in history and education and her graduate degree in history both from Eastern Michigan University.

David Ingham, the principal at John Glenn, nominated Anderson for this award on the heels of her winning the 2013 Annette and Jim McConnell History Educator Award for Excellence in Teaching History from the Michigan Council for History Education.

Each year, The HISTORY Channel and Gilder Lehrman recognize exemplary educators who use creative methods to make American history memorable through the use of primary source documents, artifacts, historic sites, legal cases, guest lectures from prominent historians, veterans, attorneys, et al, and other resources.

In Anderson’s case, she has assigned oral history projects, where her students interview veterans of World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. Those interviews are documented and submitted to the Library of Congress Veterans History Project. A grant she received from the Michigan Humanities Council made this possible.

As a wrap-up to this project, Anderson and her students put on a USO dance, where they dress in clothes indigenous to the era of the three above-mentioned wars and invite the veterans, where they acknowledge their service to their country. The culinary arts students provide the food, the band and choir students provide the music, and Anderson’s history students create a remembrance board for deceased veterans with local ties.

“We try to get as many student groups involved as possible,” said Anderson.

The veterans’ response has been overwhelmingly positive.

“I’m trying to think of a word to describe it… They’re loving it. They’re amazingly supportive. Part of the original project was to bring together two generations – young teens with World War II veterans. It gave our kids the opportunity to show respect to the older generation – that has been incredible,” said Anderson. “Last year, students had Korean vets dancing all night long. It was great.”

In fact, the next USO dance will be Saturday, April 29, at 6 p.m. in the John Glenn High School cafeteria. Admission is free and open to the public. All are welcome, according to Anderson.

Anderson was selected from more than 1,000 teachers nationwide for this award. She also received $10,000 – which she plans on using to take her husband Greg and their three children on a vacation to Washington, D.C. next year – and attended a ceremony in her honor in at The Princeton Club in New York City last December. Two of her students also attended with their families and spoke on Anderson’s behalf, stating how she tries to make history relevant in her classroom. Thomas Buckalew, president of the Wayne-Westland Board of Education, was also in attendance.

“I’ve worked on a lot of projects around the state. I’ve run into incredible history teachers and shared ideas with them, so for me to actually be the first (teacher in Michigan to win this award) is amazing,” said Anderson.

She credits her interest in history to her late grandfather Harold Burns, a World War II veteran who was a Bataan Death March survivor.

“He didn’t talk about it much. That piqued my interest because everyone talked about him with reverent awe. When I was in high school, I interviewed him for a history paper. When it was in an official capacity, that was the only time he talked about it. He revealed some things to me. When I submitted another paper about him at an EMU symposium, he revealed even more to me then. It grew out of those interviews,” explained Anderson.

Another notable assignment Anderson designed with the help of the Detroit Historical Society was teaching her students about Westland’s Norwayne community, which was designated as a historical community last October and was instrumental in the role Detroit – a thriving industrial beacon – played in America becoming the Arsenal of Democracy, a phrase coined by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, during World War II.

“The Norwayne lesson teaches students about the role their community played in war-time production. The students first learned about there was a massive housing shortage because big business was producing wartime materials,” said Anderson, who cited Willow Run and the Packard Plant in Detroit as examples.

She also assigned her class the Treaties Project. This assignment is a role-playing scenario where students are assigned different historical figures during the War of 1812. There were two major treaties during the War of 1812. The Treaty of Ghent, signed in 1814, ended hostilities between the United States and Great Britain. The Treaty of Springwells, which was signed at the location now occupied by Fort Wayne in Detroit in 1815, ended hostilities between the U.S. and Native Americans.

“The students have to research and negotiate a treaty the way their historical figure would. This historical figure could be American, British, or Native American. When they write their treaty, they then compare it to the actual treaty and see how close they got it,” explained Anderson.

All her awards have changed her, Anderson confessed – for the better.

“I feel more confident that what I’m doing is right,” she explained. “There are a lot of times as a teacher where you go into your classroom after trying to figure out your curriculum and your lesson plans fail and you question yourself. I’m not so hard on myself anymore when I’m having a bad day because a lot of things I’m doing are right.”