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For Immediate Release
Office of the First Lady
October 5, 2006
Mrs. Bush's Remarks at the Presentation of the Preserve America History Teacher of the Year Award
The Union League Club
New York, New York
12:40 P.M. EDT
MRS. BUSH: Thank you, Dr. Basker. Thank you for the great work that you're doing as President of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. I also want to recognize Richard Gilder, the Co-founder of the Gilder Lehrman Institute; Lynn Scarlett, the Deputy Secretary of the Interior; my friend John Nau, the Chairman of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and the Co-chairman of Preserve America Steering Committee; and Roseanne Lichatin, the 2005 winner. And I was looking over to -- there she is. Very good to see you. Thanks so much for being a judge of this year's History Teacher of the Year. And to all the state coordinators who are out here, of the History Teacher of the Year program around our country, thank you all very, very much for being here.
The renowned historian David McCullough once wrote, "History is who we are, and why we are the way we are." For young Americans to appreciate how we live today, they should understand how Americans lived in the past -- which requires great teachers of American history.
Great history teachers take required coursework and then they turn it into a thrilling personal experience. They encourage students to discover our country's heritage, through artifacts and primary sources.
They introduce students to the personal letters of generals, presidents, and pioneers -- individual Americans who gave voice to the concerns of whole generations. Through photographs of tired soldiers on a Civil War battlefield, or of determined students asserting their equality at a soda-shop counter, great teachers illustrate the sacrifices of other generations to uphold our national ideas of justice and freedom.
Today, we're honoring one educator who's done an exceptional job of making history thrilling for her students: Gerry Kohler, the 2006 Preserve America National History Teacher of the Year. (Applause.)
Mrs. Kohler has loved teaching for 27 years, but her love of history goes back even further. Gerry's fascination with the past began when she read Gone With the Wind in sixth grade. On her first trip to the South, Gerry recalls, she longed to see and touch the things that Scarlett O'Hara would have seen or touched. This may or may not include Rhett. (Laughter.) "I think I wanted to go to an antique store more than I wanted to see the ocean," she says. "From the beginning, history was personal to me."
For the last nine years, Mrs. Kohler has made history personal to her students at VanDevender Junior High School, where she's taught World Geography and History, West Virginia Studies, and U.S. History. At first, Mrs. Kohler had reservations about teaching junior high students, because she'd always taught in elementary school. But Mrs. Kohler said she "loved history so much, that the idea of teaching it all day was worth facing a room of adolescents." (Laughter.)
Mrs. Kohler now delights in teaching those adolescents -- and they love learning history from her. Gerry keeps history exciting by teaching with primary sources. When she attended a Gilder Lehrman Institute on President Lincoln, this teacher of West Virginia history made it her mission to learn about the man who signed West Virginia's statehood bill.
She researched Lincoln's letter to his Cabinet seeking their advice about establishing a new state. Gerry pored over the Cabinet's replies, and read Lincoln's own reasoning behind allowing western Virginians to create a new state loyal to the Union -- knowledge Gerry now passes on to her West Virginian students.
Using primary sources is just one way Gerry encourages her students to put themselves in the place of the people they're studying -- to see the things that they saw, to think what they thought, and to learn what those people thought. When Mrs. Kohler says she wants to bring historical figures to life, she really means it. Gerry will role-play historic Supreme Court deliberations, or portray historical figures like labor activist Mother Jones or abolitionist John Brown. Students who graduated years ago will stop her in the shopping mall and say, "I remember when you were John Brown and I almost believed it!" (Laughter.) Gerry's acting is apparently so convincing that after the first time she tried her John Brown alter-ego on her junior high students, she returned to a classroom that was unusually quiet -- before one student finally said, "Mrs. Kohler, you scared us!"
Mrs. Kohler also encourages her students to preserve our country's heritage for their children. Gerry is Vice President of the Wood County Historical Preservation Society, and she organized a Junior Historical Society for her students. They work to maintain two of their community's historical cemeteries, where students reassemble pieces of old tombstones, and where these budding historians and archeologists have even discovered medals from the Civil War.
Mrs. Kohler remains an eager student of history herself. She travels widely, and at workshops with historians and other teachers, she brushes up on topics from Constitutional History to the French and Indian War. And she gives back to her fellow educators by serving as a master teacher at an institute in New Hampshire, and mentoring other teachers of history in West Virginia.
Gerry's creativity, enthusiasm, and dedication have won her many honors, including today's. But the greatest accolades are those she receives from her students. At the end of every school year, Mrs. Kohler reverses roles, and has her students evaluate her. She loves to hear from young people who say they never liked history until they entered her classroom. But Gerry's favorite feedback came on an anonymous evaluation last year, when one student wrote: "Dear Mrs. Kohler, I've always hated history, and I still don't like it very much. But I can tell you like it a whole lot." (Laughter.)
Thank you, Gerry, for your enthusiasm and your terrific work, and congratulations on being named the Preserve America History Teacher of the Year. (Applause.)
Now, to tell you more about Mrs. Kohler, I'd like to introduce two of her students at VanDevender Junior High School. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Elizabeth Corbitt and Patrick Shahan. (Applause.)