In June 11 Issue
Donnie Wilkerson, a teacher at Jamestown Elementary, has been named the 2011 Kentucky History Teacher of the Year as presented by the Kentucky Historical Society. The award is co-sponsored by The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, the History Channel and Preserve America.
"It's humbling and of course it's an honor to be recognized," Wilkerson said. "It is obviously not why you do this but it makes you feel good to receive an honor, especially to have students nominate you."
Incoming Russell County High School freshman Skyler Smith, one of Wilkerson's former students, nominated him earlier this year.
"The most important thing to me is that students walk away from this classroom not so much that they are full of facts and knowledge but that they're capable of understanding and figuring out history and social studies on their own," he said. "That they're free thinkers; they know how to analyze by going to multiple sources, not just going to the Internet or a textbook. My theory of teaching is that students must be loved and must be comfortable in their surroundings."
His classroom is modified in a way to make the students at ease with rugs on the floor, lamps instead of overhead lights and a variety of historical documents and props surround the room. He calls it "immersion learning" or bringing students into the lesson while they learn it.
"There is no one teaching style that works," he said. "It takes a mixture and I like to mix it up, but more importantly, I like to have fun. I think if students have fun they will remember."
For instance, two of his former students took home 8th grade Social Studies this year, an honor which he says he was glad to be a part of."
Wilkerson has been teaching at Jamestown Elementary for seven years, after a diverse career which included owning several businesses and serving as the mayor of Jamestown from 1993-98. As a fifth-grade American history teacher, Wilkerson quickly became a leader with both students and colleagues. He has presented workshops to other teachers and has brought the past to life for his students through exciting in-class lessons, as well as out-of-class field trips to places such as Locust Grove and Constitution Square-extracurricular options he provides for students on Saturdays called "Kentucky Adventures."
Wilkerson, a Jamestown resident, will receive a $1,000 honorarium and will be in the running to be named the National History Teacher of the Year this fall.
"We talk a lot about primary sources in this class," he said, saying a textbook is not used much in the way he teaches class. "A primary source is when someone was there and saw it happen."
He said it is not uncommon for his students to come into his class, sit on the floor with the lamps on and see him dressed in a period costume, adding life to the days' lesson.
"Many days we have what we call period foods," he said. "Food is one of the ways I approach history."
He said around Thanksgiving each year he lets his students sample deer jerky, one of the only documented foods from what is considered the first "Thanksgiving" in 1621.
"One of the things about Jamestown Elementary is we have such a good school with a great group of teachers that do a lot of unique things in the classroom," he said. "We're just an innovative school and being a part of it has been a big help. Having a great principal and great teachers and support staff to work with helps so much."
Wilkerson said Russell County had one of the best school systems in the state.
"We've consistently had high scores at every school," he said. "I'm just fortunate to be a part of it. I'm just thankful to be here and thankful for my students."
Jamestown Elementary will be named a Gilder Lehrman Affiliate School and its library will receive a core archive of history books and educational materials from the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History and HISTORY®. Wilkerson also received an invitation to a Gilder Lehrman summer seminar and the opportunity to participate in KHS's Kentucky History Educational Conference this July, free of charge.
The judging panel, convened by KHS, said "Mr. Wilkerson makes social studies come alive for his students and combines technology, artifacts and primary source documents to help students grasp the core content being taught. What a fun, exciting place for social studies learning to take place."
A KHS representative will formally present Wilkerson with a certificate and the cash prize from the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History at a ceremony at Jamestown Elementary this fall.
"This award gives us the chance to recognize great history teachers across the country," said Lesley S. Herrmann, executive director of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. "It puts exceptional educators front and center."
Inaugurated in 2004, the National History Teacher of the Year Award promotes and celebrates the teaching of American history in classrooms across the United States. The award honors one exceptional K-12 teacher of American history from each of the fifty states, the District of Columbia, Department of Defense schools and US Territories.
The selection of the state winner is based upon several criteria, including: at least three years of classroom experience in teaching American history; creativity and imagination in the classroom that address literacy and content beyond state standards; close attention to primary documents, artifacts, historic sites, and other primary materials of history, including oral history; and evidence of thoughtful assessment of student achievement.
The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History is a nonprofit organization that creates and works closely with history-focused schools through its Affiliate School Program; organizes teacher seminars and development programs; produces print and digital publications and traveling exhibitions; hosts lectures by eminent historians; and more. HISTORY® and HISTORY HD® are the leading destinations for revealing, award-winning original non-fiction series and event specials that connect history with viewers in an informative, immersive and entertaining manner across multiple platforms.
Preserve America is a federal partnership program begun in 2003 that encourages and highlights community efforts to preserve and enhance the priceless cultural heritage of the United States as well as associated natural resources.