Photo by Judy Baxter
Welcome to our Masters in Education series! Check back each week for another profile of an expert educator.
For the last 13 years, Stacy Hoeflich has taught fourth grade history at Alexandria’s John Adams Elementary School in Virginia. Hoeflich said she was practically born into the classroom; both her mother and sister teach, and long before she earned herMasters in Education, her high school history teacher inspired her to become an educator. In 2011, she won the National History Teacher of the Year Award, but what makes her the best history teacher in America?
Passion on an Operatic Scale
Hoeflich’s students don’t just learn the stories of America’s past, they also learn how to tell them — or, to be more precise, how to sing them. With the help of John Adams music teacher Wes McCune, Hoeflich and her students wrote, produced and performed three original historically accurate operas. Telling the stories of George Mason, Thomas Jefferson and Virginia’s native Americans on the stage engaged students in a learning process much richer and more complex than simply studying the material from a textbook.
In addition to dramatizing the past, Hoeflich’s students also learn the difference between history and a good story. Another of her lessons requires students to perform a critical analysis of historical inaccuracies in the Disney film Pocahontas.
It is combining these kinds of unusual classroom activities with a high level of historical engagement that has earned Hoeflich national recognition. “[The History Teacher of the Year Award] is indeed an honor for Stacy Hoeflich and for Virginia,” said Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction Patricia Wright. “Her students dive into Virginia history and geography through experiential learning and hands-on classroom activities. Her creative approach to history instruction engages students throughout the year and instills in them an appreciation of how the present is connected to the past.”
Diversity in the Classroom
One of the particular challenges Hoeflich faces is teaching American history in a school with students from more than 50 countries, in which some classes are composed of more than 50 percent students from immigrant families. For Hoeflich, this means looking past educational politics and traditional narratives to find stories that everyone can relate to. “The teaching I do is way more important than the politics of my job”, Hoeflich said. “I really like all of history. You have to make history a story to make it interesting. It’s far more than dates and facts.”
Hoeflich also makes a point of teaching from sources other than textbooks, in part because many of her students have limited English literacy skills. Creating operas and leading a critical discussion of Pocahontas allows students to engage with history in a highly intellectual manner. She also uses both recent and historical political cartoons in the classroom, as a way of examining political symbolism, subtext and controversy. These unorthodox educational strategies allow her to passionately engage with her students, regardless of what language they speak at home or how comfortably they can read in English.
While some might worry that teaching from non-text sources might “dumb down” the curriculum, Hoeflich has actually been praised for introducing more primary sources to her classroom than the average history teacher. “Hoeflich is devoted to the teaching and learning of history,” said Dr. Kelly Schrum, who nominated Hoeflich for the History Teach of the Year Award. “After seeing the students in her classroom excitedly puzzle over a difficult map created 400 years ago or political cartoons from the last century, I am confident that students leave her classroom with a lifelong interest in understanding the complexities of the past.”
When Hoeflich is not teaching her own students, she develops lesson plans and curricula for a number of national organizations. She serves as an educational constultant to the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, and creates and models content for the National History Education Clearinghouse. She has also played an active role in conferences of the Organization of American Historians, the American Historical Association and the National Council for Social Studies.