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Teacher of the Month: You've got to keep history fresh

Schaeffer Academy teachers and spouses Michelle and Rich Harris celebrate after Rich was named Post-Bulletin Teacher of the Month for February.

Shaeffer Academy history teacher Rich Harris can recall those moments early in his career, looking out across a classroom and seeing a sea of those glazed expressions.

"We've got to do something to wake this up," Harris recalls telling himself.

Through trial and error, Harris has learned how to put a charge in his classroom. In his textbook-averse classroom, Harris brings a spark to history through story-telling, re-enactment and history-related games.

In one class, students conduct a mock presidential election, using the electoral college numbers from 1860 (Pop quiz: who won?). In another, Harris plays a feudal game in which each student starts off as a serf and rises through the ranks through their ability to answer questions. The more answers you know, the higher you go. Becoming pope or king in this medieval game is the equivalent of getting an A.

"You've just got to keep things fresh," said Harris, who is the Post-Bulletin's Teacher of the Month for February. "If they're motivated and interested, you can go a lot further than if you're just trying to drill it into their heads and lecturing them."


Harris, 47, has been teaching history for 23 years, the last 18 at Schaeffer Academy. Before that, he taught at an international school in Hong Kong and at a school in Chisago City, Minn.

That Harris became a teacher, he says, is a bit of a paradox. As a high school student in Valdez, Ak., Harris was "kind of introvertish," he says. An interest-inventory test he took showed an off-the-chart fascination with data. But when it came to people, it revealed near-zero interest. But when your passion happens to be history, one's career options are limited.

"There's only a few options when you're studying history. You can be a politician, a research assistant or you can teach," Harris said. "And that just kind of pulled me in."

Harris also eventually discovered that he could be a people-person, too. After graduating from Pillsbury College in Owatonna, he became a teacher and found that he enjoyed teaching high school students.

"I've just been fortunate to be at good schools with good groups of kids and supportive parents," he said.

An ability to convey an enthusiasm for history to his students helps establish that connection. Harris says he tries to keep history textbooks gathering dust on the shelf for as long as possible. Generally, textbooks don't capture the nuances of history that make it endlessly interesting. A short story or article about a historical figure or era, he has found, is a much more effective way to engage a student than a textbook's dry renderings.

"I used to hate history class until I walked into his classroom on the first day of ninth-grade," said Emily Baber, a Schaeffer student who nominated Harris for Teacher of the Month. "From that day forward, I have loved history, and I am sure Mr. Harris played an influential role in changing my outlook."

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