Rewriting History: Lake Denoon Teacher Helps Students Learn From the Past

Therese Rilling takes a new approach toward the old, and shows middle schoolers there's more to history than dates.

Chances are your own memory of history class was, well, not memorable. Perhaps there was something about the Magna Carta, and the Hundred Years War that wasn't really that long, but it was so long ago it was ancient history.

It's too bad teachers then didn't take the innovative approach to history that 7th grade teacher Therese Rilling does at . While there is always an importance of when and where events took place, how students learn it is the difference.

"She is an incredibly talented teacher who brings both creativity and organization to each project-based lesson she creates," said Dr. Joe Schroeder, superintendent of Muskego-Norway School District. "You may remember social studies as a focus on memorization of names, facts and dates.  For Therese’s students, learning requires critical thinking and authentic understanding.  The focus is on big historical concepts."  

Students are taught that they are historians and are encouraged to engage in the lessons through that lens. Along with the textbook, the projects offered in the class incorporate games for the students to teach the rest of the class about their subject.

On this given day, the subject was explorers in the new world, and a visit to her classroom was a hive of activity. One student explained a 'Jeopardy' game he developed with facts about his explorer. Another had created a large poster board to explain to the class who Amerigo Vespucci was. The research is theirs, done according to their own individual learning styles, which is exactly the point.

"When I was in school, history was my worst subject," Rilling admitted. "I never knew how to study. No one taught me how to pick out the important concepts, and really that is what makes history important."

Rilling said she has always enjoyed working with kids, and as teaching was one of the few options most suggested for women after high school 'in her day,' she chose education. She saw activities as more effective ways to teach students, by having students teach each other.

So as students role play to their classmates their character from history, or create a project that requires researching a historical era, the end result is a deeper understanding of history based on how each student is comfortable learning. Rilling said their end-of-year project is to build a country, which let's face it sounds much cooler than reviewing chapter outlines.

As we observed her class, which was finishing up their individual projects, we could also see that classmates shared ideas and advice with each other to help one another find information. In effect, they are all teaching and supporting each other, so it would seem Rilling is onto something here.

Her focus of students as individual learners in a project-based setting is not unlike feeding kids vegetables by hiding them in their mashed potatoes. They're getting the good stuff and enjoying it without holding their noses.


Mark Durfee May 21, 2012 at 06:29 PM
Please send me more info!
Marcia McCalmon May 30, 2012 at 02:50 PM
Great idea! Would work wonderfully with my gifted students .... Marcia McCalmon


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